I read about a study once involving three rats and food pellets. In each cage, the rat would be able to pull a lever to get their food pellets. In the first, a food pellet would reliably come out every time the rat pulled the lever. In the second cage, there was no food. In the last cage, a food pellet would sometimes come out when the rat pulled the lever, sometimes multiple food pellets, and sometimes none.
The first rat would only pull the lever when he was hungry. The second rat gave up quickly after pulling the lever a few times and finding no food. The third rat became addicted, hoping for food each time and never knowing if and when it would come.
Emotionally abusive relationships are similarly addicting. If you showed no affection any of the time, I’d lose interest. I’d walk away. I’d know that there is no love here. If you showed me affection reliably, if I knew that I could come to you when I need you, I’d feel safe being away and feel safe being with you. But when you show me affection unpredictably, I will pull the lever over and over and over again, hooked on the variable rewards, trying to get back the thing I know is in there somewhere.
As it turns out, understanding emotional abuse doesn’t protect you from it.
The only thing I have control over is whether I’m providing a healthy, reliable, safe foundation for Max. When he falls and cries, am I responding supportively and lovingly to his needs? I can tell him, “You’ll be fine” and “You’re a tough guy,” or alternatively, I can ask him where it hurts and what would help him feel better. As he’s been transitioning to his own bed, I’ve tried to find ways and teach him words to use to make sure he’s feeling safe in his own room. Sometimes he wants to keep the light on and the door open. Sometimes he wants me to lie down with him until he falls asleep. Before I leave the room, I tell him, “I’m going to my bed now, and I’ll be here if you need me.” Sometimes before I leave the room, he says, “Mommy, I need you,” and I stay. It seems simple, and yet too often we tell parents, “No, children need to be independent,” and “No, you’ll spoil him that way,” and we ignore our gut as parents to provide loving support to our very young children. But you can’t spoil a child by being responsive to their needs. And in fact, it’s the only way to create a healthy attachment.
We can’t build consent culture without changing the way we, as caregivers and as communities, treat children.