Reactive Attachment Disorder and the Looking-Glass-Self


In his 1902 publication, Human Nature and the Social Order, Charles Horton Cooley introduced the concept of the Looking Glass Self to portray his idea that an individual’s perception of themselves develops in association with how they experience others to see them. Using naturalistic observation as his primary research methodology, including observation of his own children, Cooley proposed that ideas of self  incorporate (1) our thoughts about how we must appear to others; (2) our thoughts about the judgement of others of this appearance; and (3) our feelings associated with the imagined judgements of others. Empirical research has shown that how adolescents and young adults think of themselves is correlated with how they think they are perceived by their parents (Cook and Douglas, 1998). Though there is an emerging acknowledgement that, as they get older, individuals actively seek to influence the judgements of others, contemporary sociological research (Yeung and Martin, 2003) lends support to the idea that “ . . . self-conceptions are instilled through interaction with high-status alters” (p.843). It follows that an individual’s thoughts of how they must appear to others, their thoughts about the judgements of others of this appearance and the resultant feelings associated with the imagined judgements of others are likely to stem from the individual’s experience of relatedness to others. Though not the sole determinant of self-concept, it is conceivable that if a child predominantly experiences significant others to be friendly and interested in them, understanding of them and accepting of who they are from an early age, the child will think of themself as interesting, competent and approved of. In contrast, if a child predominantly experiences significant others to be inaccessible, frightening, rejecting or disinterested, they will think of themselves as bad, undeserving and unsafe. When one considers the historical experiences of children who have an attachment disorder, their maladjusted behaviour and the associated rejecting and punitive responses of adults in a caregiving role, it should be of no surprise that negative attachment representations are maintained and strengthened (Pearce, 2010).

Children who have an attachment disorder perceive themselves to be bad. As long as they perceive themselves to be bad, they will act bad. Acting bad produces a predictable response in others and confirms their belief system, which in an unhealthy sense is reassuring to the child who has an attachment disorder. It provides an element of stability and predictability to counter-balance their perception that their world is unpredictable and chaotic, this latter being anxiety-evoking. Negative conduct also draws more attention than positive conduct. Consider the fact that newborn babies draw attention to their needs through affective displays that would later be considered to be antisocial. This behaviour, along with a gregarious smile, has emerged through evolution as an effective means by which the young child communicates with others and secures needs provision. It follows that children who are preoccupied with accessibility to needs provision are likely to use these infant strategies (i.e., charming smiles and screaming tantrums). We should not be surprised that these strategies are consistent with the two types of disorder of attachment referred to in this book.

In caring for children who have an attachment disorder it is important to maintain a positive attitude and disposition towards the child as a person and to not be drawn into a perception of them as fundamentally bad because their behaviour is bad. Spending special time together and exclaiming over their positive qualities and abilities are useful starting points in this process, as is holding and maintaining positive thoughts about the child. Nevertheless, it is important to be mindful that in doing so you are acting unpredictably from the child’s point of view. This will take some getting used to at first for the child and they may even actively resist (e.g. “So you think I am good; well I’ll show you just how bad I can be”). Nevertheless, in the longer term they will come to accept that you see them in a positive light and this will be the beginning of them seeing themselves the same way.

Eyes are mirrors for a child’s soul. What do children see in your eyes?


Source: Pearce, C (2016). A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (Second Edition). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

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Cooley, CH (1902). Human Nature and The Social Order. USA: Charles Scribner’s Sons

Cook, W.C., & Douglas, E.M. (1998), The looking glass self in family context: A social relations analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 12(3), 299-309

Yeung, K.T. & Martin, J.L. (2003). The looking glass self: An empirical test and elaboration. Social Forces, 81(3), 843-879

Pearce, C.M. (2010). An Integration of Theory, Science and Reflective Clinical Practice in the Care and Management of Attachment-Disordered Children – A Triple A Approach. Educational and Child Psychology (Special Issue on Attachment), 27 (3): 73-86

About colbypearce

I am a practising Clinical Psychologist with twenty-seven years’ experience working with children and young people recovering from abuse and neglect. I am also an author and educator in trauma-informed, therapeutic caregiving. My programs are implemented in Australia and Ireland, and I am well-known for my practical and accessible guidance for caregivers and professionals alike.
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