Bonding with a loving caregiver is the core attachment need of early childhood. The bond waters and prunes the neural pathways needed to establish a foundation of safety in the world -- safety that grows into a sturdy sense of self, an ability to form and maintain healthy relationships, and baseline emotional resiliency for carrying us through rough patches.
The bond develops through the attunement-and-response dynamic described in the previous post. Unfortunately, the three adults in Rapunzel’s early life collude to revoke the baby's chance at that bond: Not only does the witch demand Rapunzel’s separation from her parents at birth, her father does not fight the demand, allowing instead for his fear of the witch to traumatically overpower his love for his child. Rapunzel’s mother then colludes in the trauma by also failing to fight to keep her daughter.
In the real world, failure to bond is not always as dramatic as removal of the child from the parents. (And indeed sometimes removal to a non-biological family represents the best chance for the child to form healthy bonds.) Sometimes failure to bond comes, for example, from a persistent but subtle pattern of missed cues, or from a parent's distracted overwhelm by, say, an unrelated crisis, or from a mental health issue such as depression or PTSD that makes bonding more difficult.
Whatever the case, the effect is that the child is shorted the connection with a loving other needed to forge the further connections -- in her brain, in her psyche, and in her surroundings -- that she needs to build emotional resiliency and healthy relationships throughout her life.
Attachment Wound #2: Parentification
In abandoning their sacred task to bond with baby Rapunzel, the adults in the story start the process of parentifying her. This means they flip roles with Rapunzel, giving her the responsibility to prop them up emotionally rather than taking on the adult task of fostering the child’s emotional foundation. As a result Rapunzel has nobody to help her contain her own feelings and learn to self-soothe. Emotionally, she’s on her own from the very beginning.
Because it’s not that Rapunzel goes to live with the witch and then everything is fine. Instead, Rapunzel's life becomes the receptacle for the witch’s wrath. We don’t hear about her pre-adolescent childhood in the story, but given the rest of the story and others like it, we can easily surmise the witch is rather like Cinderella’s or Snow White’s stepmother: a demanding woman with a narcissistic need for reassurance that she is, as Snow White’s stepmother put it, “the fairest of them all.”
In the real world, parentification is sometimes obvious, for example the child who puts the drunk parent to bed or protects younger siblings from a parent’s rage. But sometimes it’s not so obvious: It’s a needy parent demanding expressions of love or loyalty; it’s a child trying to smooth over an argument between parents; it’s scrambling to clean up the house before Dad gets home to prevent him yelling at the dog. In short, the child takes on the adult task of anticipating, preventing, and pacifying the adult's own overwhelming feelings.
(Some kids are naturally intuitive and compassionate and so will reach out when a parent is upset. This isn't necessarily parentification. The difference is that, in parentification, if the child does not rise to meet the expectation of caring for the adult's feelings, negative consequences accrue. The parentified child becomes vigilant to guard against this dynamic.)
Attachment Wound #3: Infantilization
Ironically, just as Rapunzel reaches adolescence, the parentification pattern is compounded by a move toward infantilization. Like parentification, this attachment wound is a mismatch between parental demands and the child’s developmental stage. But instead of abandoning the child’s inner world, as seen in parentification, the parent intrudes on that inner world in a way that violates the child’s blossoming selfhood.
It is actually possible to both parentify and infantilize the same child at the same time, and young fairy tale women such as Rapunzel are classic examples of how: She is expected to placate the witch so the latter doesn’t fly into a rage (parentification) and, simultaneously, comply with the witch's directives about chores, clothing, social life, self-image, movements outside the castle/tower, opinions about the outside world, and anything else that feels threatening to the older woman's sense of her own primacy in Rapunzel's life (infantilization).
In fact everything from clothes and makeup to dating and sexuality to feelings, values, privacy, and more are subject to approval and directives and demands from the infantilizing parent at a time when, developmentally, the child should have more, not less, freedom and responsibility. It can happen at any age, but it's not uncommon for it to occur at puberty, when adults can literally see children becoming separate from themselves. The child, in her turn, is watching peers venture out and test grown-up behaviors while she is forced to remain at a developmentally younger age to fulfill the narcissistic requirements of the needy parent. Resentment grows, as does the urgent need to find a way out.
For Rapunzel this infantilization is symbolized, of course, by her imprisonment in the tower: a powerful symbol for freezing time and cutting a girl off from her own growing-up.
Attachment Wound #4: Rejection and Abandonment
Despite the witch’s efforts to prevent Rapunzel growing up, the girl blossoms into a young woman with a beautiful voice, which catches the attention of a prince as he passes by. He gains access to the tower and ends up giving Rapunzel gifts nobody else ever has: he appreciates her voice, he wants simply to spend time with her, he recognizes she is trapped, he teams up with her to help her escape the witch. Rapunzel must feel both confused and happy to have someone who treats her with such love and respect.