What is attachment theory and parenting, and how can we create ‘healthy attachment’ with our babies and children? The types of attachment styles and affects this will have, and the conscious parenting changes we can implement to create the foundation which will help our children to create positive relationships with themselves and others.
Attachment theory states that a healthy emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver is essential to their personal development.
It contains a large amount of research which seems to support a more thorough understanding of our capacities to develop and maintain intimate relationships.
The way that parents (particularly the primary caregiver) interact with their infant during the first few months of their lives largely determines the type of attachment they will form and a blueprint for relationships throughout the baby’s life.
It has been found that individuals can become traumatized by early attachment disturbances in a primary caregiver, and this has been linked to PTSD, anxiety, addictions and various personality disorders.
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Theorists have taken the basic theory further by studying the variations in the quality of caregiving, the degree of responsiveness and sensitivity, and how this affected the attachment.
So if the mother figure interacts with the child in a way that they can develop trust and feel safe, secure, affirmed, and valued, then the child has a good chance of developing their innate capacities, organize their experiences effectively and create positive relationships.
A lack of attunement or misattunement from a parent or primary caregiver results in an insecure attachment developing in the relationship with their child
There are three main styles of attachment:
- Secure attachment
A child is said to be securely attached when they seem to trust that their caregiver is there for them and will return when they’re gone. The caregiver is present, attuned to and consistent with the child, and the child feels generally loved and cared for, and trusts that their needs will be met = happy child!
Securely attached children feel more confident in exploring their environment, and tend to be more empathic and caring.
They tend to have a better capacity for intimate relationships later in life.
A child is said to have this kind of ‘attachment’ when they are insecure and overemotional when it comes to their caregiver/s. The child has learned that the best way to get their needs met is to cling to their caregiver.
This results from inconsistent parenting.
At times the parent is attuned, nurturing, sensitive and able to respond to the child effectively. Other times they may be insensitive, intrusive or emotionally unavailable, and may vacillate between the 2 states, so the child is often confused by the parents’ unpredictable behavior.
As adults, the children who’ve developed this attachment tend to be self-critical and insecure. They seek approval and reassurance from others, yet this never relieves their self-doubt.
In relationships, there’s a deep-seated fear that they are going to be rejected so they are often anxious and not trusting. This drives them to feel overly dependent on their partner.
This pattern develops when the parent has difficulty being emotionally present for the child. They may be cold, non-emotive, their hearts shut down and distant, even if they are intellectually present and verbally communicating.
These parents also discourage crying and encourage premature independence in their children.
With rejecting attachment figures, the child has learned that acknowledging and displaying emotion leads to rejection or punishment.
By not crying or outwardly expressing their feelings, they are often able to at least partially gratify one of their attachment needs – remaining physically close to a parent.
So they learn to shut down emotionally 😥
Children identified as having an avoidant attachment with a parent tend to disconnect from their bodily needs. They may never show outwardly a desire for closeness, warmth, affection, or love, as a defensive mechanism.
According to Dan Siegel, in The Whole-Brain Child, when parents are distant or removed, even very young children “intuitively pick up the feeling that their parents have no intention of getting to know them, which leaves them with a deep sense of emptiness.”
Later in life, they often steer clear of emotional closeness in romantic relationships. They deny their vulnerability and use repression & addiction to manage emotions triggered in situations that activate their ‘attachment’ needs.
They may choose not to get involved in a close relationship for fear of rejection.
Our formed ideas of ‘attachments’ create the expectations we bring into relationships, which can be problematic.
Many parents are inconsistently attuned to their children. When we have not fully healed ourselves, it is actually not possible to be attuned and have our hearts open and able to give love to our children 100% the time.
Attachment researchers have found that parents treat their infants much as they had been treated as children, even if they consciously had intentions not to, or wanted to be supportive and loving.
What I have found is that when I know that I am unable to be fully present & loving towards my son, it’s always because an emotion has been triggered.
I’ve found that if I suppress it, he reflects the emotion – will become unsettled, demanding, clingy or even distressed. As soon as I take the time to connect to myself and honor how I’m feeling, and feel the real emotion, he’ll settle.
In Creating a 4th Trimester & Healthy Attachment I talk about the importance of honoring ourselves.
Mummy’s & Daddy’s – look after yourselves!!
This involves honoring our own feelings!
So here are the 3 essential elements:
- Let Your Child BE who they are
Donald Winnicott was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst with a focus on parenting. I always liked his message whilst studying psychology at Uni (although I didn’t necessarily enjoy his writings as they were SO dry 😕 ).
His belief was that controlling parenting created a false self within the child as these demands create roles in the child which prevent the child developing a true sense of self.
He believed in letting a child be angry rather than being moralistic about ‘bad behavior’, and was wary about ‘good’ children, linking this with a developed false/protective self.
He had a particular dislike for people who seemed to be wanting to ward off or avoid their own sadness by demanding cheerfulness or laughter from a baby, believing that this demand at the child interferes with their connection to their real self.
In Compassionate Child-Rearing, Robert Firestone describes how parents very often confuse their own feelings of longing and the desire to get love from their child for actual love and concern for the child’s wellbeing. This neediness, of course, comes from the parent feeling unloved within themselves.
We are not loving our children when we are actually projecting a demand that they love us.
These parents can be over-protective or try to live vicariously through their child. They may be overly focused on their child’s appearance and performance. They can often overstep the personal boundaries of their children by touching them excessively and by invading their privacy.
We would do well for our children to recognize these feelings of neediness so we don’t project this at our child, demanding a role of them.
When our children have to perform a role for us, they are not being allowed to be themselves. Children are not there for us to mold into who WE want them to be. They are individual souls with their own unique nature & personality & gifts.
I believe that this is a HUGE factor involved in the increase in mental health issues in teens & young people today. This deep sense of rejection of who they are and resulting feelings of emptiness and being very lost and disconnected with themselves commonly leads to depression and a huge array of other issues and personality disorders.
- Children need to EXPRESS themselves!
It’s so important to allow babies & children to express their emotions freely, particularly if they are fed, changed and have had their physical needs taken care of.
Being attuned to your child doesn’t mean that you are at their beck and call, trying to anticipate every need, that they shouldn’t cry or express emotion. Part of being truly attuned to your child means that you get a sense of when they just need to be allowed to feel what they feel.
This is something I am still learning in my own heart, and where I believe many parents go wrong these days. This is because of our own false beliefs about feeling emotion which we were taught in our own childhoods.
Let them cry & feel what they feel. Don’t punish them for it with rejection or disapproval. They are very often expressing the sadness and grief and unhealed emotions, anger, shame etc that their parents are suppressing & denying and/or the general environment around them is suppressing.
Instead of trying to ‘calm them down’, pacify them with food or entertainment (which will actually create addictions for them), allow them to feel how they feel.
This doesn’t mean to just leave them to cry. Be present with them as a loving supportive presence giving them permission to feel.
Whilst your child is expressing something see if you can stay connected to yourself, and allow yourself to feel how you feel, really feel the feelings you have about what’s going on, without blaming the child or others. Because it is very often those denied feelings that are causing the child’s distress, and this is the very best thing you can do for them.
Yep, it’s called owning your stuff! 😉 – Important in relationships, even more important in relationship with our children as they are affected by our denied stuff SO much more than anyone else!
- Children don’t deserve to be blamed.
Children unfortunately very often get blamed for their ‘behaviour’ when what they are actually doing is acting out the suppressed emotions around them.
They’re not doing whatever they are doing to make our lives harder.
Children are such a gift! When we understand what’s really going on, we can see just what an amazing gift they really are.
When we are willing to go ‘Okay I’m refusing to feel how I really feel again’, or ‘Right, something’s going on for me or my partner or both of us because our child is reflecting disharmony of some kind. Let’s find out what that is!’
We have an immediate feedback system that is obvious and undeniable.
I so often see well-meaning mothers direct such blame towards their child’s ‘behavior’ or ‘personality trait’, not seeing that the child is reflecting some lack of harmony within their own life.
Blame is a very harsh and intense emotion to direct at a child and is felt as a rejection, and can be very damaging to a child’s self-esteem.
I have no judgment as I understand how overwhelming being a parent can be sometimes, but I’d like to encourage you to instead of blaming your child/ren, see that any pattern or difficult behavior is an opportunity for you to learn something about yourself and about love.
And what a gift that is!
Now I’m not going to pretend I’m there yet, because I’m still working on this every day, and as primary caregivers, we are all going to have days where the best intentions go out the window.
But we can still get a little more aware each time, own it just a little bit more, and do better next time.
And what an ENORMOUS gift that is to our children! 🙂