Attachment and Maternal Love During Infancy and Childhood

Attachment and Maternal Love During Infancy and Childhood
Rhawn Gabriel Joseph, Ph.D.



Physical, social and emotional interaction and contact during infancy is critically important in physical, neurological, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, social and emotional development. Indeed, babies need their "mamas" and all the love and attendant physical and emotional interaction they can get.

The more an infant is handled and held, the more it is stroked and spoken to, and the greater the visual divergence of their surroundings, the greater will be its resilience and capability to adapt to negative onslaughts and to withstand stressful extremes later in life.

Loving maternal contact promotes psychological development, maximizes emotional stability and will increase a persons overall intellectual capabilities and IQ. Similarly, the more physical interaction received during adulthood, e.g. hugging, touching, the better is one able to cope with crisis and the stresses of every day life.


So great is the need for stimulation that until 6-7 months of age most children will eagerly seek social and physical contact from anyone --the boogey man included. Infants will respond positively and smile at the approach of even complete strangers. If these strangers interact with them or linger nearby in the same room, many children will not only interact and seek attention but will protest if they leave the room. Children need stimulation and any form of separation from even unknown individuals has a negative impact.

Indiscriminate social interaction is not merely a manifestation of friendliness but serves a specific purpose: it maximizes opportunities for social and physical contact and interaction. Like hunger and the desire for food there is a physical drive and hunger for social-physical stimulation.

At about 7 months of age the infant becomes more discriminant in their interactions and it is during this time period that a very real and specific attachment (e.g. to one's mother) becomes progressively more intense and stable. This does not mean that prior to this period mother is not highly important to the infant, but rather maximal social interaction takes precedence during the first critical months of life.

After these specific attachments such as to mother have been formed, most children begin to show anxiety, fear and even flight reactions at the approach of a stranger. By 9 months, 70% of children respond aversively, whereas by 10 months they might cry out if a stranger were to suddenly appear. By one year of age 90% of children respond aversively to strangers. This also serves a purpose for it maximizes the bond with mother and insures that a child who can crawl and maneuver through space does not indiscriminately attach to and wonder off with a stranger.

Thus initially there is indiscriminate approach and contact seeking, behavior driven and motivated by stimulus hunger. Later indiscriminate social contact seeking is inhibited whereas the specific attachments formed with mother or dad are strengthened, reinforced and maintained. The differential rates of development are thus crucial in promoting survival and social interaction with significant others.

These differential rates also reflect the maturation of different nuclei in the limbic system of the brain; the amygdala and septal nuclei. The amygdala, which is quicker to mature drives the infant to seek emotional and physical contact in an indiscriminate fashion. The septal nuclei, which develops and matures later, causes the child to increasingly narrow its responsiveness until just select attachments are maintained.

It is these same nuclei which later in life are involved in the ability to feel love (as well as hate and anger) for a loved one. That is, the limbic system controls the basic aspects of emotion, love, hate, anger, rage, fear, pleasure, as well as biological drives, hunger, thirst and even the capacity to experience orgasm during sex. Because during early in life biological drives can only be satisfied through a primary caretaker, that other limbic emotions also become aroused.

It is these same brain regions which can make a person feel like killing a loved one if they have an affair or decide to end a relationship when the other loved one is still firmly attached and unwilling to let go. That is, if a person who has met primary needs for love, affection and physical intimacy were to leave, or want to end the affair, the limbic system responds in characteristic fashion, with frustration, anger, rage, and overwhelming feelings of unhappiness.

The differential maturation rates of the amygdala and septal limbic brain regions also represent critical time periods that allow for babies to become attached to loved ones, and to respond with love and affection when needs are met. However, the infant and child must experience love and nurturance during this time period, specifically, the presence and care of a primary caretaker, mom, otherwise these limbic structures will not develop and interact normally. If these interactional needs are not met during the critical development period, gross abnormalities can result. Children will lose the ability to form emotional attachments with others.

In other words, if a child is not firmly attached to a mother figure and has been neglected early in life, the ability to form attachments increasingly narrows and then disappears. The child is attached to no one and its ability to form loving attachments later in life is completely attenuated.

This is because cells in the amygdala, not receiving sufficient and appropriate stimulation begin to die and atrophy from disuse; just like a muscle if not used. Hence, the ability to perceive and respond appropriately to emotion and emotional nuances is greatly attenuated.

Indeed, if contact with others is restricted during these early phases, then the ability to successfully socially interact at a later stage of development is retarded. This is even true among the so called lower animals. For example, kittens which are not handled or exposed to humans grow up to be "wild" and unapproachable. Similarly, young children and infants who are separated from their parents and who fail to maintain the mother-child bond and receive necessary stimulation are also affected adversely.


Harlow (1962) in his famous series of experiments with monkeys has shown that those raised in isolation with a wire frame (surrogate "mother") covered with terry cloth as their only companion develop extremely bizarre behaviors which persisted into adulthood. They fail to interact appropriately with others, withdraw when approached, and seem unable to recognize common social gestures or to perceive social emotional nuances. They became socially and emotionally blind and deaf, although they could see and hear without difficulty.

Moreover, not only animals, but even humans raised in conditions where there is inadequate social stimulation develop bizarre self-stimulatory and even self-abusive activities, such as head banging, biting on their skin, pinching themselves until they bleed, or rocking repetitively. That is, being in need of physical contact with others, when this contact is insufficient, children and young animals will engage in repetitive and sometimes abusive self-stimulatory activities. So great is the need for stimulation that when it is lacking they supply it to themselves in an inappropriate manner. Generally this self-stimulation is abusive as if the infant were punishing itself for being unloved. According to Harlow:

"The laboratory monkeys sit in their cages and stare fixedly into space, circle their cages in a repetitive stereotyped manner and clasp their heads in their hands or arms and rock for long periods of time. They often develop compulsive habits, such as pinching precisely the same patch of skin on their chest between the same fingers hundreds of times a day; occasionally such behavior may become punitive and the animal may chew and tear at its body until it bleeds" (p. 138).

It is noteworthy that the maternal behavior of chimpanzees raised in isolation is also quite abnormal. That is, because they were not mothered they in turn never developed the capacity to be a mother and to care for their own infants. If mothering is not observed or experienced, the ability to be an adequate mother disappears completely. As described by Harlow (1965, pp. 256-257, 259):

"After the birth of her baby, the first of these un-mothered mothers ignored the infant and sat relatively motionless at one side of the cage, staring fixedly into space hour after hour. As the infant matured desperate attempts to effect maternal contact were consistently repulsed...

Other motherless monkeys were indifferent to their babies or brutalized them, biting off their fingers or toes, pounding them, and nearly killing them until caretakers intervened. One of the most interesting findings was that despite the consistent punishment, the babies persisted in their attempts to make maternal contact."

So intense is the need for physical and social contact that young animals raised in isolation without their natural mothers will form attachments not only to bare wire frames but to television sets, to dogs that might maul them, to creatures that might eat them and among humans, to mothers that might abuse them.

Children can have parents that beat them, burn them with cigarettes and break their bones, and yet these children will crawl after these parents in search of love and physical-emotional contact. Although the possibility may occur to them that their mother or father is deranged and quite sick, biologically so great is the need for love and physical affection that what is most important is that they maintain contact with their parents. Abusive stimulation is better than no stimulation at all.

Hence, infants and young children will do whatever is necessary, even suffer severe abuse in order to maintain the bond with their mothers and fathers. However, because the need for physical contact and love persists well beyond infancy, even older children subjected to this kind of abuse still persist in attempting to get attention from mom. This is why children will even go to great lengths to annoy mom or dad, and suffer a scolding, spanking or worse; this is the price they are willing to pay for attention, and negative attention is better than none at all.

Moreover, even children who are severely abused will persist in attempting to get some affection from mom or dad. Although they are capable of reflecting on what is occurring to them, their emotional needs predominate; feeling remain all encompassing. Thus they if they feel bad, it is because they are bad, if they are being beat it is because they are bad and deserve to be beat, if they are unloved it is because they are unlovable, there is nothing wrong with their parent, there is something wrong with them.


Contact Comfort, be it negative or positive, so long as it is in the form of physical and emotional contact is in fact a necessity for the continuation of life. For human beings, so pervasive is this need for physical interaction and stimulation that when grossly reduced or denied, the result is often death.

If an infant is only infrequently handled or cuddled a condition refereed to as marasmus results: that is, the infant does not merely develop bizarre behavior, it will die -- a condition frequently noted in foundling homes and orphanages early in this and throughout the last century.

For example, in several well known studies of children raised in foundling homes during the early 1900's when the need for contact was not well recognized and children were left to lie alone in their cribs (except during feeding or when being changed), the majority died. Morbidity rates for children less than 1 year of age was over 70%. Of 10,272 children admitted to the Dublin Foundling home during a single 25 year period, only 45 survived.

Of those who survived an infancy spent in institutions where mothering and contact comfort were minimized, signs of low intelligence, depression, extreme passivity, apathy, as well as severe attentional deficits were often characteristic . Such individuals had difficulty forming attachment or maintaining social interactions later in life and were forever abnormal and dysfunctional.

This is because the limbic cells that mediate emotion, attachment and the need to survive failing to be utilized die and drop out. "If you don't use it you lose it" is an important motto for the brain and nervous system. Thus the ability to associate in an emotionally meaningful manner with others is compromised.

Psychological association is also the means of self-discovery and when deprived of association during infancy the development of the Self also suffers. Children are not only unable to relate appropriately to others they do not know who they are.

Moreover, the actual growth and development of the brain is effected. Infants, be they human or animal, when reared in conditions where there is little physical or social interaction and minimal sensory input and a paucity of variety of novelty, have brains which are grossly abnormal. The neocortex is thinner, neurons and cells in the brain are smaller, and there are in fact fewer nerve cells and fewer interconnections between cells as compared to those reared in normal or enriched environments. This is because, at a biological level there must be stimulation, for if you do not use it, you lose it and among those who use it they not only maintain it, they strengthen it; like a muscle.


Even with adequate physical contact and stimulation the loss or lack of loving interaction can exert deleterious effects, even if occurs later in development due to death or divorce. As stated by Bowlby who studied children who were at first raised normally and then institutionalized because of severe illness and/or the death of their mothers, noted that such children are terribly scarred emotionally:

"The emotional tone of such a child is one of apprehension and sadness, there is withdrawal from the environment tantamount to rejection of it, there is no attempt to contact a stranger and no brightening if this stranger contacts him. Activities are retarded and the child often sits or lies inert in a dazed stupor. Insomnia is common and a lack of appetite universal. Weight is lost and the child becomes prone to recurrent infections."

According to Bowlby a mother-substitute must be introduced at the earliest possible instant so as to offset the effects of maternal separation, but certainly within the first year of life. However, the loss of mothering during the first five years has the most serious effects on the child even if the child is separated then returned to the mother. The greater the length of separation during the first five years, be it due to death, divorce, or illness, the more profound the negative influences on emotional development. However, these effects have progressively less severe effects as the child ages beyond age 5.

Separation does not need to be prolonged for these severe emotional changes to occur. However, the longer the separation or the longer the neglect, the more severe is the disturbance. Children who are denied strokes and/or are neglected or separated from their parents can demonstrate severe emotional reactions which in turn correspond with the length and severity of the separation.

Almost all infants and children become upset, angry and will cry when they are separated or neglected. However, if the absence last longer than a few days (as it certainly will with death or sometimes with divorce) the crying will quickly dissipate to be replaced by what appears to be despair and hopelessness as well as a seething rage sometimes accompanied by tantrums and episodes of violence. Essentially the limbic system is running amok.

If prolonged even longer the chid will begin to detach and even if the parent reappears the ability to reform attachments will be severely compromised the child reacting as if indifferent or with such clinging force that any attempt for the parent to leave will stimulate extreme rage and anxiety, even if gone for but a few moments. Such children, even if the absence was temporary, often feel like striking back to get even for their hurt...a desire to strike which remains present within the Unconscious Child as he grows to adulthood.


Although all infants need love and physical stimulation, not all babies are equally responsive and some in fact react as if social interaction,. even with mom, is almost undesirable. And yet, these seemingly unresponsive children need physical stimulation and love as much if not even more so than those who seem to crave it.

Basically and broadly speaking their are 3-types of babies: Those who love and actively seek cuddling and who make lots of face to face eye contact ("The Easy Child"), those who do not seem to enjoy and even avoid cuddling and who squirm, cry, or turn away ("The Difficult Child"), and those who fluctuate between these two extremes ("The Slow to Warm Up Child"). These 3-types in turn can directly influence the type of mothering they receive.

Similarly, there are corresponding types of mothers. Those who love to cuddle and hold their infants, those who derive little or no satisfaction from such behaviors and those who fluctuate in their desire or inclination to engage in cuddling vs non-cuddling. Actually, there is also a fourth type, those who derive pleasure from abusing their children. Some people in fact have children only for the purpose of having a victim they can abuse or sexually exploit. Nevertheless, for the sake of brevity, let us consider in the ensuing discussion only those children and mothers who fall within two broad categories: cuddlers and non-cuddlers.


A mother who loves to cuddle is motivated to pick up and hug a baby regardless of the manner in which it may be initially responding to her. If the infant is lying alone and quiet, or actively smiling and cooing, this type of mother is going to interact and hold this baby. She does this because she enjoys it and because it meets her own needs to cuddle.

Not surprisingly, a mother who loves to cuddle and who has a child who loves to be held and is highly responsive to mothers presence and touch is going to give her child a maximal amount of stimulation. The mother and baby in fact reinforce and reward one another when engaged in this type of interaction. The baby will smile, cling and nuzzle, and stare into mothers eyes and this will make mama feel good. Because she is rewarded she is motivated to repeatedly hold and interact with her baby. Consequently the growth, health and psychological, emotional stability and development of the infant will be maximized.


If a mother who loves to cuddle has a baby who seems to respond in an indifferent or even aversive manner to touch, she will still pick up and hold her baby, although it is not as rewarding and although the infant seems to prefer to be left alone. However, because the infant is not responsive, interaction with it is not going to be as satisfying or rewarding and hence she will not be as motivated to interact with it. In fact, by the baby's negative reaction she will begin to be motivated to not hold it as much as she is normally predisposed to do so. Particularly in that the infant seems to prefer being left alone. As a consequence, the non-cuddler baby will be stimulated but not as much as a baby who loves to cuddle. However, what it receives will probably be adequate for the cuddler mom is going to hold it rather the baby likes it or not.


A woman who does not derive considerable enjoyment from prolonged or frequent physical interaction with a baby will generally do what is necessary to be a good mom. She will feed, cloth, and nurture her infant and then put it down.

If such a mother has a baby who loves to cuddle she is likely to hold and touch it more so than she might really desire, simply because the baby is so responsive and seems to enjoy it so much. However, this baby will not receive as much stimulation as a similar baby with a mom who loves to cuddle. Even so, by its reactions it will probably receive an adequate amount of stimulation, but not as much as it desires.

A non-cuddler mother will also tend to stroke a cuddler infant simply because he responds so overwhelmingly positively when it occurs. Because mom is rewarded by her actions she will be encouraged to continue responding in this fashion.


Babies who are at risk for receiving insufficient physical and emotional stimulation are those who do not seem to enjoy being held and cuddled and who have mothers with a similar temperment. A non-cuddler mother coupled with a non-cuddler infant is likely to produce drastically negative results for neither responds positively and both are satisfied to be left alone. Of course, biologically the child still needs its strokes and will suffer accordingly because few are forthcoming.

In the extreme the infant will be left to lie alone in its crib and conditions such as were formerly maintained in foundlings homes earlier in this century will be imposed. Such children, of course will be severely effected and emotional, psychological, and even physical development and the infants health will be adversely affected.

Most non-cuddler mothers are not this inattentive, however. Even when such a mother notes that the child will cry and fuss when being held and seems content only when left alone, most will still interact with it to some degree, and/or it will receive other forms of contact from relatives, siblings, or dad when he comes home. In this regard, few infants are probably exposed to conditions such as those imposed by Harry Harlow with his baby monkeys.

Nevertheless, although a non-cuddler mother will offer some stroking to her baby while it is an infant regardless of his or her degree or responsiveness, once he or she has grown beyond the infant stage and is no longer in need of being babied (or so his non-cuddler mother thinks) stroking and positive physical interaction will by and large cease. For example, once the baby can walk and feed itself mother will feel she has done her duty and will resume her non touchy feeling ways. This will be the case even if her child loves to be held and cuddled and constantly seeks it well beyond infancy. The baby will continue seeking contact because the need for stroking remains just as intense for the first few years of life and as such, a baby in this predicament will feel intense cravings for this interaction and will therefor feel intensely deprived if not rejected and abandoned.

Moreover, the non-cuddler mother who has a baby who in her mind is no longer a baby but continues to implore her for attention will likely to respond with irritation. "Stop bothering me!" "Quit acting like a baby!" "Can't you see I'm busy?" "Leave me alone!" If she continues to be "pestered" for love and attention, this type of mother is also likely to begin responding in a punitive fashion, striking, yelling, or even locking the child in its room.

When placed in this predicament even non-cuddlers who are subjected to a mother who is cold, unloving and aloof, will begin to feel hurt, frustrated, rejected, angry and "not OK". Moreover, in some ways, non-cuddler mothers can be worse than those who occasionally behave in an abusive or unstable manner, or mother who are alcoholics or even psychotic. That is, even a mother who beats her child continues to interact with them and although haphazard when mother is sober or less flagrantly psychotic, may still show her child love.

Nevertheless some children who ceases to get positive or negative strokes from their mother or father will eventually cease to seek stroking from this and other authority figures. Although when they get older they may realize that mom or dad are "not OK", having never received love they may consciously or more likely, unconsciously conclude that no one can give them love. From the childs viewpoint, adults, parents, and authority figures do not give love and do not offer stroking and are therefore not-OK. The child thus views him or herself as not OK and all others are viewed similarly. Unfortunately, even when offered genuine stroking or love it will be avoided as phony or suspect and the person offering will be rejected.


Children who have parents who were always too busy and thus tended to neglect and ignore them create an environment which is just as abusive as those homes where they children are screamed at and beat. Worse, since the critical need for social, emotional, and physical interaction and intimacy are absent, the child is consequently impaired. Many children raised in homes where they are neglected consequently lose the ability to feel close to others, to give or receive love, and to feel worthwhile as a person.

Sometimes parents are neglectful without being aware of it. Indeed, they may be preoccupied with earning a living so as to maintain a beautiful home for their children, and then be preoccupied with social or other responsibilities, such as PTA, the Girl Scouts, etc., behaviors which In their mind make them good and caring parents.

However, sometimes these types of parental behaviors are motivated by unconscious intentions and are designed to ward off closeness which the parent feels uncomfortable with. Thus being at PTA is a convenient excuse for not being home hugging and loving their children.

This can be confusing to older children for at an unconscious level they may feel neglected while simultaneously consciously acknowledging that there parents must be good since they are involved in these activities. Very young children, however, are in fact presented only with a void, their ability to consciously appreciate the "good" intentions of their parents being poorly developed. Insofar as they are concerned, mom or dad are not home and this does not feel good. Unfortunately, such children who express these feelings are usually told they are being selfish or that their feelings are totally unjustified. Hence, they not only feel neglected and bad, but guilty as well.

Neglect can also occur when the parents are home but busy with other things and communicates to their children, on a verbal or non-verbal level, their need to be left alone. This may occur by a look, a sigh, grimace, head or body movement, and tone of voice. Of course, the child will feel badly, guilty and needy. Even if the parent is truly terribly busy the child may infer that he or she is unimportant and what they say and feel is of no consequence. These feelings are amplified only further when parents fail to interact with them, fail to answer their questions, ask them to be quiet, or if their parents constantly interrupt the child when he or she is trying to share something, etc.

Children of such parents, may in fact not be consciously aware that they were neglected as what they remember is the nice clothes, the nice house, the good food, the good opinion others held of their family, etc. For these children what is missing is love. Unfortunately it is terribly difficult for a child (or even an adult) to recognize an absence, or to realize something is missing when they were never exposed to it in the first place.

However, what the child does experience is an internal void. They tend to become numb and empty, lacking in importance or self-worth. They also become aware that their feelings are not important to others.

Children who are neglected, abused, rejected, not sufficiently cuddled, or who feel overwhelming "not OK", never get over these feelings. They remain non-verbalized and stored away in the emotional confines of the right half of the brain. However, because these feelings, although negative, are also the norm, they are also familiar.

Consequently, later in life they will seek out mates or situations where the familiar neglect and abuse they experienced as children can be re-experienced, maintained or provoked. Not surprisingly, their feelings of anger at the rejecting parent might also be expressed, now that they are "big". Unfortunately, it will be expressed at lovers, husbands, wives, and possibly their own children.


Many children who have lost a parent through death, or who have been adopted are not only emotionally impaired but they tend to create an idealized image of their lost mother or father, endowing them with unrealistic qualities and abilities, and an unlimited capacity to love and make things right, to save them from the misfortunes of every day life...even when the adopted child has extremely loving and supportive step-parents.

Sometimes the formation of idealized parents prevents the formation of close loving relationships with step-parents and with members of the opposite sex. That is, for the orphaned female who reaches adulthood, all the men she meets may seem shallow, not sufficiently brave, and thus fall far short of the knight in shining armor that their dead father was presumed to be; against such standards no man will prevail and will always be a disappointment and thus rejected. Similarly a man may spend his adult life searching for the idealized, saintly, ever loving and giving mother that he never had and thus create standards that no woman can meet.


A child who is raised by a "mommy" who did not want to touch him and was always too busy, the child without a father or a mother, the child who is adopted, the child who loses a parent or their parents due to death, the child who was given to their grandparents because mother worked and dad disappeared before they were born, all share a common emotional reaction, the unconscious feeling of being rejected and abandoned.

Infants and children cannot reason like adults as their psyche is governed by the immediacy of emotion. The child who loses his parents knows only that mommy and daddy are gone, and they feel abandoned, unloved, and unlovable. Emotionally they question, "why did this happen to me" and the answer is because something must be "wrong with me".

The child who grows up without his father can only sense that if daddy loved me he wouldn't have left me. He is not here because he does not want to be with me. He does not want to be with me because he does not like/love me. He does not like/love me because I am not likable/lovable. The overwhelming unconscious sense is that of being rejected and feeling different.

The child who is raised by a mother who actively disliked cuddling and physical interaction gives an unmistakable message of rejection to her child. It could not be more plane or direct: I do not like to touch you. I do not like you to touch me. I do not like you close to me. I am repelled by your presence. The message that reverberates forever through this child's psyche is that: "I do not like you...I do not like you....I DO NOT LOVE YOU!"

What makes this even worse is that many children feel responsible for the neglect or the loss of their parent. Because they feel badly, they feel they are bad. Mommy or daddy don't want me near them or have gone away because "I am bad" and they do not love "me". Sometimes they then conjure up self-incriminating explanations for the neglect or absence and thus feel guilty for behavior that they are unconsciously sure drove mom or dad away.

Many children of course also feel angry. Unfortunately, this anger usually is turned back upon themselves as depression as its expression toward mom or dad (even if they are absent) is simply too frightening and dangerous. Mommy and daddy represent everything, the entire world.

Even if a parent were to die, many young children feel responsible for their own seeming abandonment. Although mommy or daddy died the real reason they are no longer there is because of something they, the child must have done.

Similarly, if the child has a parent who physically abuses them, the child feels it is their fault and that mom or dad must have good reason for mistreating them. It is impossible for them to conceive of the possibility that mommy or daddy are dangerous and deranged. That is, they feel they are beat because they are bad.

Divorce, drug addiction, alcoholism, and the loss of the parent (even if incomplete or due to drugs or alcohol) often engenders similar feelings, particularly in that the child feels that they are in some way responsible and may have been able to do something to prevent it. If they only had been more good and not so bad...if only they would have cleaned their room, not made so much noise, picked up their toys...then mommy or daddy would not have gone away. Never mind mommy and daddy fought like wild animals. Every yelled word, every threat, every scream might as well have been directed directly at them so keenly do children feel and respond to their parents. Their parents are truly their entire world.

However, one need not undergo the trauma of losing a parent or being adopted in order to feel that one is different and that there is something wrong with us. For very early in life each child is taught that what he or she is is not OK. This is a natural part of being brought up. Every child is told "No!", no matter how spoiled and pampered they are. Every child is thwarted in their desires and at one time or another feels badly if not humiliated because they are children and not adults. What child has not thought at least once: "Just wait until I get big", or, "I'll never treat my kids the way you treat me".


Although some children may at an early age begin to sense that perhaps their parents are also not OK, this is largely a function of resentment and frustration due to irritation at being thwarted in one's desires and punished. In this regard the parent is viewed as an obstacle.

By and large the ability to recognize that mom or dad are "not OK" does not arise until later in childhood when linguistic processing begins to dominant conscious psychic functioning (at about age 4-6). It is also at this point that children begin to be exposed to the parents and families of their friends and are able to make comparisons. They also begin to develop the concept of whats "fair", even if what seems unfair is in fact a product of natural childish selfishness.

In addition, the older child who continues to be beat, neglected, or otherwise abused, although certainly feeling that they are "not OK", also may begin to unconsciously sense that mother or father is also Not-OK; simply because their need to invest in her good self-image is diminished and he has little to lose via this conclusion. For most children, however, the ability to consciously recognize that mom or dad are "sick" and "not good people" is extremely difficult.

Prior to age 4-6, even at an unconscious level the parent might be feared but it is nevertheless viewed as the source from which love and the security of the familiar originated. If they are being mistreated, neglected, abused, the child assumes emotional responsibility for what occurs. They want and need mom and dad to love them; and if abuse is the price of love, then so be it. Besides, for the child who is abused or other wise mistreated, this in effect is normal as they have no means for making comparisons. Mom and dad are all powerful and the source of all things. In this sense, the child sees his parents as the standard by which their own self image arises and in this regard, whereas the child may begin to increasingly feel that there is something wrong with them selves, they continue to view their parent as God-like and flawless. Mommy and daddy are OK, but I'm not.

That is, for the child, what is observed is registered as normal. This is the way things are and not having other models for comparison, what is experienced is accepted as the only form of reality and the only manner of interacting. Although painful and frightening, it is normal and accepted as such because the masters of the universe, the source of all our security, the people who hold the power of life and death over us and whom we desperately wish to please have told us so.

Moreover, this unconscious internal tape recording cannot be erased on modified. These experiences form the core of our being and the foundations upon which we build our life and identity. We cannot kill the core or destroy the foundation or core of our being no more than we can rip out our own heart and lungs and expect to live. Consequently it is available for replay throughout our life.

Nevertheless, the child who loses a parent due to death, divorce, or separation, and the child who is neglected and/or given to others for part-time rearing (such as their grandparents), all suffer from lack of contact comfort. Although not in any way, shape or form, do they suffer as Harlow's monkeys, or infants reared in foundling homes, the stability of their own psychological and emotional development is negatively impacted. Consequently, social and emotional functioning will be adversely affected later in life as well, including their ability to form and maintain stable relationships and marriages.


Children need to feel as if they are loved and protected by their parents. Parents who are rejecting and who withhold love are in effect punishing their children for having normal needs. The child is taught that not only is he/she not worthy of love, but that their needs for love and support may in fact be abnormal as well.

Children who are severely neglected often become later in life extremely needy or very cold and self-controlled. Often the extremely needy individual develops an unconscious attitude that seems to cry out: "My needs are so deep and so painful, I will do whatever is necessary to meet them." However, these same extremely needy individuals may develop an attitude similar to their very cold counterparts: i.e. "if my needs for love are unimportant then the needs of others are similarly worthless and of no consequence." Both groups, however, fear and are convinced they will be rejected and that their needs will never be met.

Hence, such individuals may respond to others with extreme neediness and may frequently request proof that their partners love them. However, no proof is every good enough and they nevertheless fail to meet the needs of their mates because their partners needs are not only seen as unimportant, but also because they view their mates as possible sources of rejection. That is, although they may request love, they may try to hurt the person who they need it from because they wish to punish all sources who potentially represent the rejecting parent.

In many cases of emotional neglect and starvation the individual will seek the constant attentions and reassurance of their mate or spouse and sometimes will even drive them away so insatiable are their demands and their hunger for love. However, from a bad needs perspective, what they are often trying to accomplish is the resurrection of the familiar rejection they experienced as a child. They need to drive away their spouse because they need confirmation of their badness. Besides, often the anxiety of waiting for the rejection they are sure is to come will make them angry and irritable and blow up at the slightest trifle thus inadvertently driving away those they love and need. Yet others, however, will take the attitude: "I'll reject you before you reject me" and will consistently respond in a cold, uncaring manner.

Jeff was brought up in an emotionally volatile household where his mother and father fought viciously and incessantly, but who stayed together out of religious conviction. Indeed, his parents seemed not only to hate each other but to resent him. Hence, they would abuse him verbally when they were not at each others throats. He was often called a variety of names and made to feel that he was the cause of their difficulties as well.

Jeff, however, seemingly withstood these onslaughts by becoming tough, sarcastic, aloof with a caustic tongue, arrogant manner and elitist attitudes. At an early age he decided his parents were "not OK" and he developed deep seated feelings of hatred for them both. However, this hatred masked a fear of rejection and he dealt with this by being extremely rejecting. If someone did not measure up to his standards they were deemed unworthy of his attention. Indeed, as he himself admitted, his motto could have been summed up as : "I'll reject you before you reject me."

Yet underlying these facade was a desperate need for approval and affection. However, because of his early experiences with rejection he had extreme difficulty maintaining a relationship. His typical mode of interacting was to pick up a woman, have sex with her a few times, and then usually discard her as she did not meet his standards for a long term relationship.

However, when on a few occasions he met a woman whom he found very attractive and desirable the relationship also tended to end quickly and badly. For at one level he tended to distrust their interest in him as he was sure (unconsciously) that once they got to know him they would leave. He would thus almost immediately begin to test them searching for any slights or hints of rejection and simultaneously demanding reassurance in the form of constant attention and companionship.

As he stated it, "either I wants it all or I want nothing at all" However, inevitably he would put these woman off as his demands for love and attention seemed insatiable. Moreover, when they would acquiesce to his demands, he would often treat them with contempt or in a sarcastic or rude or uncaring manner.

Nevertheless, he would call them everyday, sometimes several times a day, asked them to come by or to go out on an almost daily basis and then seemed irritable and angry when they were not so inclined or had made other plans or even when they complied which of course put some of them off. That he seemed so starved for love also seemed disagreeable to many of these woman as what had attracted them was his facade of strength and stability. hence, his tremendous insecurity and the pressures to be with him and/or reassure him quickly would become disagreeable and they would attempt to cool down their relationship or he would end the relationship, usually with a highly critical harangue and name calling.

For Jeff, his need for love and his inability to accept love would usually guarantee the destruction of his relationship, and almost always it was he who would burn all bridges. Ultimately he did not feel worthy of love and in effect by testing and demanding would force a woman to reject him in some manner so that he could say goodbye and lash out in rage and hostility.


Sometimes the experience of neglect renders a child (and later the adult) inordinately concerned with the feelings of others ( or so it seems) and/or lacking in the ability to make emotional contact with others such that all relationships are superficial and unrewarding and short-lived. In the first instance, those who are inordinately concerned with others are trying to elevate their own sense of worthiness by being a helper, rescuer, or by making others dependent on them. They also feel they must go the extra mile to earn that love which they have never received and are so starved for.

In the second instance, emotional contact is avoided because they know at an unconscious level, that no one can care about them. Hence, superficial relationships serve a specific purpose, the avoidance of rejection.

Sometimes the rescuer harbors both sets of feelings. That is, they know no one can care about them so they form relationships based on their supposed ability to care about the other person. However, when a person feels unworthy of love and attention, then at an unconscious level they know that the love and attention they offer others is worthless as well. It is partly for this reason that it is offered so freely, the love and caring they offer is often hallow and without basis.

Sometimes these people who are raised by emotionally distant, non-cuddler, neglecting or rejecting parents, are so needy yet feel so undeserving of love that they give of themselves quite freely in hopes of someday receiving the love that they lack. However, what is free is often perceived by others as being without value and many rescuers or those who love and give to much of themselves often end up being taken advantaged of.

Unfortunately, these giving/loving individuals usually seek out individuals who offer only the familiar rejection experienced during childhood. They seek people who will use and then discard them so that all their bad feelings can temporarily be released and/or be fully re-experienced. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Women and men raised by neglecting parents, may endlessly begin and end relationships as they seek something that is missing (love) and failing to find, recognize, or accept it, move on to the next person after person in rapid succession or instead accept self-imposed isolation. Often such people have no close friends and end up in marriages where they do not love their spouse and feel forever emotionally unattached, neglected or subtly abused. What happens, however, is that even when love and attention is offered it cannot be accepted because the Unconscious Child requires that the familiar neglect of the past be maintained. The familiar emptiness prevents the formation of a close, fulfilling relationship. Some people can't even accept compliments as they are so unfamiliar that they strike the person as unreal and/or "bullshit". Moreover, even when genuine often such people lack the capacity to recognize real love and affection as they have no basis upon which to measures it.

If we have not been loved as children, we don't feel loveable and even the capacity to love one's self if diminished. If we cannot love ourselves, then we cannot accept the love of others, nor can we love them. That is, if I cannot love myself and feel worthless, anyone coming along and saying they love me will be perceived as a liar, a fool, or somebody who is even more worthless than myself. Moreover, we can't truly behave in a loving manner if we have never been loved.


In some cases of severe emotional neglect what is sought during adulthood is constant mothering and/or the opportunity to be a baby or child so as to get that love which was never there. Among men however, these unconscious yearnings can be extremely frightening if not unacceptable.

Because of these unconscious feelings, a child raised in such a fashion may upon reaching adulthood react in an aloof manner suggesting that he not only does not need love but that it is undesirable. As such if presented with the opportunity to have a close nurturing relationship he will struggle to escape. The aloofness and coldness will inevitably destroy any love and warmth he may receive from a partner. Indeed, the need for mothering may be so intense and the desire to be taken care of as a baby may be so troubling that a person must exert tremendous energy to hide and restrict these needs.

Women are no so greatly troubled by these desires for the need to be taken care of is more acceptable to a woman's self image. Among men, if these needs were expressed they may shake the whole foundations as to what he feels a man must be.

Nevertheless, both men and women may restrict these feelings and keep these needs simmering at an unconscious level because of the deep conviction that the kind of love they desire will not be forthcoming anyway because the Unconscious Child knows they do not deserve it.

Among women this need for mothering may also take the form of aloofness in which case they may seem cold, hard, distant, and insensitive. Like Harlow's monkeys, even their abilility to mother and nurture their own children may be effected such that the neglect they experienced is now being experienced by their own children. They become non-cuddlers, or worse, purposefully abusive or over-protective (which is a form of abuse).

Others, however, may hungrily seek love and affection, giving themselves willingly to others. Often, such needs are at first sexualized as these women initially abandon themselves to sexual intimacy with various partners but then later after they have established a relationship they may reject sex in place of mothering; their complaint to their spouse being: "Why can't you just hold me?" and their spouse replying: "Thats all you ever want is to be held. Whats wrong with sex?"

Nothing is wrong with sex, these ladies think, its just that they want to be babied, mothered and caressed. Unfortunately, such individuals are unable to contribute much to a relationship as they are predominantly needy and have little idea as to how to return love nor how to receive it except in regard to infantile desires. Often such desires may turn out to be insatiable as the void they have experienced is so deep that it cannot be filled. When this occurs or when their demands for babying or love are not fulfilled they may quickly move on to the next possibility.

Indeed, such women (or men) may seem overly promiscuous so great is their need for nurturance. The IDfant aspect of their psyche demands: "I want it now," whereas the Parental ego/personality having made only a meager impressions responds "I don't have it to give." Because the need is so great whereas the Parental response is so weak, the IdDfant ego/personality comes to the fore and exerts predominance in regard to this aspect of psychic functioning. The Parental ego/personality (or conscience) offers little controlling restraint and the person impulsively throws themselves into one relationship after another and/or sexualizes every encounter so as to maximize the reception of the physical intimacy they so desperately need and desire..

Indeed, one such woman, Mary, was so needy, that although she was engaged to be married she was maintaining sexual relations with several other men and had had affairs with several of her husband to be's friends as well. She did not do this to be mean or cruel (at least not consciously; although unconsciously she was probably playing "pay back time") it was just that anyone who offered her "affection", who acted as if she was attractive, worthwhile and desirable was enormously appealing to her, although the affection is in truth was often nothing more than a base desire to "get laid".

And what about conscience? Having never formed a close relationship, never having been loved and thus capable of love, and being only concerned with her own needs, the needs of others was so unfamiliar that although in the abstract Mary may have realized that what she was doing was wrong she had little or no feelings of remorse and in fact felt nothing.

Moreover, at an unconscious level, Mary was not merely meeting the needs of the IDfant, but was allowing the Child ego/personality aspect of her psyche to retaliate against her parents and the Parent (nurturing) figure provided by her future husband was a convenient surrogate for the expression of these emotions. Besides, since her parents never cared what she did in that they neglected her, then any concerns that her husband might have were equally meager in significance.

Copyright: 1996, 2000, 2010, 2018 - Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.