The Science Behind Attachment
If I were to go to a mall and take a random poll about what makes a good parent, the answers would vary greatly. People could answer anything from religious beliefs to moral dilemmas, parenting styles, and ethical discussions. However, I want to provide you with a much simpler answer: it’s not what religion you are, your styles of parenting, or even your moral code. Being a good parent is simply about attachment. Now, before you stop reading here, rolling your eyes and thinking this is one of those over-the-top-never-let-your-child-feel-hurt-too-sensitive parenting blogs – give me a chance! My reasoning is backed by decades of research, though it does tend to align with the gentle parenting vein. The whole idea is to provide a secure attachment with your child by making sure they feel safe, seen, soothed, and ultimately secure. If those four ingredients are included, quite honestly, it doesn’t matter if you are Hindu, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. In this blog post, I am going to give an overview of the importance of developing a secure attachment with your child. If this post strikes your fancy and you want to learn more, I suggest starting your journey with reading The Power of Showing Up, by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. In keeping with our cooking metaphor, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of what a secure attachment is. What is a Secure Attachment?
If you have googled parenting at all then you have probably come across the four types of attachment styles. Each label of attachment is a way of characterizing the different types of attachment that tend to form, influencing how people will interact with the world. John Bowlby was one of the first to study the attachment between mother and child (and later father and child). He found specific characteristics that could be defined into four categories: Secure, Insecure-Avoidance, Insecure-Ambivalent, and Insecure-Disorganized attachment styles. In his experiment, he brought kids and their mothers into a facility in which the mother and child would enter a room with toys and then play together. After a while, another adult (a stranger) would enter the room and the mother would leave. There was a two-way mirror from which the conductors of the experiment could watch the kid’s reactions. The kids with secure attachments would be upset for a short period but were ultimately able to calm down and start playing again. Upon the mother’s return, the kids would show joy and usually hug their mothers. The kids that had an insecure-avoidant attachment would focus intently on the toys and show no signs of distress as their mother departed, and also ignored or avoided her when she returned. Kids who had an insecure-ambivalent attachment would become inconsolable both with their mother left and when she returned, completely unable to play. The kids who had an insecure-disorganized attachment style would sometimes become inconsolable, sometimes be excited, and sometimes not care at all when their mother left and/or returned. It was discovered that each attachment style has a direct correlation to how attuned parents are to their child’s needs. The more attuned the parent, the more secure the attachment. Attuned means being aware of, attentive, and responsive to a person’s needs, sometimes without them even vocalizing what is going on (especially with kids, since they lack the cognitive ability to vocalize needs until much later in childhood.) We are going to talk about specific ways to attune to your child later in this blog. But first, why is this so important? The Benefits of a Secure Attachment
The first chapter of The Power of Showing Up (Siegel and Bryson, 2020) is littered with quotable phrases that powerfully depict the importance of creating a secure attachment with your child. I will try my best to recreate that here. If I were to go back to that mall and take a poll on how parents want their kids to turn out, I would get answers about leadership, happiness, meaningful relationships, being emotionally regulated, kind, helpful, generous, and in general a positive, contributing member of society. Well, guess what? The research on child development strongly and clearly states, without argument, that the best predictor of how a child will turn out, in terms of everything listed above, is dependent on that child experiencing a secure attachment with at least one adult in their life. Again, it doesn’t matter what your religion, culture, or ethnicity are, or even where you are in the world… this is a universal fact. The study that was originally done by John Bowlby in the 1960s has been recreated around the world and the findings have been about the same time and time again. So why is this? This is because neurons that fire together, wire together. As we interact with our kids, we are literally and figuratively shaping their brains. With repeated experiences, their brain starts to form a concept of how they expect to treat and be treated by others. The relationships kids have with their primary caregivers are the very first relationships they ever have and thus set the tone for the rest of their relationships to come. That is a pretty powerful role to have as a parent (and scary!). As a recap, the benefits of a secure attachment are:
· Higher self-esteem · Better emotional regulation · Greater academic success · Better coping skills · More positive engagement with school peers · Closer friendships · Happier relationships with parents · Stronger leadership qualities · A greater sense of self-agency · More empathy · Greater trust in life
The good news is that you don’t have to be perfect!
Secure Does Not Mean Perfect
Providing a secure attachment does not mean being a perfect parent. It’s actually quite the opposite. It means that you get to mess up, get mad, feel stressed, react to stress, feel scared, and be a human. The beautiful thing about parenting is that everything can be a teaching moment. When you mess up, you simply get the beautiful and natural opportunity to apologize to your kids. Kids learn best through modeling. So, when you mess up and yell and then apologize, you are modeling how to make amends. They are seeing you do it and experience it by being on the receiving end of your apology. They get to experience a sincere apology from someone they love.
Remember, neurons that fire together wire together. So, as your child sees this each and every time you mess up, that becomes rooted in them. A phrase I like to use is “Your voice becomes your child’s inner voice one day.” So, if that is true, when you apologize consistently if you mess up, they learn that skill and will one day also apologize when they mess up. Now to be clear, we don’t get to give our kids whiplash and just assume we can apologize and make it right every time. We do have to also model emotional regulation ourselves (we want them to learn that, too). But if we mess up as parents every once in a while, that’s okay.
So How Do I Create a Secure Attachment?
I’m so glad you asked! It’s one of those really simple answers that isn’t always exactly easy to do… Show up. In every way. Go to your kids’ events as much as you can, carve out quality time, play, laugh, be silly, and create memories together. Be there for the boo-boos and the break-ups. Listen to their stories like they are the most interesting things you have ever heard. Learn when to teach and when to just go with it. Don’t take life so seriously. Carve out time to just be and be together.
The problem we tend to run into is that we are humans and we work hard, we’re tired, and we don’t always want to play or have the energy to laugh… and this is when “showing up” gets really hard! Sometimes, as parents, we just don’t have it within us to show up. And yet we still do. We figure it out and we do it, because that’s our job.
Siegel and Bryson have created a way to help us do that job. They have come up with 4 ingredients to combine to ensure a secure attachment. Kids must feel seen, safe, soothed, and secure. As long as kids have those four things most of the time, then a secure attachment is much easier to achieve. Let’s briefly go over each concept:
Feeling seen means you feel understood. When kids feel understood they are much more likely to be cooperative and accept a consequence. When people feel understood, it takes away shame and guilt from a situation. So, the next time your kids do something that leaves you thinking, “What the heck, why would you do that?” Stop yourself and get curious. Silently and sincerely ask yourself, “Why would they do that?” Figure out what is going on beneath the behavior and try to see it through their eyes. Check on my blog on Reflecting Feeling to learn a quick way to convey understanding to your kids.
Safety seems obvious to most people and most parents assume this means not letting their kids jump off the counter or stopping siblings from getting into a brawl. And while, yes, that is all part of it, safety also means emotional safety. Do your kids feel safe enough to “stand up to you?” Can they tell you when they disagree? Do you allow them to negotiate with you? Are they allowed to disagree? Can they share their disappointment with you, whether it’s about you or some other social thing going on? Providing emotional safety is just as important as physical safety.
Again, most parents tend to think of this as tending to scraped knees, but it is so much more than handling just the physical boo-boos. This means emotional soothing as well. It means soothing your teen’s first heartbreak, or listening to your 8-year-old describe how unfair it is that Sally got the pink chair again when she already had it yesterday. This also means responding with compassion when your kids do something wrong or get in trouble. Yes, you always need to enforce the consequences, but you can do so with love and empathy. No need to yell.
If you have all three of the above ingredients, then you also have this last one: Secure. If your kids are seen, soothed, and safe, then they will ultimately feel secure. Secure to grow, secure to take healthy risks, and know you will be there when they fail. They will feel secure to try hard things because they know you will support them, and secure to try out different personalities in those awkward middle school years till they find the one that fits just right. All of this is possible because they know they have unconditional love from you.
Creating a secure attachment requires a tremendous amount of work, but the rewards are so worth it. If you put in a little extra work in the beginning, then (in theory) you can pave a smoother (though not perfect) path for the rest of parenting. When kids have a secure attachment, they are more cooperative. You will have more fun together, you will all laugh more, and they will listen better.
That is what WellNest Counseling is all about: bringing wellness back into your nest. So, if you read this blog and want to learn more, feel free to reach out to us. One of our passions is working with parents to help them learn to create a secure attachment with their kids, thus bringing more joy back to your nest!
1. Bretherton, I. (1992). The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759–775. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1999
2. Faber, J., King, J., & Faber, A. (2022). How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life With Children Ages 2-7. Lagom.
3. Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2020). The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired. Ballantine Books.