Nurturing the Parent-Child Bond with Secure Attachment
With isolation and COVID-19 encompassing our lives, we may feel like we aren’t living up to our own expectations. How do we plan the perfect weekend? How do we stimulate and expose our children to adequate social connections? After all, good intentions often lead to so many questions and pressures these days. Maintaining a secure attachment at all times is key.
In this blog, I have information that may help to alleviate some of the pressure or “mom-guilt” (or “dad-guilt”!) that we so often hear about. With the extra stressors, it may feel like you are too often snapping at your children or having a “knee-jerk” reaction to a behaviour. It’s okay to lose your temper at times. We all do it! As humans, it is unreasonable to expect to be the perfect parent 100% of the time. And those times that you find yourself losing your cool? That’s where a secure attachment and healthy repair can help to make all the difference in the world. Read on to learn more about how to strengthen your relationship with your children.
As humans, we are born with the innate desire to attach to our caregiver. It is the drive for children to want to remain close to their caregiver and view their caregiver as a place of safety (Siegal and Hartzell, 2014). Four attachment styles describe the relationship between a parent and child.
A secure attachment style is characterized by a stable foundation of safety and unconditional love. When parents act as a “secure base”, their children gain the confidence to explore and discover their world, knowing that their caregivers will be there to guide and protect them, even from afar. With this element of trust, the child knows that if they make a mistake it won’t break the relationship.
However, when caregivers, for whatever reason, don’t engage consistently and reliably, this results in an insecure attachment style. An insecure attachment style can be one of three types.
An anxious-ambivalent attachment style is characterized by a caregiver’s inconsistent communication and connection. This can alternate from being too hands-on, to being heavily removed. The child does not know which version of the caregiver to expect, resulting in uncertainty if their needs will be met. The child may exhibit emotional dysregulation, mistrust, and insecurity.
An anxious-avoidant attachment style consists of a caregiver’s repeated absence and dismissal of the child. As a result, the child may be avoiding closeness with the caregiver in an attempt to avoid further pain. The child may develop anxiety and learn to be distrustful of future connections.
The third type of insecure attachment, a disorganized style, usually develops as a result of neglect or abuse, or when instances of rage or addictive behaviours are commonly observed. Parents who engage in these behaviours with their children often have a disorganized attachment with their own caregiver.
Disorganized attachment can hinder brain development, leading to social difficulties, emotional impairments, trouble in school, and challenges in future personal relationships. This attachment style is the most dangerous for a child and often requires external support to heal.
BUT I DON’T HAVE A SECURE ATTACHMENT
If at this point you recognize that the attachment with your child may not be secure, don’t stop reading out of frustration. There are ways to remedy this. It is common for relationship dynamics and an individual’s personality to change over time. Just as these aspects shift, an attachment style does not need to remain the same either. There are ways to heal and restore a healthy and secure attachment for the future.
DO TRY THIS AT HOME- THE ABCS OF ATTACHMENT
The ABCs of the attachment process (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014) summarize the importance of communication in attachment.
A is for attunement, which means mindfully mirroring your child’s mental state. Responding to our children with attunement allows them to feel understood and supported.
B is for balance. When children feel understood by their caregivers (attunement) they develop a healthy sense of emotional regulation.
C is for coherence. When a child is attuned to and feels balanced in their emotions, a sense of coherence is developed.
Here’s an example to better outline the ABCs of Attachment. Let’s say my child came home from school, upset that someone made fun of her favorite new dinosaur shirt. It may be my instinct to respond with something like, “don’t worry, you and I like your shirt. That’s all that matters”. Of course, no one wants to see their child cry, so trying to get a smile back on her face as quickly as possible is natural. However, I am not attuning to her emotions or mental state by telling her “not to worry” and brushing past the sadness. This creates an imbalance for my child. Unfortunately, my child may begin to learn that it’s not okay to be sad about the teasing, so she puts a smile on her face. Furthermore, while her face may be smiling, the sadness from the teasing continues to live on inside.
RESPONDING WITH THE ABC’s OF ATTACHMENT
My child comes home from school, upset that someone made fun of her favorite new dinosaur shirt. She is crying and very sad. I acknowledge her sadness, mirroring her mental state (attunement). I may say “wow, that sounds like your feelings were really hurt. That would make me feel sad, too. Can you tell me more about it?” With this, I am not only reminding my child that I am here to support her, but I’m instilling a self-acceptance in her. When she knows her emotions are acknowledged, she knows she can feel her feelings, without judgment or negative repercussions (balance). Finally, when my daughter regularly experiences attunement and balance, this leads to a sense of consistency between her internal emotions and her external experience with her caregiver (coherence).
A secure attachment style can be developed and strengthened when the ABCs of attachment are regularly demonstrated.
With stress levels at an all-time high, there may be times that we respond in ways that are abrupt and unkind. This doesn’t have to be a new pattern. This is where implementing a repair is important.
The repair is an acknowledgment to your child and yourself that you made a mistake. Maybe you got frustrated with asking for the umpteenth time today for the toys to be put away. Maybe you’ve had it up to here with the screaming and name-calling. We get it! Even adults have big feelings at times. A secure relationship is not based on never making mistakes. It is based on communication and trust. This is where the repair attempt or apology comes in.
In our society, we will often see adults pressuring children to apologize to their siblings -“now say sorry and hug!”, but when adults make mistakes, it is brushed off with a shrug and a simple “it’s fine, they know I love them”. This assumption is a strong one. Adults must model how to apologize.
AN APOLOGY IS NECESSARY
A repair consists of an apology, acknowledging the misstep, and hopes for the future. For example, “I’m sorry that I raised my voice at you when I tripped over the toy. I was frustrated. I’m sorry that it scared you. Next time, I will try not to yell when I have big feelings. Can we work together to clean up your toys so that no one hurts themselves?”
This not only restores the disconnect that occurred when you yelled or became angry, but models to your child that it’s completely okay to make mistakes.
Our children learn a lot about themselves and their place in the world through the ways that their caregivers interact with them. Being mindful during parent-child interaction is a great way to demonstrate to the child their importance. Through emotional connection, our children begin to develop their sense of self.
CONNECT WITH US
At Unstuck, we can help you identify patterns of behaviour that may be hindering a healthy connection with your children and loved ones. Sometimes, these can be actions that were modelled to us when we were children ourselves. Whatever the case may be, if you would like to recruit an Unstuck psychologist to join your team, call us to book your Risk-Free Consultation.
Registered Provisional Psychologist
Siegel, D. J., & Hartzell, M. (2014). Parenting from the inside out: how a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Perigee