Living with unpredictable parents…


My Family Background

I lived with my birth-mother and step-father in a three bedroom house, along with my two younger sisters. My sisters and I all had the same biological father; although we did not have contact with him. My sister K (the next eldest child) suffered from severe epilepsy and as a result had complex care needs, My other sister was still a baby. Only K and I were taken into the care system, my other sister remained with my birth-mother and step-father who later had three children of their own. Due to K’s medical conditions we were unable to stay together in the care system; I was placed within a foster family, and K was placed in a residential unit.

My birth mother was a short, stocky woman with dark eyes and short dark hair; she often wore dark eye shadow and blood-red lipstick that would stain her front teeth. She had a cold, malicious aura and a spiteful stare that would make my heart stop beating. My step-father was slightly taller than my birth-mother; he had short dark hair and dark, weary eyes. He wore gold hooped-earrings in his left ear and numerous gold chains around his neck and on his wrists. His hands were covered in gold sovereign rings, and he had a gold canine tooth. His arms, legs and neck were drowned in tattoos and he spoke with a deep cockney accent. He was a heavy smoker and had a quick temper. I was petrified of both of them; they were abusive and hostile and their presence made my heart race. They resembled ticking time bombs and with nowhere to hide I would cower in the corner waiting for one of them to explode.

My attachment behaviour

In attachment terms, my relationship with my birth-mother and step-father was somewhat disorganised (Main and Hesse, 1990). If ever I was in need or distressed and craving the comfort of an attachment figure I would be met with a leather belt, wooden spoon, rolling pin or any other object that was in reach. This would only escalate my level of distress and would leave me feeling alone and anxious. Howe (2005) suggests that abusive parents feel stressed as a result of being faced with the needs of their child, and they are likely to become disorganised and out-of-control. They had not adopted a strategy in which to deal with their own or my arousal resulting in an outburst of hostile behaviour. As time went on I recognised several factors that triggered their aggressive behaviour. If either K or I cried, tried to talk to them or wandered too close to them, they would react in an aggressive manner; thus suggesting it was in fact our attachment behaviour that caused their violent outbursts.

Interestingly, reflecting Pianta, Egeland and Erikson’s (1989) findings on the cycle of maltreatment, my birth-mother had been neglected and my step-father had been abused during their childhoods. My step-father grew up in the care system as a result of abuse, and his younger sister had died at the hands of her abusers. I assume these to be ‘unresolved trauma’s’ which compromised their ability to parent us. By activating our attachment systems, my sister and I would also activate their attachment system thus causing their arousal. Consequently, this activated their earlier unresolved attachment trauma, which left them feeling disorganised and distressed and led them to have a hostile outburst (Howe, 2005; Atkinson and Goldberg, 2004). My birth-mother and step-fathers behaviour resembled what Lyons-Ruth, Bronfman and Atwood’s (1999) call ‘Negative-Intrusive Behaviour’, they would often inflict pain on me, followed by teasing or laughing and had I cried they would hastily snatch my ear and pull me towards them before pushing me away again; they continually attempted to humiliate me.

As I grew older, it became evident that my desire to be cared for was causing me more harm than good and I began to adopt strategies to protect myself. When both my birth-mother and step-father were at home, I had no choice other than to comply with their every demand. I became withdrawn and was constantly on guard; whenever possible I would avoid contact with them in the hope to reduce the risk of triggering an outburst. This type of behaviour can be compared to Crittenden and DiLalla’s (1988) Compulsive Compliance; in order to avoid an abusive outburst I would be highly compliant, and constantly re-evaluating and anticipating their mood.

When my step-father went out and my birth-mother was left at home with us, my behaviour appeared to change. I would talk down to her and challenge everything she said; this was the time that I was able to get everything that K and I needed, such as food (which I would often hide). One day, my step-father had to go away overnight, so I used this to my advantage. I managed to trick my birth-mother in going out into the back garden and I immediately locked her out of the house. I left her there and went and made something for K and I to have for dinner, I carried K down from her bedroom to the living room and we sat and watched ‘Beauty and the Beast’ all the while my birth-mother remained in the garden. Once it had finished I gave K a bath and put her to bed then eventually let my birth-mother back into the house, saying ‘that will teach you for being naughty’. Crittenden and Claussen (2000) refer to such behaviour as Compulsive Self-Reliance; it was this type of behaviour that became most apparent when I entered the care system. I would not allow adults to care for me; I did not trust them, so instead I continued to look out for myself. This was one of the main challenges my foster carers faced when trying to help me overcome my past traumas:

“Attachment trauma damages the safety-regulating system and undermines the traumatized person’s capacity to use relationships to establish a feeling of security”

(Allen, 2001: 22)

These behaviours allowed me to survive until help came.

One thought on “Living with unpredictable parents…

  1. Thank you for writing this piece. It was very brave and honest. I understood a lot of what you were saying from my own experiences and my heart wept for what you and your sister went through. As an adult I still find it hard to ask for help after learning that seeking help meant being forever in my parents debt and to have it brought up at every opportunity, not very pleasantly either . The wounds take a long time to heal but those coping systems kept you safe for a very long time. I see those attachment systems triggered in my adopted daughter particularly who will push me to my extremes to check out how safe she is. Reading your post has reminded me that her attachment systems could be triggering mine as well. Thank you for that. I will read more of your blog with interest to see how things are now with you. Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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