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Children are sponges. As cliché as it may sound, there isn’t a better visual metaphor. As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and as a parent of two children, it is my opinion that today’s society is still in need of educating parents about the profound necessity for secure attachments between a parent and a child.
What many parents don't realize, based on countless research and books, is that the kind of attachment between a parent and child will pave the way for how well that child will function as an adult in a relationship. Dr. Daniel Siegel, author and founder of the Mindsight Institute, breaks down the four types of attachments:
- Securely attached – Emotionally available, perceptive, responsive
- Insecure/Avoidantly attached – Emotionally unavailable, imperceptive, unresponsive and rejecting
- Insecure/Anxious/Ambivalently attached – inconsistently available, perceptive and responsive, and intrusive
- Insecure/Disorganizingly attached – Frightening, frightened, disorienting, alarming
Securely attached -------> Secure (free or autonomous)
Avoidantly attached -------> Dismissing
Ambivalently attached -------> Preoccupied or entangled
Disorganizingly attached -------> Unresolved trauma or loss/disorganized
So now that you’ve seen how your child's attachment (with you) creates a lasting imprint for him or her, allow me to empower your parental role and share with you ten very important ways of developing a healthy attachment with your child:
1) You and your partner are the ultimate example to your child of how two adults connect/communicate/bond – From the moment your child enters the world at birth, he or she is always watching and absorbing how you and your partner interact. How you argue, how and if you repair an argument, touching, not touching, tone of voice, sleeping arrangements....everything is absorbed by a child, whether the parent thinks it’s obvious or not.
2) Give your child respect - From the moment a baby enters the world, he or she feels the world and people around them. They know what they need and it’s the parent’s job to at least try to interpret that (i.e.: food, a hug, sleep, a dry diaper, etc.). Undermining a child’s crying state and dismissing the only way that they can communicate their feelings (which for most young children is non-verbal) is basically telling your child, “You’re not important enough to me” which only exacerbates an insecure attachment with his or her caregiver, as well as to others later in life.
By nature, children are egocentric, and will take on blame and assume fault or cause for things which are not about them. They deserve to be acknowledged and spoken to about what is happening in a situation and why. Don't assume they aren't aware. Most times they are more aware then we, the adults are.
3) The power of repair – Being willing to apologize to your child and be accountable when you make a mistake is one of the greatest gifts you can give to them. Modeling to them your security with exposing your own human foibles will instill a powerful trust between the two of you. Plus, your child will learn that it’s acceptable to make mistakes and more than okay to not be perfect. That in itself is a priceless gift.
4) Understanding your own childhood narrative – Dr. Daniel Siegel wrote, “Even with love and the best of intentions, we may be filled with old defenses that make our children’s experiences intolerable to us.” If a parent has unresolved issues from his or her own childhood, it is imperative that they take the time to understand and become mindful about their emotional responses to their child.
If a young father grew up with his own mother screaming at him whenever he cried, leaving him (as a child) to feel abandoned and shamed, then that would explain why that same young father experiences immense panic and discomfort when observing his 2 year old having a raging tantrum. If that same young father takes the time to intimately understand his own past, he can then separate out his own childhood pain, allowing him to effectively meet his 2 year old’s emotional needs.
5) Educate yourself on reasonable developmental expectations as well as early gender differences - Educating yourself about the brain is like putting money in the bank when it comes to your parental success. Knowing that your 3 year old's ability to listen to reason/logic is developmentally impossible (not until he or she is around 7 or 8) will alleviate many a power struggle as well as alleviate any chance of your child falsely interpreting that he or she is “bad.”
In addition, knowing that boys are kinetic learners compared to girls (who are more verbal learners/communicators) will help a parent to feel much more forgiving to a 4 year old boy who can’t sit still at the dinner table for more than 2 minutes. Louise Bates Ames's series of books starting with "Your One Year Old" followed by a book for each birthday up to age 14 are quick reads and wonderful guides for parents to refer to when grappling with challenging age appropriate behaviors.
6) Making eye contact/mirroring facial expressions – As young as infancy, babies and children assess threat, safety, and comfort based on your facial expression. Your ability to mirror your child’s present experience, sends the message that they are worthy of your connection with him or her. Herein lies the beginning stages of self confidence for your child which directly affects the kind of attachment he or she develops with you.
7) Touch/physical attention – You can’t spoil a baby or child when it comes to physical affection (pending the child hasn’t expressed not “wanting” a hug, which goes along with the idea of #2 – give your child respect). Research has shown that babies who aren’t held enough during infancy become depressed and given that touch releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone, it's no wonder that physical touch is vital for a healthy attachment.
For a child, a parent is a "safe base" which can be expressed with a holding a child’s hand, a hug, or just taking a moment to carefully examine a scrape on a knee. A child who experiences that “safe base” with their parent, has a much greater chance of developing a healthy attachment.
8) Be the PARENT - Parents have to be the container for their child's negative, frustrated or scared feelings. Being calm and containing in the face of a tantrum shows the child that the parent is in control and this serves as a model for the child as they get older. Having a temper tantrum with your child exacerbates any feelings of insecurity for them. Furthermore, if the parent is unable to recognize and take responsibility for their parental "hiccup," those experiences can result in a child feeling terrified and in certain cases even emotionally traumatized.
9) Be compassionate and curious – Showing enthusiasm and interest in your child as a different, separate human being who may think or feel differently than the parent is crucial for your child’s self esteem and for their bond with you. Showing compassion for their intense emotions or pain and not personalizing their periodic anger toward you (yes parents, your child is ALLOWED to FEEL anger toward you – it’s about teaching them HOW to appropriately express it) will create a strong trust between you and your child that is simply invaluable to his or her future.
10) Set healthy boundaries and limits for your child – Boundaries and limits are fundamental for children in order for their world to feel safe and secure. As much as your child may (literally) kick and scream about a consequence, a time out or not wanting to keep a consistent bedtime, it is vital to your child’s well being that you, the parent, be consistent within the boundary frame which you set for them. Acting in control when your child is out of control, helps your child learn how to regulate their own emotional experience as they develop and grow.
So parents, if there's at least one thing you to take away from this article, I hope you see how incredibly influential your role is as a parent. As much as your child comes into the world with his or her own "blueprint"/temperament, so much of his or her success in the world and in their future interpersonal relationships is largely dependent on their intimate relationship with you.
Go to www.earlymomentsmatter.org to learn about attachment and to get an award-winning toolkit that introduces ways in which parents and caregivers can help their children build secure attachments.
D.J. Siegel and M. Hartzell. Parenting From the Inside Out. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Chapter 1.
D.J. Siegel and M. Hartzell. Parenting From the Inside Out. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Chapter 5.
D.J. Siegel and M. Hartzell. Parenting From the Inside Out. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Chapter 6.