Grew Up With Workaholic Parents? It May Have Shaped Your Attachment Style
It may feel like it's all in the past, but the relationship we had with our parents growing up can sometimes still affect us today as adults—particularly in the realm of relationships.
According to the theory of attachment styles, the way a person approaches romantic relationships as an adult (called their attachment style) mirrors their relationship to their earliest caregivers. Many parent-child scenarios can affect a person's attachment style, such as growing up with single parents or growing up with unavailable parents.
One fairly common childhood experience that can affect you as an adult? Having parents who were working all the time.
How having a working parent might affect a child.
Let's be clear: Working full time does not automatically make a parent unavailable to their child. "The truth is a parent can be home full time and still be 'absent,' just as much as a parent can work full time and be 'present' with their child," doctor of education and parenting expert Gertrude Lyons, M.A., Ed.D., tells mbg.
In fact, the author Ellen Galinsky surveyed children about their attitudes on full-time working, part-time working, and stay-at-home parents for her book Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents.
"What the children said had nothing to do with any of these actual situations," Lyons says. Kids were actually more affected by their parents' response to anxiety than their working situation. "Now, this is not to say that if a parent is absent significant amounts of time, a child won't have feelings about it," she adds. "Those feelings could range from sad to hurt or angry or scared. Certainly, at different times for different reasons, they feel all of them."
In general, how a child views their relationship with their parents seems to be less about how much they work. It has more to do with how present and attentive their parents are when they're around, how much quality time they're able to spend together, and how secure and supported the child feels. If these components aren't there, that's what can affect the parent-child relationship—and potentially all the child's relationships going forward.
How these experiences can shape your attachment style as an adult.
In the case of a child who has been negatively affected by their parent or parents' working habits, marriage and family therapist Maria Sosa, M.S., MFT, says these experiences can potentially lead to one of three insecure attachment styles: avoidant, anxious, or disorganized.
People with an avoidant attachment style usually have a fear of intimacy and tend to be independent and somewhat standoffish in relationships. "A child may adopt an avoidant insecure attachment style in order to adjust to a caregiver's consistent lack of presence in the household," Sosa explains. "The child learns that the parents will not be available physically or emotionally and thus adapts by rejecting connection or expressing little interest in proximity and intimacy."
People with avoidant attachment styles have a hard time asking for help and tend to keep people at a distance. These are all strategies to protect against rejection, says Sosa.
Developing an anxious attachment style is another possibility for children of workaholic parents who are unreliable and inconsistent. "These children often grow up to be adults that are constantly preoccupied with the state of their romantic relationships," Sosa says. "Anxiously attached individuals seek excessive reassurance from their partners in order to feel safe, find isolation stressful, and are terrified of being abandoned," she adds.
The last of the three is a lesser-known attachment style, called disorganized attachment. According to therapist Chamin Ajjan, M.S., LCSW, A-CBT, this is the most extreme form of insecure attachment and is characterized by fear, mistrust, and inner conflict.
"A child may develop an insecure disorganized attachment style when there is an element of neglect or abuse in addition to parental absence due to occupational demands," Sosa says. Behaviors are a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment, meaning they seek and then avoid connection.
How to heal as an adult.
While having parents who are absent due to work can lead to insecure attachment styles, Lyons notes that these are not permanent conditions. "The first step is to identify the strategy and then begin to challenge it and practice new behaviors," she says.
To start, consider writing down negative patterns that show up in your life and figuring out what you could do differently. Getting support from friends, other trusted family members, or a therapist can all be helpful in the growth process.
If you're interested in mending the relationship with your parents, know that it might be difficult, but Sosa says, "It is important that these dynamics are discussed, as parents may be so preoccupied with work that they are unaware of the extent of the damage."
All parties have to be willing to put in work in order to make steps toward reconciliation, though, as licensed clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D., previously told mbg. "After doing your own reflection of what you want from this relationship and who you want to be in this relationship, you can consider various ways to approach this family member with honesty and with an offering of openness," she suggests.
In the case of feeling neglected by a family member, though, it's natural to not see them as a source of solace. "Sadly, if the parent has been ongoingly absent (whether they work or not) over the years, they have communicated to the child that their feelings, interests, lives don't matter," Lyons explains. "The best scenario would be that the young adult recognizes this gap and gets support through a counselor or a responsible adult to sort it through."
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.