There is a therapy model designed to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder that comes out of schema therapy. It seems to me they are really ways of managing an attachment with a parent who is inconsistently available to a child. In other words, it is about disorganized attachment, where no single way of interacting with the parent has worked. Disorganized attachment can develop when the parent has a history of trauma (or mental illness) and is sometimes “frightened or frightening.” I have found it helpful.

Attachment behaviours are ways of getting the child’s needs met by the parent. It seems to me that they are ways of maintaining a relationship. Groups of behaviours are described as “modes.” These are some of the modes: the angry (or abused) child mode, the detached mode, the vulnerable (or abandoned) child mode, and the punitive mode. I think there is at least one more for both me and C: the dramatic mode.

It seems to me each of these modes served a purpose in maintaining a relationship with the parent so that at least some of the child’s needs could be met. I recognize them in C and sometimes I recognize them in myself as I interact with C, and it has been useful to recognize them so that I have a better understanding of how she feels (which might not be apparent to me on the surface). I expect over time, I will see it more in myself and will need to deal with that.

I will list the purpose I think each mode once served as well as their downsides in the original relationship with the parent. They seem to me to hold in common a need to help manage the parent’s own intense responses to fear or shame so that the parent can be nurturing rather than focused on defending herself from what seems to her like the assault of her own feelings. (I am using “she” becomes the parent with whom I developed a disorganized attachment was my mother.)

The vulnerable child mode is needy and clingy. It presents the child to the parent as younger and more defenseless than the child really is, because that elicits the parent’s concern without being threatening. It is, in its way, endearing. It is hard to resist. C has spent a lot of time in vulnerable child mode with me. It works on me.

The downside of the vulnerable child mode is that it can overwhelm a fragile parent with her own shame or fear about being unable to respond effectively to the child’s needs. She then might then become punitive or threatening or simply cold so as not to have to address her own feelings of inadequacy. Someone in vulnerable child mode is alert to rejection, because rejection is the first sign that the parent has become overwhelmed and is likely to become punitive or aggressive in order to fend off what has started to feel like a threat.

The detached mode is withdrawal: “I don’t need you anyway.” It helps the child because it shuts down the felt impulse to reach for the parent and opens up the possibility to self-soothing. C does laundry or housework when she is angry or distressed. When she thought I might not buy her the items she needed for school, she said, “Then I will buy.” Even though she had nowhere near enough to cover the cost of what she needed. The advantage in the relationship with the parent is that it doesn’t trigger the parent’s shame or fear so that the parent doesn’t become dangerous and frightening.

The child appears to be able to cope without the parent, and the parent can go on with life as usual. This means that the child can at least maintain physical proximity to the parent. “Look, I don’t need anything. I am just going to colour for a while and maybe you will stay in the same room with me.” In my case, at least my mother stayed in the same house as me. She didn’t abandon me through a suicide attempt or assault me.

The abused child mode is an aggressive mode. It frightens the parent into a submissive posture, so she at least doesn’t hit you. She might give in to what you want, but at the very least she might retire to her bedroom without breaking any of your bones. I spent a lot of time in this mode as a child. I remember it.

The punitive mode is oriented towards punishing the child, not the parent. It presents an intensely ashamed child to the parent: “Look, I am the bad one. Not you. Please don’t hurt me.” It reduces the sense of threat to the parent, so that she doesn’t attack the child and might, perhaps, even feel some desire to soothe the child. I have seen C in this mode quite a lot. She goes to the kitchen, shuts the door, and either sits quietly on the step or cries silently. C tells me her mother gets angry and won’t speak to her for the whole evening. I have no doubt this is what she does at those times: performs her work as required, says nothing, presents a submissive face. The emotion of it is shame, and the shame makes you want to withdraw from other people. Withdrawing has the advantage of preventing you from acting on the instinct to seek nurturing from the parent, and it also opens up the possibility of at least maintaining physical proximity to the parent. You can at least maybe stay in the same room with her or in the same house.

What I am calling the dramatic mode is one that resorts to theatrical gestures, as though the parent can only be galvanized into some kind of action if the child is sufficiently out-of-control. I think it may have developed to cope with a deeply depressed parent, unable to respond to a child’s needs, or a parent who was simply indifferent and lacking empathy. My mother spent a lot of time in this mode, because my dad was indifferent to her relationship needs.

I have seen it in C when she started to imply on Facebook that she wanted a sexual relationship with her boyfriend in response to my too-measured response to her pleas for me to call her dad (which she took to be indifference to her situation). I felt manipulated when she did that, but I also knew she needed a response, and I went to her house. I did this during our disastrous argument in December before she left when I began to sob (among other dramatic gestures) after she said, “You are not my mother. I am not your daughter.” It scared the hell out of her.

The modes sound manipulative—at least they sound that way to me—because they are stereotyped, instinctive ways of maintaining a relationship, rather than nuanced, flexible ways of responding to the real here-and-now. I don’t know believe they are either intentionally or consciously designed to manipulate, and if your relationship partner isn’t caught inside her/his own trauma or mentally ill, they probably end more relationships than they start. But, as a child, they were the best you could do to get a few drops of nurturing and soothing from your parent.