The relationship parents form with their children effects long-term well-being and relationships in adulthood. So how do you form a secure attachment with your child?
- Why is secure attachment important?
- Ways to build a secure attachment with your child
- 3 Signs of secure attachment with your children
Why is secure attachment important?
Children who develop secure attachments in childhood grow into adults who create and maintain secure relationships. It helps them differentiate between healthy relationships and toxic relationships that ultimately wind up abusive.
Children who feel safe and secure in relationships with their parents and caregivers are less likely to experience trauma because their needs are met and their feelings are validated. The parent is also secure in their own identity, meaning they do not see or treat their children like extensions of themselves.
They also grow into happier, kinder, more socially competent humans than their peers, and maintain higher self-esteem and confident in their identity.
Are you an authoritarian parent? Studies show children raised with this style develop low self-esteem, do not excel in their careers, and are more likely to engage in unhealthy relationships because they form anxious, avoidant or disorganized relationships with their parents.
Ways to build a secure attachment with your child
Building secure attachments is about meeting your child’s needs, and validating their feelings, thoughts and experiences.
1. Play with your children
Children are more likely to tell you about their lives if you play with them. This is why child therapists have toys and games and their rooms, because kids reveal a lot more about themselves and their lives when they are engaging and play than when they are just sitting in front of you.
If you want them to grow into teenagers who are willing to tell you things about their lives, you need to put in the time now to play with them. Don’t stop playing and doing things with them just because they get older. Engaging in skill appropriate activities will help you maintain the bond that you develop.
2. Teach, don’t punish
Children do not learn from punishment. They learn from lessons. Discipline is not punishment.
Children do not know what is right or wrong, and they should be free to make mistakes while they are young without fear that something bad will happen to them. Your responsibility as a parent is to create and nurture a safe space for them to make mistakes and get messy, while feeling safe enough to ask for your help.
Teaching instead of punishing is the difference between your child driving home drunk and calling for a ride. It’s the difference between your daughter asking you to pick her up from a party instead of staying when she doesn’t feel comfortable, just because her friend’s mom or dad is her ride.
It shows that you trust your child to make decisions for themselves. Spend more time teaching what to do than what not to do.
3. Read to your child.
Reading takes you on an adventure about allows you to live as many lies as you want to vicariously through someone else.
I love reading books where people make mistakes and mess up and need help, and get help from their friends. Young adult books are like this because previous generations did not form secure attachments with our children. Recently, a lot of children’s books have come out where the parents are loving and caring and more involved, and young adult movies are featuring secure parent-child relationships.
If you’re starting now, you have options at your disposal that previous parents never had. You have the ability to choose to do and be better by developing a secure attachment style with your child so they grow into confident, capable adults.
4. Explore their interests together
As your child grows, they’re going to like and dislike things different from you. This is okay. It does not negate your preferences.
Validate and embrace their differences. Anxious, avoidant and disorganized attachment styles reject differences because their childhood consisted of unmet needs and invalidation.
Search for nearby activities, events, and exhibits that you and your child could experience and partake in together. This is a wonderful, underrated way to bond with your child.
5. Address their needs and concerns
Your child is a child who has little autonomy. They do not have the power to meet all of their needs, but it is also not their responsibility to meet their own needs.
Children who are taught and required to meet their own needs because a parent doesn’t want to, is the definition of parentification, a form of neglect. A toddler might be able to make their own sandwich, but they shouldn’t have to. It’s different from them wanting to help.
A nine-year-old should not have to make themselves breakfast, lunch and dinner because their caregiver is watching TV, outside feeding farm animals, or meeting their own needs.
On the other side of the parentification spectrum, children should not have to change their behavior to meet the needs of the parent.
For example, a child tells their mom they changed their mind about wanting a cool, expensive toy for Christmas and wants something different. The child is excited about it. The mother starts crying and says, “I already bought the other one!” The child hurries to say, “Just kidding! I still want the other thing!”
This is an example of parentification because the child is consoling the parent. It exemplifies anxious and disorganized attachment styles because the child had to ignore their feelings in favor of keeping their parent’s feelings happy.
Blurred emotional boundaries is a sign of unhealthy enmeshment. Your feelings and emotions as a parent are yours, and your responsibility to manage and validate. Your child’s emotions and feelings are theirs to learn to manage, but you must teach them how and validate those feelings, emotions and experiences. Because they are but a child, while you are the adult.
Your child needs to learn how to take responsibility for their own feelings so they will not rely on you to validate their feelings in adulthood (enmeshment). They should not seek to actively consolidate you and your feelings (enmeshment, parentification), and should grow to feel confident in their individuality to trust their own judgment.
6. Let them explore at their own pace.
A toddler who knows they can spend as much time on your lap in family gatherings as they want to, will feel safe to explore and return at their own pace. Forcing them to be held by a relative they don’t know or to spend time away from you may cause unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Encouraging your child to try new things is important, but not as much as teaching them to go at their own pace. Children are natural explorers who need to know they have a safe place to return to.
If you develop a secure bond with your child, they won’t sit in your lap forever. At first, they’ll explore within arm’s length. Then, they’ll go after the toy they threw too far away. Eventually, they will feel safe enough to walk up to a relative they don’t know well and might even sit with them instead.
Be patient and let your child explore at their own pace. It’s beautiful to witness and demonstrates the bond between you and them. Having developed this bond with two toddlers myself, all I have to say is that they grow up so fast.
3 Signs of secure attachment with your children
Now that you know six ways to develop and nurture a secure attachment with your child, how do you know what a secure attachment looks like? Here are three signs to help you identify it.
1. They reach out when they need help or comfort.
If your child asks you for help when they need it, that’s a sign that they trust you not to judge or punish them for coming to you. Children who fear their parents do not have secure attachments.
Your child seeks you for comfort and prefers your company over that of strangers. They’re eager to greet you after time apart.
While they seek your approval, you encourage them to trust their intuition and confidently make their own choices.
2. They freely and openly express themselves and pursue their own interests.
A child’s sense of self develops in parts or pieces. By age nine, those pieces form together to form a cohesive sense of self.
When identity development is stunted by anxiety, stress or trauma, the child does not form a sense of self. From here, the child is at risk of developing a Cluster B personality, dissociative disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder and others. A childhood of anxiety and stress is trauma.
If your child expresses themselves and pursues their own interests – and is not a mini version of you – this is a good sign that they are coming into themselves and developing their own identity outside of their family identity.
3. There is no tension between you.
A secure parent-child attachment is not tense. The parent respects the child’s boundaries and trusts their child to make responsible choices. Trust and love does not disappear just because the child messed up.
Meanwhile, the child trusts the parent to be fair and love them no matter what. They do not fear their parents will be incredibly angry at them for messing up and seek to hide evidence of failure. They have been taught that failing is an integral part of success and that their parent will be there to help them up.
Even when you discipline your child, they still love and respect you. You two are allowed to disagree with each other without fighting because you have developed emotional regulation and teach your child the same.
A secure parent-child attachment is a camaraderie between parent and child that bonds you for life. Nurture it to keep it alive.