Seeds of Dependency

Recently (3.3.19) we posted about the dynamics of being overly dependent on someone else. The issue can be considered in a variety of contexts and relationships, but the context that seems obvious for most of us is the parent-child relationship. Narrowing our focus, most people seem to zero in on the teen years when kids begin experimenting with independence, spreading their wings, so to speak, and generating a lot of conflict with parents.

The fact is, however, parent-children conflict over dependent vs independent actions begins quite early in life, as early as the toddler stage (after walking begins, around 12 months), and it is an area that has been researched by psychologists, notably the classic studies by Ainsworth.

There are a couple of paradigms for studying this behavior. One is to have a mother and her child in a room, and they are playing with some toys. Suddenly mom says she has to leave for a minute, but will be right back. How does the child react when mom leaves? How about when she returns? The degree to which the child shows a lot of distress over mom’s absence will be sensitive to the level of dependency on mom.

In another paradigm, Mom and child are in a strange room with only a chair and an interesting-looking toy off in a corner, several yards from the chair. Mom and child enter the room and she sits down, holding her child’s hand. It doesn’t take long for the child to see the toy off in the corner, and mom answers any questions by telling the child that it’s OK to go play with it.

The question is: Will the child leave mom’s side to venture into new territory (independent action) and play with the toy, or will the child cling to mom’s side and beg her help to get the toy (dependent action)?

Some children are very hesitant to leave mom’s side, showing a behavior pattern that psychologists call “anxious attachment.” For whatever reason, the child acts like mom is not trustworthy as a caregiver, and seems to say, “I’m hanging on to her because she might leave me.”

Other children show confidence in leaving mom’s side to go investigate the toy and play with it, a behavior pattern called “secure attachment.” This child appears to trust mom and consider her a reliable caregiver, saying, “No worry here, I’ll go check out this toy because mom will be here if I need help.”

Extensive study of these patterns has shown that they can easily persist into adulthood and have a profound effect on relationships with others. That really shouldn’t surprise you. Consider Rick, 28 and in a serious relationship with Alison 27. Rick has a history of anxious attachment as a child, and this pattern shows itself in his adult relations.

For instance, when Alison wants to do things with her girlfriends and without Rick, he gets all bent out of shape, thinking she really doesn’t want to be with him. His childhood anxiety with mom is reawakened, and Rick gets all clingy, wanting to be present whenever Alison does something. Alison will tire of this dependency in a hurry, reinforcing Rick’s lack of trust in others, and the pattern will likely repeat itself in his future relationships.

But consider Angie, 27, who is in a relationship with Don, 28. Angie has a history of secure attachment as a child, and it gives her a confident feeling in her relationships. Her current “squeeze,” Don, wants to hang out with the guys tomorrow night. “Sounds OK to me,” says Angie. “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll give Nancy a call and see if she wants to get together.”

Angie is securely attached to Don; she trusts him and trusts the relationship. She is willing to let Don be Don, without being threatened and anxious that it means he will desert her.

Note that Angie’s behavior in no way guarantees the success of the relationship. All it means is that she and her partner are likely to get more satisfaction from the relationship than is the case with Rick.

These days it’s not hard to find adults showing inappropriate dependent behavior. How many young adults, for instance, are living with their parents? Are they demonstrating anxious attachment? Is this a behavior pattern you would want your kids to show? What about a husband or wife who seems incapable of doing anything without the spouse present? Is this pattern conducive to good coping?

We’ve all heard the term “helicopter parents,” and they are especially prevalent when the kids are in college. Are these parents fostering independence in their kids? What’s the motivation behind helicoptering? Are these parents themselves anxiously attached, and perpetuating a dependent family legacy?




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