by Alice Woodrome
"What's best for the child." That's what everyone says they want when there is a custody battle. And in today's world, with fewer intact families and with the added complications of new technology in reproduction, custody battles are becoming more common. Sometimes it can be so confusing to see that "right thing" even when people are trying their best to put the child's welfare ahead of their own rights. I think if more people knew how it effects a child's life to separate him from the caregiver he has known, the easier it would be to do the right thing. In terms of a child's mental health, it matters less who can be the best parent than it does who the child has come to trust. There is a widespread belief that if a child is under two, it matters less, and that a clean break is best. That feeling is tragically incorrect. It actually matters more when the child is very young. Even the law is far behind in recognizing what those in the mental health field know.
I'm talking about a mental condition known as Reactive Attachment Disorder. This well documented and serious disorder occurs in the first two years of life, and is marked by a child's failure to bond with their primary caretaker. The implications in later life can be catastrophic, for them as well as the people they interact with.
Children are at high risk of developing attachment disorder under several circumstances; neglect and abuse, but also sudden separation from their primary caretaker through illness, death, or other reasons. Even if the new caretaker loves them and is a superlative parent, the baby or very young child may not be able to trust enough again to truly bond. They come to believe that the only one they can count on is themselves. Children with attachment disorders have trouble trusting and loving anyone. Loving hurts, and they have been hurt too deeply. Loving must be done on their terms so that they will not be hurt again. They learn to get what they want by manipulation. As they get older they attempt to control everyone and everything in their world. No one gets past their barriers.
Children with the disorder can appear to be incredibly charming, calm, well-adjusted compared to their more normal and exuberant counterparts. They develop an ability to appear very winsome. They can be loving, helpless, lost -- or creative and bright -- whatever serves their needs at the time. When problems arise, strangers, neighbors and even therapists can be fooled. Parents are sometimes believed to be at fault.
And problems do arise. There are often very poor peer relationships, and they can be cruel to both children and animals. Some other symptoms include stealing, hoarding, chronic lying, absence of guilt or remorse, theatrical displays of emotion, denial of accountability, blaming others, and a lack of ability to give or receive affection. Most tragic of all, is that they can become adults without consciences.
Like everything else in the world, this is not a black-or-white issue. A child doesn't either become a well-adjusted adult or a sociopath. There is every shade of gray in between. A child needs to feel secure with their caregiver, and if they do not, there are ramifications that stretch into their adult life to varying degrees. There is no such thing as a clean break for a child under two. To do what's best for the child there needs to be more creative ways of allowing another caregiver into the child's life without breaking the bonds they have already formed.
Read more about Reactive Attachment Disorder here.