Four-year-old Lydia* was admitted to the hospital with what medical social workers called “non-accidental injuries”, including a broken arm. Unkempt and visibly underweight, she was not as attached to her mother, unlike most four-year-olds.
When asked, her mother seemed confused and was unable to explain how Lydia was hurt, setting off red flags with the social workers.
Investigations revealed that Lydia was from a single-parent family and would often be left unsupervised or in the care of her 14-year-old stepbrother.
Her mother would peddle and consume drugs at home, in front of Lydia and her step-brother. Her mother was also not emotionally responsive to Lydia’s needs, often shouting and screaming at Lydia for misbehaving, using vulgarities and put-downs. She often told Lydia to “go away and don’t be a bother”. Her step-brother also knuckled Lydia on the head or caned her with the rotan when he thought she was misbehaving.
Eventually, they were placed under the care of the State.
While steps have been taken to stop the abuse and provide care for Lydia, her relationship with her mother will likely have lasting effects on her relationships with others later in life.
Importance of childhood relationship
According to psychologists, the relationship, or attachment, between children and their primary caregivers forms the basis of their self-image, which in turn shapes the children’s future behaviour and relationships. Whether or not a child is secure depends on how consistent and appropriate the caregivers’ responses to a child’s needs are, to questions such as “If I am hungry, will someone feed me?”, “If I am scared, who will soothe and reassure me?”, “Am I good?” and “Am I loveable?”
Children who grow up with inconsistent and inappropriate responses, like Lydia, are more likely to become insecure about people and the world around them. They may suppress their needs, for fear of being punished severely or being rejected. Without appropriate responses, children cannot label their feelings, or learn to express themselves appropriately in social contexts.
The Attachment Theory explains how four forms of relationships or attachments can be formed. In Lydia’s case, the Insecure-Avoidant Attachment style was formed by her mother’s neglect of her physical and emotional needs.
While Lydia’s case may be extreme, emotionally distant and detached parenting can result in this attachment style as well.
Despite her difficult start in life, Lydia can still develop a healthy sense of self if she can be placed with a caregiver with the positive characteristics described above, to help reshape her sense of self, learn to trust adults and allow her to feel secure.
Parenting help can be found at the Family Service Centre (FSC) near your home. MWS operates three FSCs. To find out more, please contact
* Covenant FSC – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel: 6282-8558
* Daybreak FSC – Email: email@example.com; Tel: 6756-4995
* Tampines FSC – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel: 6787-2001
• Wallin, J. D. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York, The Guildford Press.
• Rees, C. (2007). Childhood Attachment in British Journal of General Practice, pp. 920-922.
* Lydia is a composite profile of different families/children the author has encountered in the FSC setting.
Mr Alvin Goh is Senior Therapist at Covenant Family Service Centre, which is run by Methodist Welfare Services.