Parenting 101 – How to Create a Securely Attached Child
Now we arrive at the section everyone is waiting for. How do I avoid ‘messing my kids up’ and making sure they feel loved? Well, first of all, while we all strive to be the perfect parent, this is not possible. Most people want to be the best parent for their children, and at times when this isn’t possible, it is important to hold compassion and understanding for ourselves.
Nobody wants to mess their kids up, but in the end, we are only human. Now for the good stuff…
To create a secure attachment for our children, we need to form a secure base. This involves the creation of a space that will allow the child to explore and learn about their own autonomy, while also being present with them when they need the support.
Many different things can disrupt a secure attachment. Factors related to the child can include:
- Disabilities (physical or intellectual)
- Genetic disposition
Likewise, the following can be factors from the parent:
- Domestic Violence
- Depression (or other mental health issues)
- Parental history of abuse/neglect
- Postpartum Depression
And here are some other external factors
- Siblings (as well as the birth order of the child)
- Socioeconomic Status
- Social Media/Technology
As you can see, there are a wide variety of factors that can affect the attachment style of a child, and it is important to remember that a lot of these categories can end up out of our hands. We want to be the perfect parent to our child, but if something happens that causes us to grieve (death of someone close to us, divorce, etc.), or a disability presents itself, this will greatly affect how the child’s attachment style will form, and that is an understandable reality. The fact that socioeconomic status or having siblings can have a large effect is a potentially inevitable factor as well.
So now let’s look at what we can do to raise a secure child. The biggest tip is to build a secure base from the start. This secure base can be created by being attuned with the needs of our child whenever possible. Think of your child as a flower; we need to feed it to keep it alive. We can focus on food (sunlight) and water, but humans are deeper than that. To raise a secure child, we need to also focus on their mental well-being and feed that too. Just like making sure we offer a child food and drink when needed, we need to offer them emotional comfort in the same way.
Check out this video by Circle of Security International that speaks to how our children learn from our emotions:
The Relation, Love, Happiness Project have an acronym that can help you be attuned with your child. They advise remembering to ‘REACT’
- Respond ASAP
- Evaluate what’s wrong
- Acknowledge feelings
- Comfort with touch
- Take it easy
By approaching your child quickly and finding out what need is not being met, we can be there emotionally for our child. While this alone can be helpful, we need to acknowledge feelings and comfort with physical touch to create a secure base. Physical touch is important as it allows the child to feel present and connected to you in a way that is more intense than language and eye contact. For the child, you need to be there emotionally, visually, and physically, so give love, look lovingly, and focus on loving touches (cuddles, holding hands, etc.). The Atlantic covers this concept well, so check out the link if you would like more details.
The Gottman Institute has an acronym of their own worth noting. When creating trust through a secure bond it is essential to ‘ATTUNE’:
- Turning toward
- Non-defensive responding
Using this method with a child can allow the bonding to form as you attune to their needs. The importance here is the tolerance, understanding and non-defensive responding as we approach the child to support their needs. These non-judgemental attributes combined with empathy can allow validation of the child’s experience. When we are aware of a child’s needs we remain present (by turning towards) and validation can support the child in meeting their needs but also learning how to regulate their own emotions.
While our presence is essential in building a secure attachment, too much presence can lead to ambivalently attached children. The child must know you are there for them, and once the child is successfully soothed we can place them back where they were, allowing the child to explore again. If we absorb the child’s problem and avoid the situation they are distressed about it will likely teach the child how to be ambivalent. We need to make sure the child can learn from their distress as they learn how to face challenges and build their autonomy.
Another strong piece when building a secure attachment is offering your child the freedom to explore when they so desire, with the knowledge that you are there if/when they need you. At a young age when a child begins exploring (usually when they start crawling or walking), they will look back at you to make sure everything is okay. Attentiveness is important during this time for the child to feel comfortable with their exploration. If the parent is performing an action that the child perceives as dismissive, or ignoring (ie: face focused on their phone for a long time) this may produce avoidant tendencies. Likewise, if the parent is performing an action that the child perceives as anxious or concerned this may produce ambivalent tendencies. With these above examples, it would need to be consistent for the child to build these attachments, rather than once or twice. When it comes to being attentive, the goal is for the parent to be aware of where the child is, and making sure the child knows you are there, and knows you are being present with them.
The final piece to help build a secure attachment is the teaching of emotional regulation. Here’s a scenario:
You are taking your infant child to the doctor’s office to go get their next round of shots. This is an appointment that no child likes and you are expecting your child to have a hard time. You get into the doctor’s office and the shots begin, your child is screaming and crying hysterically at the pain in their arm.
At this moment the child is heavily distressed, and so now is a key moment to teach the child how to regulate their emotions. The way the parent acts at times like this (when it is consistent) will likely shape their child’s attachment style. Here are the options:
- The parent gets upset and cries with the child. They acknowledge the child’s pain by reflecting it back.
- This teaches the child that life is hard and when things come up these emotional reactions are appropriate
- In turn, this will create an ambivalent attachment
- The parent laughs and tells the child to “suck it up”, maybe including “it’s just a shot”.
- This teaches the child that emotions should not be seen and their behaviour is inappropriate
- In turn, this will create an avoidant attachment
- The parent gives the child a warm hug and says “I know, it hurt didn’t it? That’s okay, everything will be okay.”
- This teaches the child that it is okay to feel and show their emotions, and the child feels secure and supported
- In turn, this will create a secure attachment
The key to these moments is to validate the child’s experience and following the ‘REACT’ acronym from earlier.
There are a plethora of factors that can affect the attachment style of a child. Some can be easily controlled, some feel out of our hands, and others can be unpredictable. It is important to remember that every parent is doing the best they can with a child. There are common strains in any relationship, and this can be a factor within the parent-child relationship as well. Be gentle with yourself and keep doing the best you can to your child.
Parenting 102 – Attachment with Young People and Adolescents
While the key formulation period for a person’s attachment style is in the early years, it is still possible to support a child’s attachment style as their lives progress. As children get older they start spending less and less time with their parents, and so the opportunity to explore their autonomy will likely support their previously formed attachment style. For example; a child may be anxious to have time away from their parents (if they are ambivalently attached) or may choose to spend as little time as possible (if they are avoidantly attached). The youth who are securely attached will commonly hold less high-risk behaviors while having fewer mental health problems and higher social skills and coping strategies. While an attachment style has already been formed for the child, there are still ways to support a child’s attachment style as they grow into adults.
One of the keys to building a secure attachment is to make sure a child feels safe to explore the world, knowing they can return to their primary caregiver for support when needed. As a child grows up they will form social bonds with friends and begin to explore this world. When this happens it is important to avoid a detachment from the parental bond. Even with the distance that naturally occurs as children grow older and explore their autonomy parents must remain emotionally connected to their children. From here, the emphasis is on the secure base. The children are able to leave and explore, and if the base created by the parents offers safety and security then the child is likely to feel secure in their attachment.
For example: if an adolescent’s parents show anxiety or judgment around their child’s choices, this child may not feel comfortable coming to them to talk about any exploration with sex, drugs, or rock and roll. The child believes ‘they won’t be there for me’ which emphasizes their insecure attachment. However, if these parents offer the child the space to talk about these aspects of their life the child is more likely to feel secure in knowing their parents are there to support them. This exploration of autonomy allows the child to build a secure attachment even when outside of the home. If a child knows their parents are supportive, even when they are not present, this can greatly support the child’s secure attachment.
It is important to remember that as a child gets older and explores their autonomy they are likely to but heads with their parents. Conflict in this vein is natural, and by no means a poor sign of relationship quality. It is how these arguments are resolved that can support a secure attachment style. If a fight with your child includes name-calling, aggressive language or spiteful tones this will be more likely to drive a child into a more insecure attachment style (note the above example). The key in managing conflict is to state your own opinion, while still validating and empathizing with the other’s point of view. If they don’t understand where you are coming from a deeper explanation may support their understanding. Even if the child doesn’t get their desired outcome from the conflict, validation and empathy will still support the secure bond of the child.
So considering the above, there are few aspects that are paramount when supporting an older child or adolescent with their secure attachment style; empathy, support (when appropriate), respect, and consistency. While empathy has already been discussed, support needs to be offered as well. Obviously, this is not to say that you need to support your child in every decision they make. In exploring their newfound autonomy your child may try things that you would not approve of, and your extended expression of disapproval (ie: a lecture or rant) will likely make it hard to connect with them. Offering something more like ‘While I don’t agree with your choices…’ before validating their experience. If they have crossed a boundary let them know, but make sure you are empathetic in your tone and phrasing (ie: ‘While I am quite upset to hear this, I am still here for you.’). These actions also show respect for your child, as you are offering your opinion while still respecting their choice, and more importantly their autonomy to make such a choice. The final key is consistency. Be there whenever you can, and if you can’t be there in that moment, be honest and make time to show up for your child (The A.R.E. Model can help with this).
It’s hard to forget your own teenage years. It’s awkward as we learn who we are by trying new things, and sometimes we make mistakes in the process. We were all there, and as we get older it becomes easy to judge teenagers on their choices as we are not in that stage of life anymore. Remember that these years are the times to test out their autonomy, and find out who they truly are. How you show up for your kids will help shape them into the adults they become. Be present, be consistent, and be there for them when they need you. Good luck!
Attachment Theory without the ‘Mom and Dad’
It is understandable if you’re getting the vibe that to give your child a secure attachment they need to be raised perfectly. A thought like this can be overwhelming and offer some strong expectations of ourselves. We need to remember that there is a range of factors that build a secure base for our child. Families in today’s society are moving away from the conventional ‘nuclear family,’ and that doesn’t mean they cannot create a secure base for their children. We need to focus on the ‘how’ more than the ‘who’.
When looking at Attachment Theory, we focus on the ‘primary caregiver,’ which stereotypically is the mother. In today’s society, we seem to be shifting away from this stereotype, with stay-at-home dads being more common. Even outside of this, same-sex parents can offer a life without a ‘mother’ or ‘father,’ or potentially twice as many! When we throw in single parents on top we can see that children are being raised in a plethora of different environments, and each house likely has a different family dynamic. When thinking this way, we do not view any houses as superior in creating a secure base due to the gender roles, or the number of parents. We need to focus on the role of the ‘primary caregiver.’
These days, the primary caregiver can be a child’s mum, dad, grandparent, older sibling, nanny, and so much more. While the child is carried for nine months by someone with reproductive organs (and biology creates a natural bond in this way), an attachment style is built by the person that the child will engage with the most in the first few years of their life. If you are this person, it is important to be as attentive as possible with your child in these early few years, as they will learn so much from you!
While the above discusses the creation of the primary caregiver, it is important that as many people as possible in the child’s life can reflect the same model. It can be common for young children to spend a lot of time in a child care center or being babysat by nannies or other family members. If these people can remain attentive to the child as well, it will help the child better regulate their emotions. In the end, we are all role models for those who look up to us. How can we make sure we are guiding any children in our lives in the right direction? (See the Resources page)
Cultural Concepts Around Attachment Theory
While John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did a great deal of research on the topic of attachment theory it is important to note that their assumptions are based mostly on the psychology of parent-child relationships in Western middle-class families. This is not the majority of the population, and so is unlikely to speak universally for Attachment Theory. Thankfully, research since this dynamic duo has continued to look at the parental bond in children throughout the world to keep the main theories around Attachment relevant. While this information could challenge the idea of Attachment Theory, it is important to note that the cultures studied within the Attachment Theory framework have found factors that can create a secure and insecure bond.
When looking at the difference in cultures, the main difference in how attachment is formed comes from both how the primary caregiver cares for their child, and how the culture forms their primary caregivers. Look at the following graph and you can see that many cultures with different values on child-raising, and the number of securely attached is fairly consistent in most cases. For an example of the former, we look at Kenya, where mothers of children will rarely cuddle or interact playfully with their babies, however, most infants in this area appear to be securely attached. How is this possible? While the mother may not show many physical or playful interactions, they are very responsive in making sure the needs of their infants are met. With the structure of Kenya’s cultural and social conventions in mind, this responsiveness is enough for children to be securely attached in this area.
To speak to the latter factor there is a need to consider who takes on the role of the primary caregiver. While western culture commonly has a parent (mother or father) as the primary caregiver, some cultures avoid this monotropic bond. It is easy to think of the old proverb “It takes a village to raise a family”, which stems from Africa where this can commonly be the case. Some African countries will allow a child to have multiple primary caregivers at once in order to meet the needs of the child. The same can be said of the indigenous Australians, who offer mutual assistance and support to parents using the entire community. While the mother may be seen as the main carer of the child, it is the grandparents who commonly hold the authoritarian role, while the extended family also share responsibility in caring for the needs of the child as well. As well as this, the adults in these communities will rarely interfere with the activities of the children to allow them to learn and experiment in risk-taking through controlled dangers. Children are then able to test their autonomy and independence within a supportive environment. This sounds quite similar to what is offered by Ainsworth’s ‘Strange Situation’. When looking at these factors through the Attachment lens we can identify that while there is no PRIMARY caregiver, the care given to the child allows their needs to be met. Having multiple people in this role also offers more people for the child to feel securely attached to, so it may be less likely for the child to feel rejection from a singular essential person.
The concept of a village raising a family can also be taken literally when looking at the pygmy tribes in Africa and Asia. In these communities, the child is passed through the community, rather than focusing on a single parent. As well as this, children are not left to cry, with most crying infants being soothed within 3 seconds of crying. This allows the child to have their needs met and build a secure attachment to their entire community. As they grow into adolescents the members of the pygmy tribe become the hunter-gatherers and so a secure attachment is needed in order to leave the community to seek food and safely return, and so the use of the village allows a more attentive level of parenting which can teach self-regulation through multiple members of the community.
While the above simply offers a few examples of Attachment Theory in non-Western culture, it can demonstrate that factors outside of those described by Bowlby and Ainsworth can allow for a secure bond to be formed. While we have previously discussed the lack of importance around the relationship of the primary caregiver to the child, this shows us that the most important factors in universally creating a secure bond are how the needs of the child are met. If a child’s attachment system is activated (ie: they are sensing danger or needs are not met) and there is one or multiple people that the child can feel safe around this attachment becomes deactivated and security ensues. It is about the sensitive and prompt responses to these attachment systems that can create a secure attachment, rather than the use of a primary caregiver. While much more research needs to be done to allow a universal claim around this theory, these ideas show strong potential.