Indiscriminate Affection and Children: The Real Stranger Danger

Young child with long blonde hair stretches arms up happilyWe’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!

Reference:

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.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Heather McCauley, MA, LCSW, therapist in Garden City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Fletcher

    Fletcher

    May 26th, 2017 at 10:32 AM

    Not every single child who is outgoing and effusive in this way is in danger of attracting unwanted attention nor does it mean that there is something that is wrong with him or her or that something is lacking or missing in their lives.
    They might just be a chatty Cathy kid who wants attention from adults because this is what they are accustomed to getting at home.
    That is not necessarily a bad thing. Hey we need more people who can openly speak and feel comfortable doing it.

  • Heather

    Heather

    May 26th, 2017 at 11:56 AM

    I agree, it is absolutely not always the case that outgoing children invite danger, some little ones are just very friendly and the world needs more friendly people! However, there are times that it can be more cause for concern if we have more information about their histories that lead us to believe there is an attachment issue present. The beauty of recognizing the difference is making sure we can support families in the best way possible.

  • Chapman Q

    Chapman Q

    May 27th, 2017 at 7:17 AM

    It is unfortunate that this is something that we even to think about! Argh it used to be that an outgoing kid was outgoing and funny and adults would love it that they would want to have a conversation with them. But now we have to worry about what the child has going on at home, if anything is there that could make them be so needy for attention. And if they will attract the wrong kind of person by having an outgoing personality like that. These are such confusing times- you can’t even let your children be who they want to be anymore.

  • kim

    kim

    May 28th, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    It can be a problem when the people who care for this child the majority of the time have not helped them to establish some guidelines between what is safe and what is not.

  • Clay

    Clay

    May 29th, 2017 at 8:03 AM

    I am slightly offended by this because I have a naturally very outgoing son and daughter. Neither my wife nor I are like that but it is who they are. I think that they were both born orators. And I don’t do anything to try to stop that in them. It is who they are and what makes them feel good, chatting up other people. I know that there are parents who would say that you have to teach them when to speak and when to not but I just think that if you stop this from occurring naturally when they are young won’t they then be more inclined later on to tamper down their true selves? And who doesn’t really like to listen to a child randomly babble on? It’s sweet.

  • Heather

    Heather

    May 29th, 2017 at 10:28 AM

    There is a very big difference between outgoing and friendly children and a child with indiscriminate affection! Many children are happy healthy and friendly by nature and it’s not necessarily something to be worried about. This article aimed to focus on those rarer circumstances that are more cause for concern but by no means are all friendly children indiscriminately affectionate nor in any danger.

  • Caren

    Caren

    May 30th, 2017 at 10:51 AM

    I think that most children can understand the personal space issue but they don’t understand that excessive chatter can be a part of crossing those boundary lines.

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