We’ve all seen it: the child in the supermarket line willing to tell you all about himself despite not knowing you at all, or the little girl who plops herself in a new teacher’s lap on day one of school. Harmless? Maybe, but this type of overly friendly behavior toward strangers often stems from an unstable attachment history and can lead to trouble.
Indiscriminate affection is usually seen in children ages 5 and under and is described as an inconsistency in identifying and establishing attachments—for our purposes, secure adults who are safe and familiar and who will feed, clean, and love the child. Such children see adults as equal-opportunity caregivers regardless of whether they are well known or a total stranger. This type of behavior is most commonly seen in children adopted from orphanages or after foster care placements where physical or emotional neglect may have existed in the earliest and most formative year or two of life. It has also been found in children who have had a stable home life in terms of location, but an unstable one with regard to psychological and emotional neglect. The common thread among these children is that care was never consistent.
The theory behind these overly social behaviors is they serve as a way for children to get their needs met by anyone in the area, whether it be mom, foster mom, Mrs. Smith the preschool teacher, Joe the ice cream man, or the nice person in the grocery line. This can mean a child may be willing to go off with a stranger who promises candy or games. You may notice a child does not understand personal space or boundaries between them and other children or adults. It could manifest as hyperactivity in school or asking to go live with the teacher.
Children who developed in a healthy and stable home environment are more likely have a secure attachment to one or two primary caregivers and can rely on consistent and thorough care. These children develop a healthy hesitancy and skepticism toward strangers and a sense of connection with their primary caregivers that allows them to better understand personal boundaries and safety. These are the children who, on the first day of school, may look up to mom or dad for encouragement or hide behind a leg or two at first. After a brief pep talk, the securely attached child is off and having a wonderful time.
Does Your Child Have a Problem?
So, what does this mean for your child, and what can be done about overly friendly behavior?
If you find your child is very friendly, that does not necessarily mean they would fall into the category of indiscriminate affection; you may just have a social butterfly. It also does not mean you made a mistake or neglected your child during infancy.
First, don’t panic. If you find your child is very friendly, that does not necessarily mean they would fall into the category of indiscriminate affection; you may just have a social butterfly. It also does not mean you made a mistake or neglected your child during infancy. However, if you notice your child (adopted or natural) wandering off too far with lesser-known adults or asking for hugs from strangers, it may be time to seek the support of a therapist specializing in attachment of young children. This person can help you reestablish a connection with your child and build a sense of healthy boundaries and safety for your little one. The therapist will help you as a parent to manage certain situations in ways that will cultivate a secure attachment with your child and help your social butterfly understand safer ways to make friends, who to ask for help, when to approach strangers, and where not to spread their colorful wings.
There are also things you can do at home to help develop healthy boundaries for your child. My favorite is the hula hoop—this simple ring placed on the floor or held around the waist creates a visual indicator of personal space. Explaining to the child that everyone has a bubble about the size of the hoop that is their special private space can help a child understand when they are too close to someone or when someone is too close to them!
Lyons-Ruth, K., Bureau, J.F., Riley, C.D., & Atlas-Corbett, A.F. (2009). Socially indiscriminate attachment behavior in the strange situation: Convergent and discriminant validity in relation to caregiving risk, later behavior problems, and attachment insecurity. Development and Psychopathology, 21(2), 355–372.
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