Fostering Attachment Bonds – The Ties That Bind
Our lives in this day and age are often characterized by two contrasting issues: being over-connected (through social media and constant “online” presence) and under-connected (no real face time or genuine quality time spent with loved ones. Want to have a great relationship with your child and watch them grow into other thriving, deep relationships? Focus on fostering attachment.
Research tells us that being connected in a healthy way, or “securely attached” strongly influences our mental health and relationship outcomes. Attachment can change throughout the lifetime with different people, but our primary attachment style begins in our families-of-origin as children.
What is attachment?
Attachment is the emotional bond that forms between an infant and its caregiver. Attachment allows for the child’s needs to be met, and is connected to brain development. A healthy attachment between caregiver and infant implies that the child will feel security, feel safe from harm, and be free from anxiety about whether or not they will be comforted in emotional dysregulation and in physical need. Securely attached children have parents who are warm, responsive, consistent, and reliable. Their brains learn to regulate emotions more effectively, find more success in interpersonal relationships, and feel secure to grow and learn with a healthy sense of independence.
The prime stage for forming attachment bonds is between ages 0-2 years old, but continues to be reinforced throughout the lifetime. Remember that attachment is fostered – it is not automatically there once your child is born. This blog will give some basic suggestions for fostering attachment bonds with your children, focusing on different developmental stages:
Fostering Attachment with your Infant/Toddler:
- Respond to your child when he/she cries – this will not spoil your child; in fact, the myth of “spoiling by responding” is completely debunked by research. Children who are left to “cry it out” are found to be more likely to form insecure attachment bonds, lack trust in their caregivers, and have even more difficulty regulating the emotions that the “ignoring” was meant to regulate. Children have no reason to learn to be independent at this age. They fully rely on their caregivers to have their needs met, so don’t underestimate the power of your response!
- Play face-to-face with your child – cooing, smiling, or speaking to your child while making eye contact builds attunement between you and your child. Playing peek-a-boo, mimicking the baby’s facial expressions or coos, can all help grow this.
- Give plenty of physical touch – Babies and toddlers are mostly non-verbal or have limited language, so words are only so helpful. Instead, use your warm and gentle tone, along with rhythmic physical touch (rocking, rubbing their back/arms) will help them feel secure and soothed.
- Attune to your child’s unique needs – pay attention to movements, sounds, and preferences of your child. Does your child dislike being rubbed on the back but love to be held? What kind of cues does your baby give you that he/she has what he/she needs? Watch for facial expressions, different cries/reactions, etc.
Fostering Attachment with your Child/Preteen/Adolescent:
- Aim for some type of physical connection each day – Family therapist Virginia Satir is famous for her quote, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Spread the affection out as you can throughout the day. And if your child doesn’t want a hug or a snuggle, it can be hand-holding, pat on the back, arm around the shoulder, or even a warm smile.
- Play freely with your child – play significantly reduces the chances for anxiety and depression, and naturally increases joy through laughter and the endorphins released by that connection. It doesn’t matter how you play—just play intentionally and together.
- Create rituals for expressing love – whether it’s a secret handshake you do together each day, a song or lullaby, or phrase that you tell them, be consistent about how you show your love
- Be intentional about one-on-one time – some call it “special time” which is a consistent, weekly “appointment” for quality time together. Grow this up for teenagers and have a weekly hot cocoa date.
- Turn off technology – unplugged time is so significant to your ability to make eye contact, connect physically and emotionally, and reduce anxiety from outside messages. There should be daily time in which the television and internet are not a part of your time. Learn to find play activities that do not involve the internet or technology to allow for bonding without distractions as well as use of other parts of the brain that have become ignored by frequent technology use.
- Validate emotions – normalize the whole range of emotions that your child has. Practice having time with your child in which you listen and empathize without giving advice. It is a time to connect and built security. “No advice time” can be especially helpful in connecting with teens who are learning to think and make decisions independently but still need your support and security.
Remember that positive interactions and joy in relationship are just as important as providing guidance and direction. To grow, we need warmth and consistency. Health starts in the home, and a healthy home is rooted in secure attachment and attunement and an understanding that love is as much natural emotion as it is intentionality to help one another grow.