Attachment, the pull of two people towards one another, is at the heart of relationships, whether or not we are aware of it. When all is in order, we can simply follow our instincts. But something has changed; societal structures for healthy child-parent attachments are no longer what they once were and we need to be more intentional about attachment than ever before.
In their best-selling book, Hold on to Your Kids, Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Mate write, “For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role – their own peers” (2004, Random House of Canada Limited, p. 7). Neufeld and Mate refer to this phenomenon as peer orientation. While the societal context driving peer orientation may not be reversible, the antidote lies in preserving and strengthening our parent-child relationships.
Here are 5 tips for forming stronger attachment with your child:
1. Be available
As parents we need to give our children all of our attention at least some of the time. Including times when our child is not demanding it. In fact, inviting connection when a child is least expecting it is the most effective way to meet attachment needs, because it conveys the powerful message that it is the relationship, not anything the child has done, that connects us to them.
An experienced parent shared that his most valuable asset as a parent is time for his kids. He is mindful of his schedule so that he is regularly available to talk and spend time with his children. We need to make space for daily play and interaction, away from our phone or other devices. We need to grab hold of every opportunity in order to build intimacy that our children’s peers cannot compete with.
2. Delight in your child
From toddlerhood on, interactions with our children have a tendency to revolve around direction, teaching or changing behaviour in some way. Though we do have a responsibility for our children’s safety and well-being, simply being together and enjoying one’s child may fall by the wayside. We need to be mindful of interacting with our children in warm and inviting ways. Hugs and embraces, playful smiles, eye contact and warmth in our voice invite connection. Delight is different from praise. Though of course valuable, praise is generally about something that the child has done, whereas delight stems from loving and enjoying the child exactly as they are.
3. Validate and help to manage your child’s feelings
Children are learning to understand and regulate their emotions. Parents play the role of a safe haven in this: noticing how their child is feeling, helping to name those emotions and providing the message that all emotions are natural and serve a purpose. When children experience emotional invalidation, that is, the message that certain emotions are not acceptable to express, barriers to sharing are created, along with the sense that connection is conditional.
Children and youth also need their parents to guide them in managing the full range of emotions. For example, anger itself is not a problem, but we do need to help our children learn how to acknowledge and manage it in a healthy way. Staying with an upset child and guiding them in managing their emotions will help them learn how to do that on their own and will strengthen attachment.
4. Learn about and get involved in what interests them
Recently, a friend shared her great dislike for watching professional football on TV. But, she said, “It’s one thing that my 14-year-old son is happy to have my company for, over a three-hour period.” So she has learned more about football than she ever thought she would and it has become a point of connection for her and her child. With young children, we can be mindful of following their lead in play and watching and noticing as they learn.
5. Set limits and guidelines
We need to put structures in place to restrict those things that would take our children away from us. This includes protecting family outings and holidays, celebrations, activities and regular sit-down meals. It means being mindful of not over-scheduling our children or ourselves. Placing restrictions on access to social media, cell phones and other devices is critical, or the demand for these soon gets out of hand.
We must also create guidelines around peer contact (who and how often) and work to preserve our children’s connection with us as primary. This may involve re-organizing our family life in such a way that there is increased time for the parent-child relationship.
Attachment is about relationship.
More than a set of skills, attachment is about relationship. By following these guidelines, parents can preserve and strengthen the attachment role they are naturally intended to carry with their children.