Exercise Restraint


Physical restraint is a necessary element to parenting that is often not employed, either because parents and practitioners are unaware of its value, or because they are afraid to use it.  Many people (parents and practitioners alike) hold to the notion that complete physical restraint is a form of abuse, and as such, it should be avoided.  What follows is a comprehensive description of the process of therapeutic physical restraint that will greatly improve the effectiveness of  parenting strong-willed-aggressive children in early development.


Imagine being a parent of a four year child who has just disrespectfully called you an undesirable name.   You instruct the child to go to time-out, but he refuses, stating “you can’t make me.”  You insist, but the child remains adamant that he will not go to the time-out chair.  What to do?

Most all parents face this conundrum at some point during the early years of their child’s development, and many come away from such occurrences with less than optimal results.  Often parents become angry or anxious, lose self-control, yell, threaten, cajole, intimidate, grab, carry, and/or physically force children to comply;  or parents give up or give-in, and allow the child to get away without following through with the parent’s original demand.  Afterward, many parents are likely to feel defeated and guilty because of their loss of control to their child.

Aggressive parents must realize that each time they lose their temper with their children two things occur: first, the child experiences emotional rejection from the parent due to the parent’s anger and aggression and second, the child gains power over the parent’s emotions and behavior.  Parents who do not lose their tempers, but instead give in to their children, must realize that they are creating children of weak character.

In order for a child to achieve healthy growth, parents must win crucial battles.  However, these “wins” must be conducted in a manner that is not humiliating nor indulgent.  When a child is overwhelmed by a parent’s anger, the child experiences the parent’s authority, but is reduced to nothing.  When a parent gives in, the child experiences the parent’s indulgence, but not the parent’s authority. Each of these situations results in a repeated dynamic in which the child is resistant to the parent’s authority, the parent reacts ineffectively, and the child experiences emotional power over the parent.

Often, (although not always) aggressive parents will feel guilty after a temper loss, and wish to reconcile with their child.  They will supply some indulgence, either material or emotional, to the aggrieved child in an effort to “make up” for the parent’s angry behavior. These parents must understand that doing so will usually serve to foster the tendency for increased feelings of power within the child, rather than achieve reconciliation, acceptance and/or forgiveness.

The less aggressive, more indulgent parents may often eventually find themselves regretting their parenting techniques in later years when their children become depressed or anxious because the world no longer indulges them, or they resort to threats of harm to themselves or others, or turn to substances and weaker people in order to obtain their need for indulgence.

The short statement to to be made here is this: it is in the best interest of the developing child to be managed and contained by effective parents.


Samuel Slipp in his book “Object Relations: A Dynamic Bridge Between Individual and Family Treatment, pp. 48-9, notes that as a child develops out of infancy into toddlerhood, the child will become disillusioned and angry with the mother when she is no longer caring for the child as she did in infancy (i.e., offering complete indulgence).   This gives rise to anger directed at the mother because the she is seen as “bad,” as she will not yield to the child’s demands.  Slipp clearly states in his analysis that the mother must provide a holding environment in which the child is not abandoned, treated with aggression, nor indulged.  In the extreme for the younger child (usually younger than eight) this means: effective, measured, physical containment (i.e., restraint); for older children this means internal restraint on the part of the parent.

Physical restraint, as described within this piece, should be applied only when a child loses behavioral control and becomes aggressive toward the parent, and the parent has no other option except to assume total control of the situation.  At such times, the parent must be prepared to be “in for a penny, in for a pound,” and execute the restraint to its fullest conclusion.

The result of effective restraint will be a child who has expended a great deal of negative energy within the confines of benevolent parental control.  The child will learn that the parent is not “bad,” but rather that the parent is compassionate, moderate and loving.  This will give rise to the child’s learned awareness that the parent is steady in temperament, and that the child is responsible for the behavior that led to the restraint.   These facts will result in the emergence of the child’s conscience.


The Beginning:

A typical situation would proceed as follows:

A four year old child is instructed to put away her toys.  She tarries and begins to show resistance to the parent’s request.  At this point the parent might insist that, before having lunch or before getting to watch a video, the child must pick up her toys.  She continues to refuse.  She goes to the TV and turns on her video.  The parent turns it off.  The child walks to the kitchen and gets into the pantry, the parent blocks her entry.  The child decides that it is time to push further, and calls the parent a name.  The parent maintains a neutral attitude, and tells the child that she must now go to time-out.  The child walks away from the parent toward another part of the house.  The parent directs the child to the time-out area.  The child continues in the other direction.  The parent ultimately tells the child that she has the choice to go to time-out or go to her room.  She sticks her tongue out at the parent.  The parent is getting frustrated over the child’s actions.  Now what?

The parent can, at this point, tell the child to go to her room, either on her own, or with the parent’s assistance.  Most often, by this time, the child is dug in and will not give in to any demand or suggestion given by the parent.  The parent now has no choice except to put hands on the child to help the child go to the room.  Here, the child is likely to physically resist by striking at the parent.  This loss of control is the signal for the use of physical restraint to subdue to the child.  The parent “wraps” up the child in an approved holding technique.  (Holding techniques should be learned from a professional who is well versed in their use.)

The Middle:

The child will respond to this by escalating his or her resistance and will start to rage in a manner that may be very stressful for the parent.  The parent must keep in mind that it is the child who is out of control, not the parent.  The parent must remember that the child must now be held until the child has expended the rage, and reaches a state of calm within the confinement.  This could take several minutes, or it may take hours (depending upon the nature of the child, the child’s age, and the number of times the child has been or should have been restrained in the past).

Restraints of this type will proceed as follows:  The parent will initiate the restraint and will immediately begin to tell the child three things: one, “I love you;” two, “go ahead and be as angry as you can be right now, get your anger out;” and three, “I will let you go when I think we are finished.”   The child will likely rage and resist with a great amount of determination.  The parent will often feel anxiety, and want to release the child because of the fear that the restraint is not working.  This is to be avoided at all cost.

It is at this point that parents need to remind themselves that once a child starts raging within the confines of the parent, the child has but one viable thing to do, and that is to calm down.  The parent must hold on for the duration of the child’s rage, must be certain not to hurt the child in the restraint, and must maintain an attitude of confidence,  and steadfastness throughout the experience.

It is crucial to understand that, if a parent gives up before the full completion of a restraint, the child will have defeated the parent at the worst possible time for both child and parent.  The child will have won the ultimate battle with the parent, and the parent will be at a loss for effective resolutions to critical situations from that point forward (unless the parent recovers from the mistake and refuses to give up the next time a restraint would be required).

The End:

The parent must anticipate the possibility that physical restraint could last a long time (for many children, especially those who are adopted and suffer symptoms of Reactive Attachment Disorder, the restraint could last much longer than an hour).  Knowing this at the outset will give a parent the strength and determination to hold out long enough for the child to return to a sense of calm.  At the conclusion of a restraint, the child should be a great deal more pliable and compliant.  However, the restraint should not “just stop” just because the child is calm.

A parent must keep in mind that restraint is the response to only one aspect of the child’s behavior, i.e., the fact that the child lost self-control and became physically aggressive toward the parent.  The matter of go-to-your-room and time-out still have to be addressed.

The very first thing that a parent should do when ending a physical restraint is to prolong it a few minutes.  The parent will state to the child that it appears that the need for restraint is over, but “we’ll wait a few more minutes.” If the child can tolerate that wait, it is very likely that the restraint has been effectively completed, if the child argues or begins to get angry again, it is a sign that the restraint is not complete, and more time is required.

Once assured that the restraint has been successful, the parent can outline the terms for the child’s release from the restraint.  The parent will present the entire series of events that will transpire before being released from the parent’s control.  The parent will state that first, the child’s legs will be freed, then after a minute, the arms will be released, then they will hug each other for a bit, and, after another minute, the child will go to his room and await instructions to go to time-out.  When the child agrees to these terms, the parent will execute them.  If, at any point during the release, the child begins to return to anger, the process of release will be stopped and the restraint will be rejoined.

When time-out has been successfully and agreeably completed, the entire matter is considered to be resolved and life goes on.

What NOT to do!:

A RESTRAINT SHOULD NEVER BE EMPLOYED TO FORCE OR COERCE A CHILD TO COMPLY WITH PARENTAL REQUESTS OR DEMANDS.  Parents should never use the threat of a restraint to get the child to do something that the child does not want to do.  Restraints should be employed ONLY when a child goes goes out of control, and as noted above, the restraint will end with the child resuming emotional balance.  Although to some parents it may appear otherwise, compliance should be a “by-product” of a restraint, not its aim.

What to expect after a successful restraint:

A successfully applied restraint will result in a “rebonding” between the parent and child.  If the parent maintains a sense of steadfast reserve throughout the effort, the child will ultimately feel the parent’s concern and compassion.  Many parents report that a child’s attitude will improve for days or even weeks.

It must be remembered that restraint is the last resort in a parent’s arsenal of tools for combating anger and rage in children.  How a parent relates to a child throughout each day will go a long way to determining whether a restraint be needed five times or fifty times during a child’s development.


  • Obtain the help of a professional proficient in holding and restraining techniques; preferably someone with awareness of the attachment aspects of holding.
  • Attempt restraints with smaller children between ages of three and nine.  Do not attempt to restrain a child who can physically dominate you, or escape your grasp.
  • Employ physical restraint only when a child is out of control and hurting self, others or property.
  • Maintain emotional self-control, and do not give into anger or fear.
  • Never restrain or threaten to restrain to gain or force compliance
  • Avoid using the threat of restraint to get the child to calm down; either use or don’t use it, but do not threaten.
  • Once started, do not stop until the anger within the child has dissipated.
  • Before initiating a restraint, remove items that could hurt a child (watch, belt, jewelry, eyeglasses, etc.).
  • Remember to hold the raging child close; trying to keep distance between you and the raging child could result in enough room for the child to head-butt.
  • Be prepared to allow the child to urinate on him or herself during a restraint rather than allow to fake the need, and gain control of the situation.
  • Remember, parenting is a process.  What is done or not done today, will either reward or haunt a parent the next.

What? Shame?

The past twenty years have seen increased interest in the concept of shame and how shame affects the behavior of the human being. “Shame Theory” as seen by this author emerged as a result of the work of Silvan Tompkins in the mid-twentieth century followed by the work of Gershen Kaufman in the 1990’s. This work is now being carried forward by a number of theorists and authors, the most notable of which is Brené Brown.

 Basically, shame is seen as one of nine basic feelings that motivate human beings to act (Kaufman 1996). This theory differs from Freud’s “drive theory” which states that humans are motivated by basic internal drives. According to Kaufman, “shame is the most poignant of all feelings… unlike terror and distress, shame is a wound made from the inside that separates us from ourselves and others…a sickness of the soul.”

 Shame and affect theories afford practitioners the capability of developing healing strategies that are rooted in Cognitive Behavioral theory.

 What follows is a systematic presentation of how shame is originally revealed within human development, and how shame can become debilitating and unhealthy. This brief paper is an attempt to inform the reader as to how shame, which is natural and adaptive, can be turned into the most avoided feeling within the human condition.

 The material presented in the following paper is based in three major theories within the history of psychological study: Affect Theory (Tompkins and Kaufman); Developmental Theory (Erikson); and Object Relations Theory (Fairbairn, Klein, Winnincott, Mahler, and others). It is intended that this paper be written in simple, common sense language that will represent processes that are taken for granted by adult human beings with regard to developing children.

 Please note that throughout the descriptions of parent-child interactions, the word mother is used to denote the developing child’s most significant caretaker. This reference to mother is kept for two reasons: first, in the great preponderance of cases it is the actual mother to whom a child first attaches, and second, it is more convenient than using the term “primary caretaker.”

 Origins of Shame:

The feeling of shame is ubiquitous and universal; the manner in which shame affects an individual “evolves” within the context of each being’s developmental environment, and, thus, will be unique to each.

Shame, as it has come to be known (i.e., a deep painful experience of the self as flawed, bad and unworthy; see Gershen Kaufman, Brene´ Brown) has it origins in infancy. Kaufman claims that shame is present in the early life of infants (Kaufman, 1992), but it is the opinion of this writer that this is not likely. The neonatal infant has no cognitive capacity, and thus can perceive no meaning to external stimuli. Infants can certainly react to their environments, but they cannot intuit meaning, and thus cannot feel shame. The experience of the “feeling” of shame requires an understanding of failure.

How infancy sets the stage:

The infant’s emotional world is limited to reflexive, systemic reactions recognized by observers as either pleasure or pain. These states are manifest either by distress (anger and tears) or the opposite (peaceful repose or smiling).

D.W. Winnincott, a 20th Century Object Relations Analyst and theorist, put forth the idea that there is such a thing as a “good enough mother.” This notion implies that the mother (or primary caretaker) does a “good enough” job of supplying sustenance, shelter and safety to a child within an attitude of love, so as to promote satisfactory emotional growth. John Bowlby notes this in his volume, Attachment.  All ensuing theories of human development agree that a firm, healthy attachment to the mother (or mother substitute) is required for the formation of a psychologically healthy human being. Neurobiologist, Allan Schore (1994), revealed that the neurological structure of the brain is different in well-attached versus poorly-attached human beings. A notion that implies that early emotional damage leaves the child “hard-wired” to have future difficulty with mental illness, attachments and intimacy.

The essence of infancy and the notion of healthy attachment are grounded in the satisfaction of the infant’s needs. These needs are signaled to the mother by way of crying and angering. An infant will experience a need as pain, and reveal this pain by way of outward behavior (crying). The mother will assess the root of this pain and take steps to alleviate it. In the “good enough” mother-child system, this process cycles repeatedly throughout infancy.

If, it is accepted that the infant has no cognitive understanding or his or her situation, then it can be inferred that the infant, experiencing relief for the act of crying, will undergo a variation of operant conditioning. The process is as thus: the infant’s need gives rise to discomfort, discomfort gives rise to crying, crying alerts the mother, mother assesses and addresses the need, the child experiences relief; over time the child “learns” to reproduce the relief by way of crying. For the infant, however, the conditioning is simpler: in the “good enough” environment the child experiences pain, the child cries, the pain goes away. Thus, in the first months of life, the infant learns to trust that when he or she cries, relief will ensue. In simple terms, infants, as they mature, are trained to cry to get what they need, and later as toddlers, to get what they want.

Erik Erikson’s developmental theory posits that the emotional milestone of infancy will be resolved as either Trust or Mistrust. When the above process of needs’ gratification is repeated again and again in an attitude of love, Trust is learned. When not satisfactorily performed, Mistrust will exist in its place.  Mistrust will result in manifestations of various forms of dis-ease throughout the child’s development, and later throughout that his or her adult experience. Additionally, the presence of Mistrust over Trust will make it more likely for the developing child to internalize greater amounts shame in toddlerhood and beyond.

The Toddler:

There is a simple observation that differentiates an infant from a toddler: an infant will throw food on the floor and look at the food; a toddler will throw food on the floor and look at the parent. This very simple distinction demonstrates the notion that the “mind” of an infant is internal and self-contained, while the mind of the toddler is one of emerging awareness of self in relationship to the world.

It is in toddlerhood that, according to Erikson, Shame will emerge as the antithesis to Autonomy (i.e., healthy sense of self). Since the time of Erikson’s formulation, this “fact” has been taught in nearly every developmental psychology course that has been offered. It is left to the imagination as to how much or how little emphasis instructors have placed upon the importance of such a simple statement, but in the experience of this author, the above “fact” was taught, memorized as a test item, and then forgotten. It was only later in middle adulthood that this “fact” was recognized as one of the most important concepts in understanding the human condition.

Erikson observed that children who develop a healthy sense of self (what he labeled “Autonomy”) exhibit good eye contact, independent play, smiling, and experimentation; while children who experience increased shame and self-doubt exhibit poor eye contact, lethargy, irritability, and lack of interest in healthy exploration.

It is the strongly held position of this writer that the feeling of shame first emerges in toddlerhood when the developing child obtains the ability to intuit that he or she has failed to achieve some goal. That goal can be anything from getting a piece of candy to being allowed to write on a wall. When the parent interferes with the desires of a child, the child will experience a feeling of frustration that will result in tears and anger (i.e., frustration).   It is posited that this feeling of frustration is the raw experience of the feeling of shame (i.e., the “bad feeling” associated with refutation…i.e., failure).

Simply stated, shame is the feeling (i.e., visceral response) that is experienced when a person (child or adult) perceives a failure to achieve some goal; in the case of the developing child, shame is experienced when the child is refused or refuted in pursuit of a desired object.

As was learned in infancy, the toddler child will cry in response to pain (except now in toddlerhoood it is the pain of refutation), at first because it hurts, in time to gain relief by way of gratification. Thus, crying is the manner in which a developing child copes with the feeling of raw shame. It is from this point forward that the child will learn that this feeling will be experienced either as a painful, yet natural response to refusals, or as the even more painful notion that the child is inherently flawed.

Three Basic Responses to Crying:

The crying child is bad:

One of the most noticeable parental responses to the crying toddler is the tendency for a parent to take coercive action to stop a child from crying. In these cases crying is seen as an undesirable behavior. The parent believes that the child must be stopped from crying in order for the parent to feel as though he or she is not a “bad” parent, and that he or she has a “good” child. These parents will publicly threaten, intimidate, scold, spank, and/or hit their crying children.   Many people, men and women alike (but certainly more so men), are familiar with the phrase “you keep crying, and I am going to give you something to cry about.” Phrases such as this had become part of our society’s lexicon through to the late twentieth century, and revealed, at least in part, our culture’s attitude about crying children. There appears to be movement away from this stance with modern parenting, but residual elements of this way of thinking remain.

These harsh responses to the crying child can be seen as a function of a parent’s own embarrassment (i.e., shame). The process will promote a lack of self worth within the developing child by way of the parent’s negative “projections” and the child’s subsequent “introjections” of the parent’s emotional messages. It can also be seen that these responses work to create a child who will have difficulty coping with the huge disparity between what is natural (i.e., crying as the emotional release of pain), and what is expected from the parent (i.e., to be a well behaved child).

Early manifestations of failures are not laden with the child’s notion that the child is flawed, but rather that crying and angering are natural responses to not getting one’s way. It is when the parent begins to assign some negative meaning to the child’s crying that he child will begin to internalize the parent’s attitude toward the crying child (and unconsciously, the feeling that produced the crying). Thus, the feeling of shame (the natural response to disappointment and failure) becomes associated with the notion that the child is “bad” (i.e., spoiled, being a big baby, a brat, or a sissy).

Very quickly, a toddler child can learn that there is something wrong within due to the simple act of crying. The child discovers that it is not a good idea to cry when he or she feels like crying, because punishment or belittlement will ensue. In order to avoid or minimize these insults, the child must stop, or not start, crying. It is believed that a toddler child can act only as well as he or she feels, and therefore, in order to not cry (and thereby avoid unpleasant parental or societal responses), the child must learn to stop feeling. This results in the suppression of feelings and internal buildup of natural emotion. Then, from that the formation of a character in which the more outgoing child will sporadically burst forth with anger (display brittle character), or the more inward child to sink into depression and despair (i.e., display decompensating character).

It should be remembered that only a few months earlier, this same child was gratified nearly every time he or she cried, and from this process the very necessary experience of Trust was learned. Yet, for many children (and their parents), the period of toddlerhood becomes a trying time in that the child has to break a habit of crying which was happily and graciously reinforced by the parent during infancy. This shift in the attitude of the parent (and society) toward the developing child is experienced as something akin to being a king for a year, and then, virtually over night, a servant.

What’s worse, this shift in attitude is experienced as a break in trust.

It is surprising that for all the love and good intentions held by so many mothers and fathers, there can be such a lack of empathy and understanding for a child going through this phase of development.   Many parents lose patience with their crying children only to see their children redouble their tendency to cry, and they, the parents, redouble their efforts to stop it.   The process of escalation between child and parent results in an emotional loss of the child’s experience of love from the parent, and yields a break in the trust that was acquired during the first year of life. This ultimately results in parents who unwittingly sacrifice the emotional health of their progeny in an effort to produce well behaved little children.

In essence, the child experiences “a crisis of faith” in the parent.

 It is bad for the child to be crying:

There is another situation that is often observed at the grocery store: parental indulgence of the crying child.  Crying is still seen as an undesirable behavior, but the parental response is in line with it is undesirable to experience the crying child.  This parent is also trying to avoid feelings of failure and embarrassment, but does so by giving-in to the child’s wants in order to quiet the child. These parents are usually of two types: the anxious/guilty parent who cannot tolerate seeing his or her child in pain, or the more self-centered parent who is concerned about image or gaining the child’s acceptance.

This method of quieting the crying child is highly effective in the moment, but severely damaging over the long-term in that the processes of infancy are perpetuated far longer than are considered healthy. The way these situations usually evolve is as such: the child will see something that he or she desires, the child will make some sort of overture to show the parent the desire, the parent will at first deny the child’s wish in that it is unnecessary, too costly, or simply not desirable or acceptable to the parent; the child will cry; the parent will insist; the child will get angry and cry more loudly; the parent will give in due to either internal fears or perceived social pressure.

The above dynamic results in children who develop a “fragile” character. They develop an internalized understanding that crying loudly enough will cause the world to yield to them. Eventually, these children often fail to adapt well to the demands of the world, and can grow to be manipulative, victim-oriented personalities. They learn to expect indulgence, and they seek and find people who will accommodate them throughout their lives, or at least until their world is fed up with them.

This style of parenting also results in a breaking of trust within the developing child. However, it is a more subtle for of trust-breaking.  Here the parent does not maintain his or her initial stance in relationship to a child, and the child experiences see the parent as untrustworthy in that the parent is not keeping his or her word, in spite of the fact that the child experiences the pleasure of being gratified. This process not only breaks trust with the child, but serves to give the child the idea that he or she has emotional power in the world; at first over parents, later over others. Additionally, many of these children fail to learn healthy respect for authority, because they have not been taught their place in relationship to adults in their world.

This style of parenting often results in “a crisis of faith in the self.”

Too bad, the child is crying, but it will be okay:

There is a middle ground between the two positions outlined above: the parent can be “okay” with the crying child. This parent sees crying as natural, and responds to the crying child in a neutral, disengaged, yet compassionate manner. This parent is not embarrassed by the child’s crying, and thus is neither indulgent, nor coercive, but rather accepting of the child’s struggle to cope with the disappointments of life. This parent has the ability to “hold the line” with the child, while being able to have empathy for that child’s struggle.

Sometime ago (more than 40 years) Readers Digest (volume unknown) published a story about a woman pushing a grocery cart through a store with a crying child in it. Throughout the woman’s time at the store she kept chanting: “calm down Jessica, calm down.” When the mother got to the checkout, an elderly woman who had been watching mother and her child said to the mother: “You know dear, I admire the way you’ve kept your patience with little Jessica.” After a pause and a sigh, the mom replied, “thank you, but I’m Jessica.”

There is a school of thought (Object Relations) that maintains it is imperative that the mother, or mother substitute, be able to contain both her own emotions and the emotions of her crying child, especially when that child is at his or her emotional worst. When a mother manages her toddler child’s actions against her (i.e., crying, angering, protesting, blaming and etc.) without retaliation, abandonment or indulgence, the child will eventually accept his or her situation, let go of the negative emotions, and reconnect with mother in a more positive manner (Slipp, 1990). On the other hand, when a mother (or other caretaker) responds to a crying child with aggression, rejection, or disdain, the mother becomes an undesirable object, and it is less likely the child will experience a desire to reconnect, and more likely that the child will go on to retaliate or exhibit increased bouts of negative behaviors.

Ongoing repetition of one or the other of the above processes will eventually lead to a child who will learn that he or she is loved and can thereby develop concern for others, or a child who internalizes anger, rejection and shame, and becomes ever more greatly self-absorbed.

This middle-ground style of parenting prepares the growing child to accept a world that will not change because of the child’s emotional state. The child will build on the trust that was acquired in infancy, and there will be far less chance of serious mental health issues later in life because rational and reasonable responses were provided in response to the child’s aggressive and disorderly actions in early childhood.

These children will have the greatest chance of developing a “tempered” character. One in which they will acquire the ability to regulate strong emotion rather than lean on aggression or sink into depression when confronted by life’s hardships.

This style of interaction results in a child who has a much improved chance of flexibility and adaptability of character.

In conclusion:

It can be seen from the above examination of the developmental process, that many human beings come in contact with the destructive familial and societal influences of shame very early in their lives. Shame, as described within this paper, is as natural as sadness, fear, excitement and joy. It is the root feeling of the experience of the human conscience. Because shame emerges so early in life, it resides at the very core of the human experience (Kaufman 1996). Yet, in spite of its ubiquitous presence, and its huge contribution to mental illness, it has remained in the shadows of the western human experience, and out of the foreground of rational, systematic examination.

What can be seen from the above analysis is this: the presence of shame, and the tendency to reinforce its presence by way of parental and societal reactions must be taken into greater consideration within western life, especially by treatment providers, teachers, doctors and clergy. It can be concluded that the lack of awareness of how shame works within the human being, has led to vast numbers of people taking psychotropic medications for mental illnesses, as well as huge numbers of men and women who populate our nation’s jails.

One solution to the dilemma presented by shame is relatively simple. The processes of human development need to be universally taught in our public school systems.   Simple understandings of human development could be taught in elementary schools by way of stories about character and caretaking. Human Developmental theory, Affect theory, Object Relations theory and Cognitive Behavioral theory should be taught as science on a quarterly basis beginning in the freshman year of high school, and continued throughout the high school experience.

There are those who claim that modern Americans are growing soft and preoccupied with technology. This may well be true, but every adult American will have at one time been an infant and a toddler, and every infant and toddler will soon be an adult American. It just makes good sense that teaching us what we are and how we get this way will have the effect of increasing the odds that more of our offspring will have a better chance at healthy adulthood, and healthier future generations.

Bibliography to be completed later.

Erikson, E.,

Kaufman, G., The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes, Second Edition, Springer Publishing, NY, 1996

Kaufman, G., Shame: The Power of Caring, Schenkman Books Inc., NY, 1992
Mahler, M., et al, Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, Basic Books, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, New York, 1975

Slipp, S.,  Object Relations: A Dynamic Bridge Between Individual and Family Treatment, pp. 48-9

Intimacy and The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Intimacy and the second law of thermodynamics:

Love as the solution to entropy in close interpersonal relationships



Intimacy is that state of affairs that exists between people who share a common environment over extended periods of time, either by choice (e.g., marriage or cohabitation) or happenstance (e.g., birth into a family, accidental roommates, prison).

Simply put, intimacy is the result of being with someone on a regular basis for a long time. The notion that intimacy describes sexual habits between life partners is regarded as colloquial and will be seen as such in this work. Sexual intimacy is viewed as one aspect of intimacy, separate yet related.

The second law of thermodynamics
(also referred to as the law of entropy):

Energy spontaneously disperses from being localized to becoming spread out, if it is not hindered.

Simply put, everything in nature will decay unless some form of work or energy is applied to the system to prevent that decay.


Energy in the form of action directed toward establishing and/or maintaining order.


The act of providing energy (work) to an interpersonal relationship with the sole intent of benefitting the other.


Although existentially intangible and metaphysical, a relationship is an entity that obeys the second law of thermodynamics; i.e., a relationship is a real thing that, if left unattended, will decay. Work in the form of love is required to stave off the ravages of the natural processes of erosion that will inevitably occur over time. One difference between the physical universe and the metaphysical entity of intimacy is that the work done to maintain the relationship must be mutual between partners (exception: the relationship between parents and their offspring).


This is an article written for those of us who don’t understand people very well.

Throughout my career as a psychotherapist, I have had occasion to work with a number of people (usually, but not exclusively, men) who, when it comes to relationships, just don’t “get it”. Often these clients are engineers, doctors, accountants, scientists or other straight-line thinkers who function professionally and personally as problem solvers. Over the years, I have observed that in nearly every case of dysfunctional intimacy involving highly rational people, there runs a common thread: I.e., this highly logical and straight-line thinking person leaves him or herself out of the analysis of the problem.

Those readers who are familiar with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are aware that the energy it takes to observe a system will in fact change the total energy of that system; thus, the observer is not able to see what would be seen if he were not looking. It is the same with relational systems in a person’s environment: the fact that the observer is present within the system will affect the system’s overall functioning. Thus, any understanding of the system that does not include an understanding of the nature and effect of the observer will be in error.

This essay is an attempt to show the reader that a better understanding of the self will lead to a more complete understanding of the intimate system (family), and will in the end lead to more healthy functioning. The material included is laid out logically with the intent of bringing rationality into what have heretofore been apparently illogical and irrational situations (i.e., relationships and intimacy).

This short work will look at the “metaphysical science” of the development of the human being from a helpless mass of breathing protoplasm into a thinking, feeling adult man or woman capable of working and living in the world, and capable of living and loving within a working family system. This developmental model will then be applied to the rigors of marital and familial intimacy.

The End (The effects of entropy):

This is a story that starts out at the end, where most people enlist the aid of a counselor, therapist or attorney to address the condition of their relationship. Those of you reading this article could well be experiencing problems in your relationship(s) right now, or have experienced problems in the past. If you have not overcome the obstacles that have wrecked your last relationship (or nearly wrecked this one), then you are likely to be on your way to a repeat performance of whatever it was/is that had/has been going wrong.

An example:

Imagine two really strong and good people who came upon one another ten years ago. They were in love; couldn’t stand to be away from one another. Two people who fit together so well that they became the envy of their friends and families. They now have good jobs; good friends; nice things; beautiful kids. Only now, they can’t stand to be a room together. They sleep in separate bedrooms, or one sleeps on the couch in front of the TV; they don’t talk; they don’t go places together or when they do, they are not together while they are there. They haven’t laughed with one another in a good long time. Inside themselves, the other is “dead.”

In the relationship, each is miserable and each is blaming the other for that misery. Both go around telling friends and/or family: “if only he would listen to me when I talk;” “she never lightens up with the demands for me to do things;” “he is never satisfied with anything I do;” “she makes me feel like an idiot;” “he drinks too much;” “she complains about the kids all the time;” “he won’t lift a finger to help me, but expects me to drop everything for him;” “she charges too much on the credit cards;” “he thinks only about being with the guys;” “he wants sex every night;” “if I had to wait for her to want to have sex, I’d never have sex again in my life,” and so on and on and on.

By the time a marriage is on the verge of breaking apart, both partners have lost their ability to be a whole person in the shadow of the other. Both are at fault; both are wrong, yet both are right. Both know in their hearts that the only thing left for them is divorce and then possibly a new and “better” mate. Both have experienced their own psychological erosion in the wake of the other’s decompensation. Each believes his or her only hope for happiness is to get rid of the object of their misery…the other.

The fact is, in most cases that would be a waste.

The Beginning:

The process of a successful marriage starts the day a person is conceived.

Trust and Infancy

It is, of course, no surprise that infancy provides the basic foundation for all subsequent development for humans.  The quality of the inputs during infancy clearly affects the outcome of the adult person. Virtually all computer programmers know the rule of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

Human infants, particularly those who are raised in households by loving and concerned mothers, are subject to the constant infusion of the mother’s love from the first day forward. It is presupposed that the reader of this article is likely to have had a mother who was “good enough” in the sense that she was able to provide the basic necessities of life, while at the same time providing love and emotional availability. If it turns out that this was not the case, then the reader will have all the more difficulty doing the work that will eventually have to be done to achieve a sensible and balanced emotional life as an adult.

The very first and basic ingredient to any successful relationship between and among people is the matter of trust. Trust is at the center of all human transactions and intimate relationships. Consider that without trust one would not be able to muster the courage to drive a car on a city street for fear that the person coming in the other direction will not stay on his side of the road; or consider that without trust a person would not be able to sit in a classroom full of people for fear that someone will do something harmful; or consider that without trust we would hesitate to purchase a home or a car for fear of being cheated, nor would we be willing to use the ATM to obtain cash or make deposits for the same reason. Without trust there would be only negative skepticism, cynicism and mistrust; much of what we take for granted on a daily basis would be gone, and we would be reduced to live in a state of perpetual paranoia.

Trust must be the starting point for understanding intimacy and later for the understanding what can go wrong in intimacy.

A noted psychological theorist, Erick Erickson, observed and treated emotional problems for much of his life. He theorized that infancy is that stage of development where trust is learned within the human organism. Further, he theorized, if trust was not learned in infancy, then mistrust would be learned in its place. When the latter is the case, the ability to enjoy the successful negotiation of intimacy as an adult is severely compromised and in many cases impossible.

Trust/Mistrust… ones and zeros:

Trust and mistrust are opposite sides of the same coin and can be viewed as a binary system. Trust and mistrust represent an either/or situation. There is no such thing as trusting a little bit, because this implies that there is mistrust at work. Where there is trust, there is not mistrust; where there is mistrust, there is not trust.

The infant child lives in three apparent states of being: need, pain and relief (pleasure). These three states are the essential raw materials for the evolution of trust within the developing child.

It has long been taught that trust is the byproduct of the timely gratification of needs as they present themselves coming forth from the child. These needs are apparent by the revelation of discomfort evidenced by crying and fussing. It is also well known that when a crying child is left unattended, the child will escalate her response from crying to angering; if left further unattended, the child will likely become severely depressed and symptoms of “failure to thrive” syndrome will set in.

Trust is the human result of a stimulus-response conditioning process. When we look at the situation of the very young infant (less than two months), we see that the child is gratified by the efforts of the mother (or mother surrogate) who is external to the child, and we therefore conclude that the mother is the object of that trust. However, the very young infant cannot identify the mother as part of the trust equation because the child has yet to develop the cognitive and emotional functioning that allows for the recognition of external objects. Rather, it is more accurate to posit that trust is learned internally by the child within the experience of relief as it follows crying and angering.

Arithmetically, the process will look something like:

Pain + crying (angering) + relief = Trust (especially when offered in an attitude of love)

Thus, if one looks at what is going on internally for an infant, it becomes clear that it is not the mother that is the initial object of a child’s trust, but rather, it is the process of crying and angering (“throwing a fit”). It is only later, as the child’s cognitive functioning develops more fully, that the child learns to associate the mother with gratification and thus, transfers the trust associated with pain and relief over to the mother. The human infant is essentially trained to know that crying and “throwing a fit” are the accepted ways to get needs met.

Also, it can be posited that when pain, crying and angering result in successful gratification of a need, the following can be held to be true:

Pain + Crying (angering) + relief = success, and then according to law of transitive equality (i.e., a=b and b=c; then a=c); then …

Trust = Success

Consider once more: For the infant human being, crying and angering lead to relief; relief leads to trust; trust is a good thing; therefore, crying and angering must be good. Remember this and hold on to it for later.

The successful outcome of infancy yields psychological attachment between the mother and the child. The typical human being seeks to repeat this attachment with  “significant” others in adolescence and adulthood. The quality and health of the initial attachment to the mother will greatly affect the quality and health of the subsequent attachments later in life. Simply put, the healthier the relationship between child and mother, the better the chances for a healthy relationship with others in adulthood.

Toddlerhood …The Fall:

The successful completion of the major emotional tasks of infancy (i.e., attachment and trust) will result in a progression toward the natural processes of toddlerhood (i.e., emotional separation from the mother and formation of self).  Per theorists and practitioners, Margaret Mahler et al, it is the nature of the healthy toddler to proceed in the direction of separation away from the mother toward the development of individual identity. This separation process is enhanced by cognitive advancements that result in curiosity and a desire to explore the world; paradoxically, the movement toward separation occurs best when psychological attachment is strong and healthy.

It serves to note here that toddlerhood presents advances in cognitive development not present in infancy (i.e., the ability to synthesize thought) that will promote emotions that are different from the simple pleasure-pain experiences of infancy. The child becomes aware of him or herself in the world, and with that awareness will emerge feelings that arise according to the theories put forth by Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioral Theorists (i.e., RET/CBT).

RET/CBT: The truth is what you think.

Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioral Theorists hold to the notion that visceral responses (feelings) are a result of intellectual constructs; further it is held that these feelings motivate behaviors. Within the realm of RET/CBT, feelings arise when a perception of an Activating Event (A) is cognitively registered and this perception results in the stimulation of some belief (B). It is this belief that results in feeling which then prompts the person to act in a manner Consequential (C) to the Activating Event and the Belief. These theorists maintain that, without the ability to think, the human being is reduced to an animal that is at best reflexive in its responses and at worst non-responsive all together. One need only consider the condition of a person who is suffering advanced Altzheimer’s Disease to see what a non-thinking human looks like, or observe any active animal to see what is meant by a reflexive being.

It is hypothesized by this writer that an infant does not experience emotion beyond pleasure and pain until the emergence of more advanced cognitive functioning (thinking and perceiving).  Once the ability to think and reason takes hold (albeit minimally in toddlerhood), it is logical to conclude that the most simple, and therefore one of the earliest manifestations of awareness, is that of either success or failure. For the small child, this is manifest in the notion of either getting or not getting what is desired.

It is at this juncture that we must momentarily revisit Developmental Theory as put forth by Erickson as it applies to toddlers. Erickson theorized that, just as infancy yielded either trust or mistrust, toddlerhood yields its emotional milestone as the appearance of autonomy (i.e., identity, individuality, independence, success) or shame (i.e., failure, self-doubt and psychological despair). This emotionally formative “crisis” is dichotomous, that is, it is another binary situation; the child will either be autonomous (i.e., “okay” with self) or shame affected (i.e., “not okay” with self) at various points in time.

But to understand how this will lead to character development and ultimately to intimate interactions, we need to undergo a change of key and begin an examination of the very basics of another theory of human behavior (Affect Theory) and how this will apply to ongoing emotional development.

Affect Theory… the thumbnail:

Simply put, Affect Theory poses that human behavior is motivated by feeling.

Affect Theory, spearheaded by Silvan Tomkins via Gershen Kaufman postulates that human behavior is motivated by nine basic feeling states (i.e., joy, interest, surprise, anger, fear, shame, distress/anguish, bad smells and disgust). In the world of psychology and psychological theory, the notion that humans are motivated by feelings rather than drives has at times prompted vigorous debate. However, in the interest of simplicity, the reader need only know that Affect Theory is one theory as to what motivates people to do what they do; the resolution of the debate will be left to others who like to argue. For the purposes of this examination of the human condition, it will be held that Affect Theory is a viable construct for understanding human behavior. It is compatible and “linkable” with Rational Emotive and Developmental Theories.

If one accepts that human beings are motivated by feelings, a new equation can be garnered from the material contained in the Affect Theory model. This equality is the result of pulling joy and shame from the feeling array in Affect Theory (i.e., behavioral motivators) and viewing them in light of Erickson’s developmental theory. Doing so will bring into focus two things that are often overlooked at the most basic level of character study…1) the emergence of shame in toddlerhood and 2) the power held by shame for shaping defensive behaviors.

How it works:

Per Erickson, shame naturally emerges in toddlerhood as the inherent response to some perceived failure on the part of the toddler child. (This assertion is also supported by elements of RET/CBT which purport that feelings result from thoughts, i.e., perceptions.) Shame is a feeling experience that is neither overwhelming nor debilitating , however, it is uncomfortable (i.e., painful), and it is reasonable to conclude that it is the pain of shame (and the accompanying self-doubt) that is a major cause crying and “temper tantrums” in small children. When it is accepted that the feeling of shame is at the root of many crying and angering behaviors in toddlerhood, it can be surmised that the feeling of shame is the seed from which almost all future characterological defense grows.

This writer asserts that any occurrence in a child’s world that is perceived as a failure by that child will bring forth the feeling of shame. It should be noted that the shame referenced here is the simply the feeling of shame; this is not to be confused with guilt or feeling ashamed (i.e., shame with some object). Shame is simply one of nine feelings (affects) that occur routinely within the human being; shame is the affect (i.e., visceral feeling) that is attached to the notion of failure.

Mathematically represented as:
Failure = Shame

It is very difficult to understand that there is a difference between shame as a feeling, as opposed to the notion that shame is the  feeling of being ashamed (or guilty). One of the ways to understand shame as a feeling is to realize that there is every bit as much shame functioning in kindergarten as there is in a prison yard.  When a kindergartner experiences shame, he or she is likely to feel badly, avoid eye contact and cry; but when a prisoner experiences shame, the inmate will vie to retaliate toward the person he believes caused the shame.  Some effort will be made to strike down that other in order to “save face,” or not appear weak.  In both situations (kindergarten and prison) shame is the underlying motivating feeling to the reaction; however, the reaction is not the feeling. Guilt (i.e., being ashamed) is a reaction to shame, as is retaliation; neither is the feeling itself. Guilt and other responses to shame are essentially cognitive constructs (rational interpretations) that result from the experience of the shame feeling in combination with the life experiences and internal predispositions of the individual.

It is important to differentiate the feeling of shame from the experience of guilt because it helps to understand that reactions to shame can, and will, be different. Just because someone appears to “have no shame” does not mean that this is necessarily so; rather it means that there are differences in the way shame is experienced and revealed by various people. When someone appears to “have no shame,” it is highly likely this experience of shame creates so much tension from the fear of exposure, that he or she disavows shame completely, as though it does not exist; thus, sparing that person from the excruciating pain of humiliation.

As previously stated, the feeling of shame is painful. It is likely the most painful of all the feelings that are available to the human being, because the pain from shame can ultimately be directed back at the self. When a toddler experiences an event that is perceived as a failure, that youngster will experience the feeling of shame, and with it the accompanying pain. As noted earlier, this hurts, and there are scant few ways that a toddler can deal with such a feeling except to lower the head and appear shameful, cry, and/or get angry. Afterall, the human child is conditioned to do so in infancy. It is unreasonable to expect that a small child will be able to verbally relate the shame experience in a cogent, coherent manner, because for the most part, doing so is often a remarkable achievement for adults.

As noted, infants will resort to crying and getting angry as a primary response to dealing with the pain they feel when in the pain of need. Now in toddlerhood comes the advent of refutation and frustration of desire, emerges the pain of failure.   Only a few short months earlier in infancy, crying and angering were the accepted means of dealing with painful situations, but in toddlerhood something has changed. Somehow, in less than a year, crying and angering are no longer considered acceptable, they are deemed to be “bad,” or at least, a undesirable. Now the child experiences threats, belittling, and outright punishment on the part of parents to stop the child’s crying and angering.

Painful substitutions:

Note: for those of you we’re not good at mathematics, you may find the following section to be confusing. A cursory attempt at simply understanding concepts being put forward will be sufficient to move on.

This is a good place to revisit the trust equation of infancy:

Trust = Need + Pain + Relief
Success = Need + Pain + Relief
Trust = Success

Recall, if you will, the notion that in infancy “bad” behavior (throwing a fit) was “good” for getting needs met, and good for the formation of trust. Now consider the toddler who, as an infant, had been conditioned to expect relief from crying and angering, is now being taught that crying and angering are no longer desirable means for getting needs met.  Thus, what used to be good and useful (throwing a fit) is now bad and unwanted.

So, in many cases, the following toddlerhood equation replaces that of infancy:

Shame (i.e., bad feelings) – relief = need (desire) + pain + crying/angering

Once again, back to an algebraic representation of what is happening:

Failure = Shame
Trust = Success
Infancy: Relief + Need + Pain + Crying/Angering = Trust
Toddlerhood: Need + pain + crying (and angering) = Shame – Relief

Shame = Trust = Success = Failure… An irrational conclusion


This algebraic conclusion is the result of a shift in adult attitudes about children’s behaviors after infancy has lapsed. This irrational conclusion represents the experience of the young person who is on the receiving end of that shift and an internal conflict is generated. The notion that what was once “good” and healthy (crying and angering to get needs met) becomes “bad” and unhealthy (Shame). As noted earlier and as will be noted again, the natural transition from infancy to toddlerhood presents one of life’s greatest of difficulties for many human beings (aside from the angst that must must be faced later in life with regard to matters of adolescence, aging and death).

There is another aspect of the terrible two’s situation that reveals how much our society frowns on “childish” behaviors, and that is the tendency of some parents to indulge children who are crying and angering just to get them to stop. This system of development brings with it a whole other set of dynamics which helps create children who quickly learn to use parental shame for their own benefit. These children know that their parents do not want them to act badly, and use this knowledge to emotionally blackmail parents into giving them what they want. These children are gratified with indulgence in the interest of obtaining and maintaining “peace and harmony,” as well as not letting the child suffer pain.

Both of the above responses to normal childhood acting-out behaviors reveal that as a people, we don’t like it very much when our children cry, and we will go to some lengths to stop that crying. It is here, at this point in the development of many children, that dysfunctional and maladaptive coping behaviors on the part of parents will lead to subsequent maladaptive coping behaviors in children and in the end will result in dysfunctional families and unsatisfactory intimate relationships.

The mistakes that we make:

There tend to be three very different methods that adults employ for dealing with the presence of shame induced behaviors (usually anger and sadness) in children: as noted above, two of them are punishment and capitulation (indulgence); the third is tolerance (steadfastness). Two of these responses are mistakes: punishment and indulgence. All parental responses to children’s behaviors fall into one of these categories (or some some variation that blends them). The response that a parent chooses is usually the same method that the parent experienced as a child (or sometimes the exact opposite); therefore, the shape of the child’s character will in some manner reflect that of the parent. It is the opinion of this writer that many, many children are being parented incorrectly, and that not enough children are raised by tolerant, steady parents.  Thus, a large portion of our population is comprised of intolerant and unsteady adults.

It should be noted that the mistakes parents make with their children are not usually one-time mistakes that are simply rectified and forgotten, but rather they are mistakes that occur over and over again as part of a process. This process results in the installation of a core operating program within the developing child that is a combination of the child’s basic nature and the inputs from the environment. Therefore, it will be this core operating program that will dictate behavior as the person grows, and eventually the adult person will find him or herself operating in of a sort of “auto pilot” mode, often behaving in self-defeating or undesirable ways regardless of how much an alternate behavior is desired. An illustration of this dynamic is revealed in the person who vowed as a youngster he will never treat his children as his parents treated him, but then as an adult, finds himself doing those very things.

Upon reflection, the overall emotional developmental process for human beings can be summarized as follows: The infancy and toddler years are years of firsts; it is during these years that the original seeds for future coping mechanisms are sown. The years between toddlerhood and adolescence (approximately, ages 5 through 12) are years of acceptance and reinforcement of the coping behaviors that have already been set in motion. The years of adolescence are years of rejection and testing of the basic operating programs which have been internalized as a result of ongoing interactions with parents and others in the environment. The years of young adulthood yield an internal reconciliation with the original operating programs, and an apparent reconciliation between the youngster and the parents; the cycle is complete, and will now repeat with the next generation.

Tying it all together…

At this point the reader is probably wondering, “what does this have to do with my marriage or my relationship with my significant other?”

The answer to that question is embarrassingly obvious: People have become adults on the outside, but because of faulty parenting, remain children on the inside. When people are at work, at the store, in a restaurant, on the golf course, at a concert, or engaged in a multitude of other social enterprises, they tend to represent themselves as though they are grown-ups because that is what they have learned to do (often out of fear, and an avoidance of punishment).

Meanwhile in the home, partners get upset with one another over little things like how to stack dishes in a dishwasher, how to squeeze a toothpaste tube, where to put dirty clothes, how to make a bed, whether to make a bed, how to drive a car, how much money to spend and on what, how much to eat, when to eat, if and when to have sex, and so on and on. Slowly, over time, due to an ongoing process of disappointment and disenchantment, they begin to see one another as willfully unaccommodating, coolly aloof, or bitterly connected. They begin to notice that the little things that used to be supplied by the other are no longer provided. They start to feel unloved.

When a person feels unloved, it is quite normal to feel worthless, and to perceive that he or she is a failure. As noted earlier, whenever a failure is perceived by a human being, the resultant feeling is shame. Also, as previously mentioned, shame is a painful experience, but what’s more, shame is at its most intense in response to the perception of not being loved. Naturally, a coping mechanism for such a devastating feeling is required, and from where does this coping strategy come? Childhood and parents.

Coping Mechanisms for The Shame Experience

There are essentially two realms of coping behaviors for the feeling of shame: Adaptive and Maladaptive.  Adaptive behaviors are those that result in successful, healthy outcomes, while maladaptive coping mechanisms result in ongoing failure and frustration. Within each of these two realms there are also three “sub-realms:”  Psychological (thought), Physical (action), and Interpersonal (interactive).



Self-rightness – the tendency to deny responsibility, blame others, or rationalize intentions  in an effort to avoid being wrong.  The upside to this method of coping with “bad” inner feelings is that the one who is defending will create the delusion of having “no problem” (a form of self-righteousness). The downside to this is that those who are intimate with the psychologically defensive person often find themselves “forced” to accept responsibility for what the defensive person denies in order to maintain harmony.


Addictions and compulsions – the practice of excessively employing some relatively convenient and easily repeated behavior is intended remove the feeling of shame (e.g., alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholism, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors). The use of these types of coping behaviors tends to leave the user numb to, or unaware of, the pain of the inner shame experience.  These behaviors do not compensate for shame, but rather they tend to create the illusion that no shame exists.


Power and control– the use of one’s influence in relationship to the “weaknesses” of another to exert one’s will over that other. The use of power as THE way to compensate for the inner experience of shame is first learned in toddlerhood, and is refined throughout the developmental process. Power and power techniques are regarded as maladaptive coping mechanisms in that they inadvertently resort to the control of another, and are often rooted in anger, fear, deceit, and manipulation; the end result of which is victimization.

Interestingly, the person who is victimized in a relationship can use that sense of victimization as justification for his or her own manipulation (power tactic), and subsequently victimize those seen as the aggressors. This occurs both consciously and unconsciously, and is often part of the passive-aggressive personality style.



Self-Respect/Self Affirmation – to hold on to ideals and standards out of the belief that the self is valuable and worthy.  This must be accomplished  in association with the ability and willingness to accept personal responsibility for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (especially those that affect the intimate partner); especially when one is wrong.


Striving/Achievement -exercising the willingness to learn from mistakes and strive for success by way of persevering, and not giving up until a particular goal is achieved. This includes such activities as healthy eating, exercising, and the development of healthy functioning, and healthy habits. These compensatory behaviors are performed within the awareness of an existing shaming experience.

Included within this rubric is the moderate use of healthy compensating activities such as doing art, writing, landscaping, woodworking, cleaning, and various other tasks as a way to divert attention away from the shame.


Love and Acceptance – experiencing the acceptance of another in an attitude of love whenever one attempts new things, and whenever one falters in those attempts. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough the importance of acceptance in the growth of the human being.  Rejection and misunderstanding are likely the two most serious of all shame generators in the developing child, and the perception of rejection by a loved one will tend to be one of the strongest generators of shame in adulthood.


Most of us are still children on the inside,
and this supposition is revealed in intimate relationships.

If one accepts the notion that most people are simply grown-up children (as opposed to mature adults), then another hypothesis can be constructed. This thesis suggests that people relate to one another in intimacy as though the other is expected to be the perfect parent. The perfect parent is defined as that one person who loves the other no matter what, and beyond that, the perfect parent never loses touch with empathy, understanding, willingness to give of self, and the absolute tolerance and acceptance of the other.

Consider the following example: A man’s wife gets angry with him over the way he has scolded their nine year old son for spilling orange juice on the living room carpet. The man turns around and gets angry with his wife because she never takes his side in things that pertain to the children, and she is going to ruin the children by teaching them that their father has no real authority in the home. The wife escalates her anger about the incident over the orange juice to encompass her feelings about her husband acting like a child himself, because he won’t admit his mistakes.  She refuses to talk with him for the next two days except when it is absolutely necessary or unavoidable.  As time passes, thoughts of the incident slowly fade, and eventually the couple relates as though the incident did not occur (until the next episode at which their memories of past mistakes become razor sharp).

The above scenario is not uncommon among middle class couples; many couples that squabble, often do so in some similar manner. What the example illustrates is that each member of the couple resorts to childish behaviors in relationship to the other’s shortcomings. When this happens, each is blaming the other for the problem at hand, and justifying his or her own behaviors with the notion that it is the other who is wrong. What is implicit within this dynamic is the thought that the other is supposed to be better able to remain steady and accepting in spite of the errors made by the one in the situation. In the case above the husband secretly expects the wife to understand his motives, identify with his feelings, and accept his actions in spite of the fact that he has may have made a mistake; in other words he expects her to love him (and demonstrate that love) no matter what.  At the same time, the wife expects him to be able to tolerate her protest toward him with gracious dignity, a moderated temper, and full acceptance of her position regardless of his feelings on the matter. He is supposed to immediately consider her feelings, process them, then realize his mistake, and then be “big” enough to be loving toward her in spite of the fact that she is angry at him. Each, on an unconscious level, is wanting the other to be the perfect parent in the form of the ideal mate.

The Resolution…strive to become the perfect parent

So what can be done about the notion that members of couples are looking for their counterparts to be the perfect parent?

Realize that the only real way to make a marriage or intimate relationship work satisfactorily is to endeavor to become that perfect parent for the other.  This means that each partner in a relationship will learn to work to become a better person for the other, rather than demanding the other to be the one to make the improvements. This one shift of focus in an intimate relationship is probably the single most important thing that each member of a couple can employ to remedy most relational difficulties.

As can be seen from the material presented throughout this essay, people grow to become childish adults because of the inherent deficits in the parenting they experienced while growing and developing. Also, as noted earlier, these deficits are mainly revealed in the inability of a person to successfully identify and acknowledge shame as the motivator for the majority of one’s own negative and undesirable behaviors. When a person is able to look inside of him or herself, and see that the vast majority of their undesirable behaviors are actually motivated by their own hidden shame, he or she will be in a position to start to work on the notion that a relationship can be changed by altering the self, not the other.

Love…the work of relationships

It almost sounds trite to claim that love is the work that needs to be done to improve a relationship, but the very basic truth of success in a relationship is that if one person loves another, this will be revealed in the manner in which “the lover” behaves toward the loved.

The definition of love in American culture and society has been skewed by the way that love is portrayed in television, movies and music. For the most part, it seems that the kind of love that is professed and sought after throughout modern American culture is the the kind of love that is ideally pure, completely shared, heartily stimulating, unfailingly uplifting, and unswervingly accepting. What most people seem to seek is the experience of “being in love;” a state of being induced by biochemical processes in the brain and body in which one feels warm, accepted, appreciated and adored. For many in our culture, love and bliss can be used interchangeably; love is often pursued in much the same manner as a drug or similar addiction.

The harsh truth about love is that love is much more a way of being than a state of being, and that this way of being is often not very blissful at all. Love, true love that is, should be viewed as a choice of behaviors that must be exercised by the lover.  Many adults find that love does not come easily, nor does it occur naturally or spontaneously, and choosing to love another in the face of some adverse emotion emanating from the other can be excruciatingly hard work. Most intimate relationships fall apart due to adherence of a “being in love” ideal rather than a more realistic “love the being” endeavor; where the difference between the two is the difference between “being” and “doing.”

Variations of loving Behaviors

There are numerous and varied behaviors that can be included on a spectrum of loving behaviors; what follows is a partial list of those that are the most important when considering intimate relationships.


First, and foremost, failure to respect the other under all circumstances is the probably the most common failing in marital, familial and intimate relationships.  There tends to be an unwritten law that there are two sets of rules for behavior in our culture: private and public. Usually, it is found that most people are on their best behavior in public, while they give themselves license to behave poorly in their intimate environments. If anything, however, people should treat family better than “outsiders;” after all, most of the people we see in any given day will be gone from our lives much more quickly than a family member.

Loss of respect is often revealed in name calling, belittling, cursing, yelling, threatening and manipulating.  Many people have learned that in order to give respect they have to receive it first; this is exactly opposite from the truth; respect must be given in order to be received. There is also a difference between commanding versus demanding respect.  It is extremely difficult to command the respect of others when one demands that others give it.


As noted earlier, one of the most painful aspects of interpersonal intimacy is the absence of, or separation from, another’s acceptance.  Acceptance is about validation and listening; about giving the message to another that he or she is still “acceptable” regardless of the situation or circumstances at hand. Of all the processes that will help heal the feeling of shame, the practice of acceptance is likely to be the most powerful. When one knows that one is “okay” with another “no matter what,” self-respect and self-worth grow substantially faster and stronger within that person.

Compassion, Empathy, Concern for the other

The ability to feel for another and to have have some idea of what is going on inside the other is an accepted definition for empathy.  Usually, empathy is easy when one is listening to another talk about a third person, but when one is the object of the other’s problems, empathy and understanding become very difficult.  One of the more difficult tasks a spouse will face will be when the other is telling him things about himself that the other does not like; things she wants him to change.

When two people start dating and then talk with one another about their troubles, most of those troubles have to do with other people, usually family members. But as a relationship develops, and two people spend ever increasing amounts of time with one another, each tends to become a problem for the other.  Thus, when one talks about problems, one is now referring to the other; this can be painful, especially for those who are not adept a hearing things about the self.  Shortcomings are not what most people like to discuss about themselves.  Again, embracing shortcomings is a shameful experience, and shame is painful.

Appreciation and Assistance

Stereotypically, men tend to seek appreciation, and women tend seek connection; both of these tendencies are often disrupted when partners fail to notice what is being provided by the other. Often this is the case because people forget (or never really knew) what life would be like if one had to do everything for oneself.

Men are often expected to take care of things that need fixed, maintained or built. Women are expected to do the things that compose a daily life (e.g., dishes, cooking, paying the bills, vacuuming, grocery shopping, looking after everyone else). A basic western societal stereotype goes something like this: Men like to build things, they like to fix things and they like to feel the results of a job well done. Women, on the other hand, don’t like to clean up after others, they don’t like to do the dishes, and they don’t like the apparent fact that they are expected know where their children (or husbands) have “lost” their shoes; in fact, women can be down right resentful about their “job” around the house.

Here’s the rub. When a man does a job, he typically doesn’t want help (unless it is handing him a screw or holding a board while he saws it), but rather he wants appreciation and praise after the job is done. Women, however, aren’t much interested in appreciation or praise, they want help. They want their husbands to pick up a dishcloth and wash the dishes, clean the hair out of the shower trap, make the bed, dust the furniture or pitch in with dinner, and they want their kids to empty the dishwasher, take out the trash without having to be asked, put their shoes where they belong, or clean up after themselves when they make a sandwich, and etc.  Most women are not interested in doing what men do and that’s just fine with a man, and most men men are not interested in doing what women do, and that’s just not okay with a woman at all.

The resolution to this disparity between the sexes has be a two sided shift. If a man loves a woman, then it is incumbent upon him to help her with her “chores;” he must be willing to realize that he too shares in the responsibility for maintaining daily life; he must understand that simple, yet mundane tasks are not particularly rewarding, but are necessary for living.


This area of “expertise” may well be the single greatest failure among intimate partners. John Grey in his book, Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus, warns that men must learn to listen to their spouses and to remember that women talk from feelings. He recommends that men learn to stay away from problem solving, and he definitely encourages men to learn to experience and display empathy.

Listening doesn’t stop there, however. Many men complain that their wives do not listen to them. Over the past years men have been encouraged to learn to talk about their feelings, and to learn to represent their feelings to their wives. What often happens in these endeavors has not been what one might expect. For the most part, women and men are really no different when it comes to being sensitive to criticism, and whenever one partner shares a feeling about, and with, the other, there is the risk that the other will become defensive as a result. Many men have attempted to talk about their feelings only to have their words rejected by their wives. Consider the man who tells his wife that she has hurt his feelings by using his car without letting him know, and then she tells him that he has a problem because he is self-centered and non-sharing, and he wouldn’t feel hurt if he was a more generous person.

There seems to be some sort of myth that just because women tend to be more feeling oriented than men, they are somehow better able to deal with those feelings. It seems that women have just as much trouble handling feelings and feeling situations as do their male counterparts; otherwise there would be no need for “couples’” counseling. Yet, it does seem to be true, women tend to be more feeling and men tend to be more logical, at least at the beginning of many discussions. Difficulties arise when discussions turn into arguments and the man fuels his logic with his anger and the woman fuels her feelings with her logic.  When this happens, listening prevails only long enough for each to formulate the next item of debate, and the couple falls into an irrational argument that neither can win.

Listening has to be about respect and concern for the other person rather than about hearing enough to win an argument. One of the hardest accomplishments in an intimate relationship is to be able to listen to a complaint about oneself without becoming defensive and accusatory in return. A good thing to tell oneself (a mantra of sorts) when the other approaches with some matter of importance is this: “I have to keep quiet and let this pass, I can always come back to this later, but right now, I must listen.” And one more thing to remember… “just because someone has a problem with me, doesn’t necessarily mean that I am the problem.”

Giving in without resentment

Most couples find themselves in disagreements over minor matters on a somewhat routine basis.  Anyone who is married can reflect on the myriad of situations that have resulted in resentful feelings.  Resentments occur when one feels that, whatever one is doing, should be done by or with someone else. Consider the simple task of taking care of the family dog in the morning. If one partner sleeps in each morning, and the other is feeding and caring for the dog (as well as making the coffee and getting the kids up), there will be a strong likelihood for the more active partner to become resentful of the other.

Resentment is often a behavioral symptom of feelings of guilt or obligation feeding the thought that one has no options other than to give in. Resentment presents itself when a person wants to say ‘NO’ but feels compelled to say ‘yes;’ and wants to say ‘YES,’ but feels compelled to say ‘no.’ Usually, it is the fear of retribution or loss of love that guides the resentful person. The key to living without resentment is mustering the willingness to be true to oneself, especially when doing so is going to be difficult.

Being able to identify resentment and work through the fears that accompany it, is one of the more important elements for changing one’s habits and improving one’s overall character.


It is believed by a preponderance of people that a healthy sex life is the sign of a healthy relationship.  Consequently, one or the other partner in an intimate relationship might equate love (i.e., a healthy relationship) with the quality and frequency of sexual activity.  This single belief can set a series of attitudes and behaviors in motion that in the end will result in a great deal of dissatisfaction, disappointment, anger and shame.

The act of sex is a combination of emotional and physiological components that have to come together in just the right way at just the right time in order for both partners to appreciate the other (and the sexual experience). Sexual gratification is a selfish experience at its core, yet each partner is responsible to consider the other’s experience.  Many partners (men and women alike) are highly motivated to provide pleasure for the other. The fact that the other is enjoying the experience is a sexual turn-on in itself. However, this can get old when the favor is not returned in kind. Couples need to be able to talk abut their sexual experiences with one another before, during and after their experience.

Personal Responsibility

The last bastion of successful intimacy is the willingness for each partner to be able to accept the reality of his or her character and personality in relationship to the other. Throughout the above paragraphs, the notion of personal responsibility has been implied, but not explicitly identified.

At the very heart of personal responsibility is the manner in which a person deals with the shame that will naturally arise in daily living. No one gets his or her way all the time, and no one is perfect. Thus, shame will be inherent in intimate interactions. There are few things in the intimate world as frustrating as the notion that one can plainly see a flaw in the other’s character, only to have the observation denied, rationalized, minimized or projected back onto the observer.

The acceptance of personal responsibility is difficult for many partners in an intimate relationship. Often, a couple will be composed of one partner who readily accepts his or her mistakes, and openly works to rectify them, while the other hides behind defenses that drives the more accepting partner out of his or her mind.

It usually takes effective couples counseling/therapy to resolve disparities of stye with regard to owning one’s thoughts, feelings, motives and behaviors.

In conclusion

To quote a line from Al Pacino in the movie “Sea of love,” “relationships are work.”

The notion of an “internal world” can be new concept for many people in an intimate relationship. Many partners (usually men) struggle with changes that have emerged over the past sixty years. Yet at the very center of the intimacy dilemma, lies the unspoken reality of shame, and its effect upon individuals in relationship to one another. When partners become aware of the existence of the feeling of shame operating within, they can then remedy that feeling internally, rather than trying to control the other. In the end, it will be love (for self and the other), that will prevail in healthy family development.




Reactive Attachment Disorder… A Systems Perspective

A More Encompassing View

by Ray Messer, MSW, LISW

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) has been defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1981.  The current diagnostic criteria (DSM-5) can be found at http://behavenet.com/node/21499.  In all of my research, I have not been able to find how RAD got its name.  Also, it should be noted that little is said in the DSM about the nature of the interactions that result in the RAD situation. The diagnostic criteria listed in the DSM focus wholly upon the characteristics of the child with the disorder, not upon the system in which the child resides.  What follows is a developmental approach to Reactive Attachment Disorder as it exists within an adoptive environment.

An observational examination of the dynamics of RAD reveals the following:  The disorder presents as the undesirable interactions of a child with adult caretakers and authority figures.  These interactions become reactions between the child and the parent(s).  A severely corrosive and unhealthy feedback loop is established between the child and the caretakers that results in the ultimate assignment of the disorder to the child.  Yet, the disorder in the child is also revealed in the very deep negative feelings that are experienced by those who are charged with providing care.  Most non-attachment therapists are unaware of the reciprocal nature of the disorder, and often see the child as the sole problem.  Children who have been unloved, abandoned, abused and/or neglected by their biological mothers from birth (or very early in their lives) often find themselves living in homes with people who feel like hating, abandoning, abusing, and/or neglecting them in a manner similar to their birth mothers.  It can be supposed that the anger in the adoptive and surrogate parents somehow has been transferred to them by the children.

RAD children are often brought into the foster care system by way of Children’s Protective Services and are subsequently placed for adoption.  Many adults (couples and individuals) take in these children with the expectation of giving love and sustenance to a needy child (or children), and getting some measure of love in return.  These adults tend to believe that providing love and security will resolve whatever deficits or difficulties these children may have endured or experienced earlier in their lives. Often, although not always, these kind and caring adults find themselves at extreme odds with the very child they had attempted to take into their hearts.

Many of these parents discover parts of themselves they have not routinely experienced in their lives prior to the adoption experience.  They come to find themselves overwhelmed with extreme anger, emotional exhaustion, guilt and regret.  They lose their sense of personal freedom and sometimes they lose touch with their own identity.  Some of these parents become so disenchanted with raising these children that they give them back to the system, often having to pay the system monthly child support payments until the child is adopted by another unsuspecting, naive someone with a big heart.  One woman went so far as to put her adopted child on a jet airplane bound for Russia, and made international news by doing so.

The heart of Reactive Attachment is this:  It is a parent reacting to the undesirable behaviors exhibited by a child, and the child reacting to the parent.  These reactions resonate between both, and most often, it is the child who is blamed for the problems caused in the interaction, and it is the child who is “treated.”  In the final analysis, it is the child who has the ultimate control of the emotional interactions in the family, but it is the parent(s) who bear the responsibility to resolve them.  These parents want to love and be loved,  but the child wants what he or she wants, love be damned.  So when the child is not gratified, the goal is changed to something else, i.e., power in the form of emotional control.  By defying the parent, or by simply not returning the parent’s love, the child gains control of the emotional tenor of the interactions within the family.  Life becomes miserable for all.  The natural thing for a parent to do is to emotionally retaliate and attempt to control the child; this results in more of the same (only worse).

How does this happen?  Why doesn’t love reach these children?

The answer:  ANGER.  Internalized anger that has become part of the child’s character, and subsequently becomes central in the parent-child relationship.  This anger can be overt and openly aggressive or covertly passive-aggressive, but whatever style the child presents, it is hell for the parents.

In order to understand the abnormal development of the RAD child, it is important first to understand the development of a “normal,” healthy child.

“Normal” Healthy Child Development

In the vast preponderance of child births, at least in the United States, the mother is either nervously or excitedly awaiting the birth of her baby.  She begins to prepare for the arrival of her child during the early stages of pregnancy, and often falls in love with her baby months before birth.  When a mother is presented with her baby for the first the first time, she realizes her life will never be the same.  She is no longer an individual, she is mother with child; for most women this is a wondrous event; for some, it is the beginning of an inconvenience that will not go away.

The human infant is completely dependent upon the outer world for survival; usually this outer world is comprised of the mother.  The mother, or some mother substitute, must be available to the infant child on a continual basis for at least the first few years of the child’s life, and it is the first four years of the child’s life that lay the foundation for the rest of the child’s emotional existence.  If those years go well, the likelihood of a healthy emotional life is greatly improved over that of the converse.

Attachment and bonding occur during the first crucial months of a child’s life.  During the first year a cycle is enjoined that results in the emotional attachment of the child to the mother; successful completion of attachment in infancy results in the internalization of trust.  (Consider Erickson’s stages of emotional development.)

This cycle is usually represented as:  Biologic needs give rise to pain or discomfort, this discomfort is expressed by crying (anger, if not gratified soon enough); the crying alerts the caretaker (mother) to the need of the child; the need is gratified and the child experiences relief.  When this cycle is repeated throughout infancy, the child learns that crying will bring relief, which brings forth trust, which is internalized in an attitude of love, and the child becomes bonded to the mother.  As the infant’s cognitive abilities develop, the child is able to recognize the external presence of the mother.  The mother becomes the object of the child’s internalized trust and, eventually, the child’s love.  Naturally, all of this presupposes that mother loves her baby.

Yet, the end of infancy presents an apparent paradox: the more securely bonded, the more likely it is that  the child will separate during the second stage of development, toddlerhood.

Operant conditioning perspective… healthy development

The above process can be viewed as a process of Operant Conditioning in which the child is “conditioned” by way of repetitive experiences of crying and relief.  If one takes this view, it can be seen that, as with any organism with a brain, the infant child is trained to expect the “operator” (i.e., the mother) to continue this regimen indefinitely (consider the process of infancy to be analogous to the conditioning of a pigeon placed in a Skinner’s Box, or a canine who learns to sit for a morsel of kibble).

Operant conditioning proponents don’t really talk about “trust” as an outcome of the training process, but rather they see this as conditioning or training.  In the animal world, there is no concept of trust; there is only stimulus, response and “learned” survival behaviors.  Animals instinctively respond to their environments according to their natures and genetic loading.  It is primarily within the human mind that the product of this process is known as trust.

Thus, it is possible to conclude that the process of trust development is a process of conditioning, and that the internalization of trust is a result of the mother’s unwavering rewarding of the act of the infant’s crying throughout infancy.

Simply stated, healthy infants are trained to cry; crying brings relief; relief yields trust.

However, as infancy gives way to toddlerhood, this conditioning is interrupted by the advent of refutation.

Healthy Toddlerhood

As noted earlier, the paradoxical outcome of healthy attachment is the experience of separation.  The toddler child, now fully attached and expectant of continued love and sustenance from the mother, begins to venture into the world on two legs that now hold the child upright and mobile.

Toddlerhood can present a conundrum for the mother.  She has to be able to gradually let go of her child so that the child can explore its world, yet mother, at the same time, has to deal with the loss of the pleasure that was experienced with her newborn.    She also is taxed with the newfound stress of having to “chase” after her child for the years remaining before the child goes to school, and she has to learn to tame her child when necessary.

Toddlerhood is a time of recognizing, on the part of the child and the mother, that each is separate from the other.  This recognition takes place over time and most often, and most desirably, takes place in an attitude of love.  The emerging toddler, as an infant, had been conditioned to expect that the act of crying would produce the same results as it had in the past, (i.e., gratification/relief), but things are changing for the toddler, and these changes produce a new kind of pain for the child, i.e., emotional pain.  The experience of emotional pain produces crying, as did physical pain in infancy, and the mother (as well as others who care for the child) must be able to deal with these repeated episodes of crying (and angering) so that the child can learn to tolerate the inner feelings that give rise to the anger which is experienced in the refutation process.

Simply stated, the child expects mother to give in to the crying as she had in the past, when this does not happen, the child will unleash aggression upon the mother.  When mother contains this aggression within an attitude of love without retaliating, abandoning or indulging the child, the child will eventually accept the futility of crying and angering, and  move on to whatever is next.  The incident that precipitated the crying, whatever it was, will have passed and the child’s emotional balance is restored.  The end result of this process (i.e., ongoing aggression toward mother met with compassionate limits) will ultimately produce guilt and a sense of conscience within the child.  The child learns that anger does not beget anger, but rather compassion and containment from the mother.

It is the process of loving refutation that gives rise to formation of the child’s ability to tolerate stress and also gives rise to the formation of the human conscience.  By the time most children are four or five years old, they have learned to accept the basic limits imposed by parents, and have developed some measure of empathy and concern for others.

Effectively, with regard to Operant Conditioning, toddlerhood is the “breaking” of the conditioning that was instilled during infancy.  When this process is healthily achieved, the child goes on to participate in adaptive relationships with peers and adults.  When this process is not healthily achieved, a variety of emotional and psychological consequences can occur.

Reactive Attachment

The gratification of instincts is happiness, but when the outer world lets us starve, refuses us satisfaction of our needs, they become the cause of very great suffering… Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents.

What follows is a likely series of events that unfold for a child who is brought into a world in which he or she is not wanted, appreciated, or loved.  The conclusions set forth are based upon primary suppositions which are based in observations of real life case histories for children with the Reactive Attachment diagnosis.


It is assumed the mother of an unwanted child will tend to her child in a manner wholly different from that of a loving and caring mother.  This mother will grudgingly care for her child; usually she will tend to the child in an effort to “shut the child up.”  This mother will likely ignore her child until the child screams loudly enough to get her attention so that the child can gain relief from whatever need arose (many times, this occasion of gratification is accompanied with physical or emotional abuse). This implies (one can infer) that this is a process of angering to gain attention.  Thus, over time, the child will be conditioned to get angry in order to be noticed.  (It can be noted here that there is a parallel system that will be experienced by a child who is inhibited {i.e., non-aggressive}, a system that promotes lethargy and disinterest on the part of the child; this system is not the focus of this blog.)

Unlike the loved and wanted child, this child has to get angry to simply be noticed.  Thus, the child is learning to trust anger to gain the necessary attention to get basic physical needs met, as well the human need for affiliation.  However, the affiliation is not by way of love and satisfactory attachment, but rather by way of attention from the caretaker in the form of  anger and resentment (i.e., the Reactive Attachment).  This notion helps to explain why these children are willing to settle for any kind of attention, and seem to have no real preference for loving attention.  The child is accustomed (trained) to use anger to get attention (as well as gratification) in return.  By the time the child is removed from his or her biological parent(s), this process of attention getting is well in place.  The child has been trained to be angry; the anger is internalized.

“Reactive” Toddlerhood: The Adoptive Home

If one accepts the above as a typical illustration of what goes on in the infancy of the unwanted child, then what happens in Toddlerhood will be a much different process than is experienced by the well attached child.   Many children are removed from their derelict birth mothers in or around early toddlerhood.  These children suffer, not only the breaking of what little bond had been formed with the birth parent, but an existence which will be marred by the internalized anger noted above.

It is accepted that the adoptive parent adopts a child out of the desire to love and nurture that child.  Yet, in many families, the parent(s) quickly learn that attempts to soothe, mollify and comfort a child by way of gift of love is rejected.  The child does not accept the parent’s efforts to guide and direct, and the parent begins to feel the pain of failure. Now instead of loving containment, the parent resorts to attempts to get the child to conform (often resorting to anger), and child experiences a process of mutual angering with the mother (or other caretakers).  Whereas in the well-loved situation, the crying child is tolerated, accepted and even soothed, the Reactive Attachment situation sees the crying/angering child receiving ever more anger from the caretakers.  Therefore, instead of learning that the mother or caretaker is accepting of and compassionate toward the child when angry, the child learns that the mother or caretakers are hostile and harsh.   The goal of the parent in the RAD situation becomes similar to that of the mother in the original situation: to get the child to stop being a nuisance.

Probably one of the worst aspects of this process is that the child, who is NOT developing in an attitude of love and acceptance, will acquire more anger from the parent(s), and fail to develop a conscience.  This has consequences, not only for the child and his or her adoptive family, but in a larger sense for society as a whole.  For, if the child has no conscience, the resulting adult will have none as well.  If the child learns that he or she has the power to disrupt the emotional balance of the parent(s), the resulting adult will learn to do the same with intimates and peers.   These conclusions are supported in the case studies of persons who find themselves in marital therapy, mental hospitals, jails and prisons.


Reactive Attachment Disorder is prevalent throughout our society and appears to be ever more on the rise.  The increased numbers of mothers of lower socioeconomic backgrounds who become addicted to drugs and alcohol will produce more children with the makings of the disorder.    The more children with the disorder, the more offspring they will produce.

Those who wish to adopt these children as part of their desire to “give back” or “make up for deficits” in their lives should be mindful of the potential for difficult and miserable times ahead of them.  They should endeavor to get expert assistance from therapists and counselors who are familiar with Reactive Attachment in order to gain insight and skills to manage the difficult days ahead of them.

The intent of this blog has been to give a reasonable explanation for the dynamics of the Reactive Attachment situation with regard to anger and aggression toward adoptive parents and temporary caretakers (i.e., foster parents).  It has been posited that healthy infants are trained to cry to gain relief throughout infancy, whereas poorly attached children are trained to use anger and disruptive behaviors to gain attention.  When infants become toddlers they must be “retrained” to not use crying and emotion to get needs met.  The healthy toddler is typically refuted with a loving attitude from parents, and learns to acquiesce to parental wishes.  However, the poorly attached toddler, craving attention and control, experiences caregivers who become frustrated, rejecting, and hostile; thus, establishing the Reactive Attachment.  Initially, these parents and caregivers put themselves in a position to try to “save” these children from doom, but in the end find themselves suffering their own versions of despair in their failed attempts to love and receive love in return.

References and resources:

Object Relations: A Dynamic Bridge Between Individual and Family Treatment, Samuel Slipp, M.D.,  Jason Aronson, 1991 (Paperback edition)

The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, Mahler et al,  Basic Books, Inc, NY,  1975

Hope for High Risk and Rage Filled Children: Reactive Attachment Disorder, Theory and Intrusive Therapy, EC Publications, Evergreen CO,  1992

Principles of Psychology: A Systematic Text in the Science of Behavior
Fred S. Keller; William N. Schoenfeld, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950

Healing the Hurt Child,  Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow, Gregory Keck and Regina Kupecky,  NAVPress, 2002