tiny_white_hats: (Buffy)
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Buffy meta for [community profile] month_of_meta. This is psychological in nature, but I'm pretty sure it's totally accessible to anybody without any background in psychology. My entire background in psychology culminates in my big psych final exam tomorrow afternoon for my one semester psych class, so none of this is too advanced.

This is a discussion of Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, and Willow Rosenberg and how their characters differ according to their parents' attachment styles and parenting styles. I'd absolutely love to hear anybody's thoughts on this, whether they're in regards to characterization or psychology or just how much you love these characters.

"What is Your Childhood Trauma?": Parenting and Attachment Styles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The Buffyverse isn’t really known for having an excess of good parents. Joyce Summers is, of course, a notable exception, but aside from Buffy and Dawn, almost every character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer either comes from a home with less satisfactory parents, or their home situation is never discussed. But, while we know that Tara’s family emotionally (and possibly physically) abused her and that Wesley’s father terrorized him, the true impact of parenting is clearest in the characters of Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, and Willow Rosenberg.

In 1979, psychologist Mary Ainsworth did a study on “strange situations,” or how infants would react to situations without any parental figures, to identify different styles of attachment. These attachment styles concern the relationship between parent and child, most importantly in early childhood, and are divided into three types of attachment style: secure, avoidant, and resistant. While attachment styles are at their greatest importance in early childhood, it is unlikely that a parent would shift their attachment style in later childhood or adolescence, so analyzing the attachment styles of their parents during Buffy, Xander, and Willow’s adolescence serves as an effective indicator of the attachment styles of their parents during early childhood.


  • Secure

    • warm, nurturing, and present parental figure

    • children tend to have higher self-esteem and self-worth

    • 70% of parents

  • Avoidant

    • parents are cold, absent, or abusive

    • children tend to have low self-worth and feel unworthy in relationships

    • 20% of parents

  • Resistant (also called anxious/ambivalent)

    • parents are inconsistent, fluctuating between secure and avoidant styles

    • children tend have negative self-image and tend to be wary of forming new relationships, as they are unaccustomed to constancy in relationships

    • 10% of parents

In addition to categorizing styles of attachment, psychologists have also divided parenting styles into three types: authoritarian, permissive, authoritarian. There is no direct link between attachment and parenting styles; a child raised with a resistant attachment style could have parents with an authoritative parenting style just as easily as parents with a permissive parenting style. Nonetheless, these three parenting styles all play a key role in shaping their children’s temperament and personality, for the rest of their lives.

    • Authoritarian

      • parents impose rules and expect unquestioning obedience

      • children typically have fewer social skills and lower self-esteem

    • Permissive

      • parents submit to child’s desires, and use few rules or punishments

      • children tend to be immature, with little impulse control

    • Authoritative

      • parents are demanding yet responsive; parents set and enforce rules, but allow discussion and adaption instead of unquestioning obedience

      • children tend to be the most well-adjusted, with the highest self-esteem, self-reliance, and social competence


    The characters of Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, and Willow Rosenberg are all incredibly different. They have different personalities, different social styles, and, most importantly in this essay, different home lives. Buffy has a strong maternal figure, and was raised with a paternal figure as well, while it is heavily implied that Xander was raised in an abusive home, and Willow in a largely empty house. But, the question isn’t how did their home lives differ, but how present are the psychological ramifications of those differing home lives in their characterization.

    First, let’s talk about Buffy. Of the three, she is clearly the most confident, the most socially well-adjusted, and the most self-reliant. Buffy is haunted by a number of other psychological phenomena (“a inferiority complex about [her] superiority complex” (7.07), depression, etc.), but she shows no signs of being adversely affected by Joyce and Hank Summers’s parenting. Joyce, and we can assume Hank to some extent, demonstrate what would be considered a secure style of attachment. Though we, as the audience, never see Joyce interact with an infant Buffy, we see Joyce display consistently caring and concerned behavior towards her daughter, maintaining a positive presence in Buffy’s life until her death in Season 5. Furthermore, in Buffy’s memories of her mother in “The Weight of the World,” Buffy remembers her mother holding an infant Dawn closely, only letting her go so that Buffy could hold her, which is a large element of a secure attachment style for infants (5.21). Buffy remembers her mother as being a warm, tactile, and present maternal figure, so one can assume that she would classify her relationship with her mother as “secure.” Buffy as a character generally adapts well to change, is confident in new settings, and is unafraid of establishing new interpersonal relationships, all hallmarks of a child raised with a secure attachment style, in an authoritative parenting style. Speaking of parenting styles, Joyce is a firm, but fair parent, making her a nearly textbook example of a mother with an authoritative parenting style. Joyce doesn’t understand Buffy’s duties as the Slayer for almost her entire presence on the show, and she and Buffy often have trouble relating due to their wildly differing worldviews and destinies, but regardless of any differences between the two characters, Joyce remains supportive and encouraging of her daughter. When Joyce learns of Buffy’s slaying, she initially lashes out in surprise, but once she adapts to the dissolution of her entire worldview, she remains a supportive parent, even going out on her own patrol once to bring Buffy a slaying snack, to demonstrate her support for her daughter (3.11). However supportive she is, Joyce is also unafraid to punish Buffy when she feels it is well deserved, as demonstrated when Joyce grounds Buffy, explaining that, “Young lady, you have to learn some responsibility, okay? Once and for all,” in “Bad Eggs” (2.13). This combination of support and discipline is the very definition of an authoritative parent, just as Buffy is a good example of a child possessing the traits symptomatic of an authoritative parenting style (i.e. well-adjusted, good self-esteem, social competence). Despite Joyce’s faults, she is a very competent mother, especially when you remember that in large part her haplessness was due to her ignorance of the supernatural, which should not define her as a character, seeing as those who were aware of the supernatural were a distinct minority.

    Xander, on the other hand, has none of the self-confidence and social grace that Buffy has. Xander constantly doubted himself and sold himself short, hiding behind humor to disguise the fact that he had very low self-confidence and self-worth. “It happens I'm good at a lot of things. I help out with all kinds of . . . stuff. I have skills . . . and . . . stratagems. I'm very . . . Help me out,” he stammered in “The Yoko Facto,” when attempting to prove that he was a useful member of the team after Spike implied that he wasn’t, proving that he does not see himself as a capable individual, he does not believe that his friends see him that way, and that the suggestion that others see him as incapable is very powerful to him (4.21). Xander’s parents are only briefly introduced as characters at Xander’s ill-fated wedding, but there are a number of implications that his family is violent and emotionally, and possibly physically, abusive, such as when it is revealed that Xander camps in his backyard on Christmas Eve to avoid his family’s characteristic drunken fights (3.10). Even more indicative of the tenor of this relationship, in “Restless,” the First Slayer manifests in the form of his father in order to terrify him, demonstrating that Xander’s parents almost definitely employed a resistant style of attachment and an authoritarian parenting style(4.22). Children raised with an avoidant method of attachment had a carer who was rejecting, who did not provide positive stimulus to them, simply ignored them, or outright abused them. Children who were raised without a positive and nurturing parental figure tend to characterize themselves as unacceptable and unworthy, much as Xander does, and they often second guess themselves and have trouble establishing and maintaining relationships. Xander considers himself to be lesser than his supernaturally inclined friends and he is generally shown to consider himself an unworthy partner in his romantic relationships as well, leaving Anya at the alter because he is convinced that he will be a poor and unworthy husband and father, much like his own was (6.16). Additionally, Xander’s key canon relationships are largely initiated through little successful, intended effort of his own, which cannot be seen more clearly than in his relationships with Cordelia and Anya. With Cordelia, he inadvertently started a relationship with her when the kissed in a near death situation in “What’s My Line?” and then established an official relationship with her only when Willow discovered them kissing in “Innocence.” Xander made no move to define their relationship until he destroys it, allowing Willow’s discovery of he and Cordelia kissing, Cordelia’s decision to dump him, and Cordelia’s choice to publically date him to shape the course of the relationship. Xander then, possibly subconsciously, sabotages their relationship when it has become rather serious, beginning an affair with Willow for no discernable reason on his part. Similarly, in his relationship with Anya, Anya initiates the relationship, follows through with it, and largely sustains it, until Xander, under threat of apocalypse in “The Gift” proposes to Anya, and then sabotages that relationship as well, by leaving Anya at the alter instead of speaking with her about his marital concerns. This type of behaviour, as well as patterns of low self-esteem and low self-worth such as what Xander feels, is characteristic of children raised with avoidant attachment styles, or by parents utilizing an authoritarian parenting style, indicating that the Harrises did, most likely, raise Xander with an avoidant attachment style and an authoritarian parenting style. Authoritarian parents expect unquestioning obedience when the give commands and can be quick to punish, as is characteristic of abusive parenting. Children raised with authoritarian parenting styles tend to have lower self-esteem and weaker social skills, just as Xander does. Since we, as viewers, never see Xander interact with his parents while he is still a child, or at least still living with them, much of our understanding of Xander’s childhood and relationship with his parents must be inferred, but, from those inferences, it can be concluded that Mr. and Mrs. Harris most likely employed an avoidant style of attachment and an authoritarian parenting style.

    Willow’s mother shows up in one episode, “Gingerbread” in Season 3, and she is very obviously authoritarian, expecting Willow to immediately bow to her wishes, and completely detached from Willow and her life. This uneven fluctuation is characteristic of the resistant style of attachment, (also called anxious/ambivalent, to describe the random shifts between overbearing and detached parenting), which generally tends to produce children who, among other things, have trouble with interpersonal relationships, because they matured in an environment in which affection was random, and because they never knew whether to expect warmth or disinterest from their parental figures. Additionally, children raised with resistant styles of attachment have a negative self-image and can feel starved for attention, much like Willow is shown to feel. In the very first episode, when Buffy, who is new and possibly popular, sits down beside Willow, Willow’s response is to ask “Why?” in place of a greeting, which indicates that Willow views herself as somebody who others wouldn’t want to befriend (1.01). Willow also seems to have some abandonment issues, quite possibly stemming from her parents’ resistant style of attachment and the random withholding of affection that is part of that parenting style. In “Restless,” part of Willow’s nightmare features her being mocked for being uncool by those she considered friends, most importantly Oz and Tara, her two most significant romantic partners, who both visibly ignored her to laugh at her and flirt with each other, suggesting that one of Willow’s greatest fears is being rejected and denied love and affection by those she loves (4.22). The Rosenbergs’ parenting is curious in that it’s not traditional in any fashion, as they seemingly abandon Willow for periods of time, and play very little active role in her life. “Willow, you cut off your hair! Huh. That's a new look,” Sheila exclaims upon seeing her daughter in mid-January in the episode “Gingerbread,” to which Willow responds, “Yeah, it's just a sudden whim I had... in August,” indicating that either the Rosenbergs have just returned to Sunnydale for the first time in months, or that they have maintained their pattern of anxious/ambivalent attachment and Sheila is truly noticing her daughter for the first time in quite a while (3.11). But, despite their absence, it is apparent that they still maintain an authoritarian style of parenting. When Sheila Rosenberg suspects her daughter’s recently exposed interest in witchcraft is a cry for help she immediately grounds her instead of asking Willow to explain her interest, and, when Willow argues that she’s never misbehaved before, her mother’s immediate and angry to response to Willow is: “That's enough! Is that clear? Now, you will go to your room and stay there until I say otherwise. And we're gonna make some changes. I don't want you hanging out with those friends of yours. It's clear where this little obsession came from. You will not speak to Bunny Summers again,” (3.11). Her mother’s first response is to punish Willow for misdeeds and to become angry when Willow questions her punishment, which is a perfect example of an authoritarian parenting style. As previously discussed, children raised by authoritarian parents have lower self-esteem and weaker social skills than other children, much like Willow exhibits on numerous occasions when she questions her own value or acts in a socially awkward manner. In conclusion, it can be surmised that Willow’s parents utilized a resistant style of attachment and an authoritarian parenting style, which influenced Willow’s temperament development.

    Of course, no individual, fictional or real, can attribute their personality to one sole cause. All three of these characters were affected by other factors, by friends, schoolmates, or sacred duties, and all three characters continued to change over the course of the series. This essay is not intended to explain Buffy, Xander, and Willow’s personalities and temperaments based entirely on one causal factor, but merely to examine how known psychological findings may have influenced these three characters’ characterization. Anybody who’s been exposed to Buffy the Vampire Slayer can agree that Buffy, Xander, and Willow are all complex, dynamic characters, so simply consider this a discussion of one aspect of those complex characters. That being said, it can be concluded from the characterizations of Buffy, Xander, and Willow, and their depicted relationships with their parents, that all three characters were influenced and shaped by their parents’ attachment and parenting styles.

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