The importance of attachment in children
Attachment explained in a nutshell
The importance of attachment in children is most relevant in a child’s first three years of life, because a strong bond at this stage is more likely to generate a happy, secure older child. The early months and years of a child’s life can shape the way they respond to the world. A baby needs to have at least one adult who is there whenever they feel scared or anxious, angry or frustrated. These emotions are so big, a child needs an adult to help soothe them. Otherwise, the world can seem a terrifying place.
If a parent is consistently available for the child, whenever he feels unsafe or scared, the parent provides physical soothing and comfort. This helps the child feel safe again. Being a role-model like this allows the child to learn how to calm herself. This can take several years, however. The child will still need to return to her “secure base” (mum, dad, grandparent or another safe adult) for comfort if they face a new fear or a bigger challenge.
The confidence to explore the world
Gradually, a child builds confidence and roams further and further from their “secure base”. She knows there is always a safe place to return to (even in the teenage years). Through this constant process of comfort and reassurance-seeking, the child gains the view that she is safe. She eventually learns to “self-soothe”.
A child that has had a secure attachment with her parent or another safe adult, is more likely to be able to develop lasting successful relationships as an adult. Research has confirmed that our adult relationships are shaped by our early patterns of attachment and the early ways we learn to deal with closeness and separation.
When the attachment relationship does not go smoothly
Sometimes a child does not have a positive experience of developing a strong emotional bond. One reason might be that a parent can’t, for some reason, soothe and comfort her regularly when she needs it. The child feels huge emotion but hasn’t got a way of coping. The child may feel unsafe and fearful about new situations, because she hasn’t had an adult who can regularly say “it’s okay, you’re safe”. This can lead to huge anxiety. The child does not learn the skills to self-soothe because no-one has shown her how to do this.
Attachment problems and school
If a child starts school and doesn’t have a “secure base” at home, the school can feel very scary. All of a sudden, she is put in a classroom with strange adults and a crowd of new children. Rules and expectations are completely different, and she has to gain multiple skills very quickly. Her senses can be easily overwhelmed, for example by the noisy classroom.
Feeling safe helps a child cope with these demands, but if she doesn’t feel safe, the anxiety will be huge. She may show it by “acting out” (difficult behaviour) either at school or at home, or by withdrawing into herself. If a child doesn’t have this secure base and doesn’t feel nurtured and safe, dealing with other challenges will also be more difficult. But it is never too late. A child can learn to feel safe even if she has missed out on this stage as a baby and toddler.
What can I do to build a healthy attachment style?
Even if a child has parents or carers who are consistently available to offering safety and warmth, at times they will feel insecure. Imagine a graph with a line moving up and down regularly, depending on how secure your child is feeling. Things that tend to cause a child to feel more secure (and a peak in the graph) include:
Regular “nurture time“ that is appropriate to her age
For example: For a two-year-old, this might involve a story, a cuddle and some milk. For a teenager, this might be a one-on-one chat in the evening over a warm drink, where you really listen to what she is saying without judgement and show empathy towards whatever feelings are expressed.
Practise strong listening skills
As parents, we tend to have strong opinions about what is best for our children. This often causes us to impose our views on them or interrupt when they are trying to express how they feel. Whilst, of course, we have to set boundaries and will sometimes have to impose rules and sanctions, we can still listen to a child’s thoughts and ideas, and acknowledge the feelings they have (“I know you are really disappointed and frustrated to be missing your friend’s party on Saturday, but we had already planned a trip to visit Grandpa”). You can read more about listening skills in this article, but here are 2 simple tips:
- Practise really listening for 2 minutes at a time, and spotting any feelings that your child mentions. Really listening involves focusing on processing what is being said without any intention to bring your own views or opinions in, and without interrupting.
- Reflect the feelings back to your child, even if they have not been able to actually use the feelings words. For example: “From what you have just said it sounds as though you are frustrated by what is going on in the classroom”. “You said that you feel sad and lonely sometimes in the playground. That must be really hard for you.” By labelling the emotions, you help your child to identify them in the future, and you also validate the emotion. You show that you are really listening to them and that their feelings are important.
Regular predictable routines
Family movie night every Friday? A leisurely family lunch every Sunday? A bath, a story and a ten-minute mindfulness track before bed each night? Create routines to give a child a sense of control and comfort in their lives: “I can feel safe and in control because I know what is coming next”.
What impacts feelings of security?
As already mentioned, how secure a child feels will fluctuate, even with loving parents who are consistently warm, nurturing and set up strong boundaries. Things that can cause a “dip” in a child’s feelings of security include:
- A difficult family life event such as a bereavement
- A positive family life event that involves change, such as going on holiday
- A transition at school, such as moving up to secondary school
- A developmental stage, such as going through puberty
- A change of friendship groups
Even the most secure child might feel vulnerable and temporarily unsafe at times like these.
How will I know if my child is going through a vulnerable or insecure phase?
One way to know is to anticipate these. For instance, many children feel vulnerable when moving from primary school to secondary school. So, you might predict that this could be the case for your child too.
Look out for an increase in “fight or flight” behaviour. If a child is not feeling secure or safe, the brain will regularly interpret a threat as being present. It might interpret even the smallest thing as a threat. For example, not getting 10 out of 10 in a spelling test.
When the brain detects a threat, it releases stress chemicals including cortisol. This increases “fight or flight behaviours”. In ancient times when most dangers were physical ones, the brain evolved a quick response to fight the danger or to get away quickly (flight). So, what kinds of behaviours might see? Anger or irritability, anxiety, worry, and withdrawal are all common. You won’t see all of these things, but look out for changes in your child’s typical behaviour.
What can I do to increase my child’s sense of security during these times?
Focus on that “secure base”, and do not be afraid to take a few steps back. Warmth and nurture, without being overbearing or stifling, are crucial. Do what you can to help other adults understand the importance of attachment in children too. If fellow parents and grandparents also understand what you are trying to achieve, you can work together to provide that secure base.
Consider a twelve-year-old girl who had been happy-go-lucky and relaxed, but suddenly experiences a change in friendship groups and also starts puberty at the same time. She might have a period of increased worrying, which may, in turn, affect her ability to get to sleep and cause her to feel anxious and stressed. Even though she may have been settling herself to sleep for a long time, during this period why not offer to read to her at bedtime? Or perhaps plan a special day out offering “dad and daughter” or “mum and daughter” time? Or make her favourite meal and watch a movie together?
When a child is under stress give a higher level of nurture. Treat your child as though they are younger emotionally, just until they are through this tricky patch. Once they feel safe and secure again, they can venture out from the “safe space” again, flourish and take on new challenges!
Over to you!
I hope the above summary will help you to deepen your attachment relationship with your child and help her to feel more safe and secure as she ventures out into the world. Feel free to explore the related blog posts which will be added to this section.