Lifelong Skinned Knees

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Psychologist Jim Knipe (Forgash & Copeley, Eds.,2008) will often tell clients the following story:

“Imagine a little girl who falls down and skins her knee, and it hurts. Her knee is bleeding and she runs into the house. A loving parent sees her and says, ‘Oh, it hurts, doesn’t it? Come over here. Let me wash it off. Yes, it hurts! I’ll put a bandage on it. Come sit in my lap for a little while.’ It is easy to see that after a few minutes, for this little girl, this lap will become pretty boring, and she will want to go back out and play again. If the parent asks her if her knee still hurts, she is likely to say, ‘No,’ as she bounds out the door.

Now think of another little girl just down the street who also skins her knee in the same way, and runs into her house, but instead either has no adult available to soothe her, or has an adult who says, ‘Stop crying right now! If you don’t stop crying I’m going to give you something to cry about. I won’t help you until you stop crying.’

This second child now has two problems. Her knee still hurts, and also, now she is bad if she cries. If in the future she falls down and hurts herself again, she is not very likely to go into the house looking for help. She may wonder, years later, following a sad event in her life, why she is unable to cry about it. Or she may wonder why she cries so easily, as if there is always this reservoir of tears ready to spill out.”

This second child is clearly an example of “dissociation”; where distressing, indeed “traumatic life events are excluded from conscious awareness, resulting in anxiety, odd avoidance behaviors, and (psychosomatic) symptoms…”

“In addition,” says Knipe, “it seems that for many clients with extensive childhood histories of abuse and neglect, a major element of their dilemma was that their deepest needs and feelings were not ‘seen.’ That is, their inner experience was not lovingly acknowledged, and thus validated, by a caretaker. This lack of validation of inner experience is hypothesized…to contribute to the emotional pathology of adults who have difficulty regulating their own affect…”

In their book, Attached; The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find–And Keep–Love (2010), authors Levine and Heller observe that “John Bowlby (the father of attachment theory) believed that attachment styles are a function of life experience – especially of our interaction with our parents during infancy. A person will develop a secure attachment style if her parents are sensitive and responsive to her needs. Such a child will learn that she can rely on her parents, confident that they’ll be available to her whenever she needs them” (like the first child with the skinned knee). “But Bowlby maintained that that it didn’t end there; he believed a secure child would carry this confidence into adulthood and future relationships with romantic partners.”

Levine and Heller ask if the research data support Bowlby’s predictions? Where does secure attachment come from? After citing several studies, the authors succinctly conclude: “As more studies become available, there is increasing evidence that a secure attachment style doesn’t originate from a single source. The equation of a caring and sensitive parent producing a secure-for-life child is too one dimensional; instead it seems that an entire mosaic of factors comes together to create (a secure) attachment pattern (including genetic predisposition and lifelong experiences).”

Nevertheless, the research is clear. Adult responses to “skinned knees” have huge and lifelong consequences. It is sad and sobering to think that some skinned knees – never heal.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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