portrait of mother and son

Helping Children Form Secure Attachments

Attachment is the deep and enduring connection established between a child and caregiver in the first several years of life. Attachment is not something that parents do to their children. Rather, it is something that children and parents create together in an ongoing reciprocal relationship. Attachment to a protective and loving caregiver who provides guidance and support is a basic human need. There are certain practices that parents should be aware of to help form secure attachments with their children.

Limit Setting and Expectations

Children need parents to set limits so that they will feel safe. When infants or young children have parents who set consistent rules and age-appropriate expectations, it can allow them to grow in areas of cognitive development as well as social emotional development. It is important to remember that each child’s development is unique and children may meet developmental stages at different times as compared to their peers. Concerns regarding developmental and intellectual delays should be considered when forming expectations for your child.

When there is a lack of limits set for children, it is common to see an increase in challenging behaviors such as: aggression, defiance or oppositional behaviors and/or withdrawal. Children need to know not only what is expected from them, but the rules of the household. When expectations are not clearly defined or are too high, power struggles may occur between parents and children.

Natural Consequences

Consequences are designed to promote responsibility, correct mistakes, make up for what’s been done wrong and help children become competent and capable. A consequence can be something as simple as wiping up a glass of spilled milk.

Consequences should never be dangerous, demeaning or humiliating. If appropriate, removing the child from the situation for a short-time (such as a time-out) can be an effective consequence. For some children, especially those who have experienced trauma, a “time-in” may be more appropriate. Having the child sit close by mom while mom conveys her love with warm touches, smiles and eye contact can help the child calm and get back on track.

Routines

All children need structure and routine. When children know what to expect, they are able to better get through their day and handle challenges as they occur. Having consistent routines is also a way to prevent challenging behavior. Routine and structure also help children know what to expect from their parents.

Parents need to provide structure and set the rhythm of the day that will help the child feel safe: a morning routine which is the same each day for waking, washing, dressing, feeding pets, eating breakfast, and going to school. On weekends, the morning routine can be the same, but instead of school, start chores. Make time each day for free play and special times for cuddling. Have meals at the same time each day, and a comforting bedtime routine. Create family rituals that will reinforce lasting memories and “family time.”

When the day is going to contain a special event, it is important to prepare the child ahead of time by describing the event and explaining what behavior is expected of the child. When the special or new event is something that may be difficult for the child, such as starting school or a field trip where the child will be getting on a bus without mom, create drawings in a small book that the child can take with him. It is important that the book include a beginning picture of the child at home with his family, and the child returning home to his family at the end.

Physical Touch/Affection/Bonding

Touch and love are synonymous. Therefore, parents need to provide as much touching and cuddling with their children as possible. Babies are born with the desire to connect and attach to their parent. These early foundations are often attained by the holding/feeding cycle between parent and child. Babies quickly learn that their parents will meet their needs and be responsive to their emotional states.

Toddlers and older children also require physical touch and affection from their parents. Toddlers and older children may be able to communicate their needs more clearly, but still require their parents to provide reassurance that they are always available to meet their need for more affection.

Nurturing

It is important to balance limit setting and consequences with opportunities for nurturing. This will help promote a healthy parent-child relationship. Nurturing activities can often be simple moments together with your child such as reading books, cooking dinner or singing songs.

Teaching Responsibility

Having a daily routine helps reduce anxiety by teaching competence and instilling self-esteem. Doing chores help children attach by contributing to the family and learning from their parents.

Children as young as 18 months of age can begin by helping to put away their toys. Putting away the forks and spoons becomes a matching game for toddlers. Children can help with laundry, making their beds, folding and putting away their own clothes, setting the table, feeding and cleaning up after pets, unloading dishwashers and helping with yard work by the age of five. Cuddling and praise should be interspersed with chores and given as a reward for a job well done.

Validating Feelings

As parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to listen to them and understand and accept what they are telling us. When an infant cries, it is up to the parents to interpret her message. An example is when a baby cries and Mom responds with empathy; “Oh, sweetie, you’re hungry. Let’s get your bottle,” (or change your diaper, take off your sweater because you’re too hot, you’re sad). Through thousands of these interactions, infants learn how to interpret and name their feelings, including the basic emotions of happy, sad, mad, surprised, etc.

Even as they get older, many children are often unable to talk directly about what is bothering them. They may not even know what’s bothering them. Instead, they act out or have a meltdown. Simply paying attention and listening is enough to get a child to open up. Parents are then able to validate their child’s feelings in either case “you must have been so mad” or “I understand why that hurt your feelings.”

Reading Your Child’s Cues

Babies or toddlers may cry to communicate a want or a need. There may be many reasons your child is crying. He may be tired, hungry or hurt. It may be hard to determine the reason every time your child is upset; but responding to your child in a sensitive way will help show your child that you are there to help him sort through his feelings and get his needs met.

Children mirror their parents emotional responses including facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. When parents are able to respond in a calm and thoughtful way it helps children learn how to regulate their emotions. Moreover, parents who are able to “tune in” to their child’s own emotional state are more able to predict and comfort their child before they become upset.

What is your favorite way to connect with your child?

Heather Rotolo is the Clinical Director at the Behavior Clinic at Penfield Children’s Center and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. As the administrator of the Behavior Clinic she provides supervision and support to staff and colleagues around the issues of social emotional development in young children.

Sarah Wittmann is a Licensed Professional Counselor and provides service coordination in the Birth-to-Three program at Penfield Children’s Center.  Her focus is mental health and she provides extra support to the parents and children with whom she works.

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