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Attachment and Attachment Problems

Maybe you have heard of a psychologist or doctor who uses the phrase “attachment.” They are not talking about attaching something to another thing, but rather the quality of the relationship between a parent and a child. This is the core foundation for a child’s expectation that the people they depend on will love and support them as well as help them when they need it. It is the innate human drive to survive that we are all born with. Essentially, children need to feel safe and secure in their environments for the majority of time. 

Why Does This Matter?

Infants: Newborn babies are ready to respond to the care and warmth of their parent. This helps shape the way their brain is formed and allows them to begin the process of associating experiences with emotions.  This is helpful for parents in that these children will be able to learn more effectively how to regulate these emotions as they continue to grow. 

Toddlers: The brain has started creating connections with feelings, actions, words, and relationships. With a safe and secure relationship, they know that they are able to rely on these relationships and will be safe to explore what is occurring around them. This allows children to gain confidence and learn aspects that will help them when they begin engaging in more independent activities when they grow up. 

What Can a Parent Do?

Infants: 

  • Respond and play with your baby as much as possible
  • Touch and hold your baby often. Wear them in an infant carrier
  • Talk to your baby in everyday moments, such as diapering, feeding, and bathing. Talk to them about your emotions in everyday activities, such as feeling frustrated the Astros lost a game
  • Read and/or sing to your baby
  • Look for cues they send you about wanting to play or needing a break from play. Learn when to engage and when to give them space
  • Create a bedtime routine for them

Toddlers:

  • Try connecting in the quiet moments with them rather than trying to force everything when they are already excited
  • Be the secure base that they need and support their explorations when it is safe. 
  • Set limits and boundaries when necessary, but allow them to discuss their thoughts and feelings as well
  • Get support when you are feeling overwhelmed. Parenting is a rough job, you do not need to do it alone
  • Continue to do what you did for your child as an infant, minus the wearing them in an infant carrier as they probably do not fit that anymore

Preschoolers: 

  • Talk about feelings! Express your feelings and help your child cope with strong emotions
  • Encourage exploration and welcome them when they return. Be a big cheerleader and support them whenever something new is discovered. 
  • Show them ways to repair the relationship when something happens. If you lose your temper, as you are human, and yell at your child, go back later and own up to what you did. You can say “I am sorry for the way I acted when I was angry.” This shows them that if they or you make a mistake or you disagree on something, you can react differently and discuss something rather than just yelling. This shows mistakes are not forever and apologizing after recognizing the mistake is a helpful way to build back the bond. 

How Can Problems with Attachment Arise?

There are ways that a child can not feel safe and secure in their environment. In these cases, children have what is called an insecure attachment. This can happen in a few different ways:

  1. Inconsistent Parenting: When a child experiences a parent who is there some of the time and then not the other times.  This can lead to anxiety in children which may explain why some children are clingy, whiney, and demanding. In some children, this may lead to more anger outbursts and negative ways of getting attention from their parents. 
  2. Unresponsive Parenting: When a parent is not there for them, and they have to fend for themselves, a  child learns that there are no people in the world that will help them and that they have to be independent. These children may be unaffectionate, aloof, and show indiscriminate friendliness to strangers.
  3. Violent/Abusive/Unpredictable Parenting: When a child experiences their parents as frightening and dangerous but as a source of comfort, they learn quickly how to be manipulative and fake sweetness to survive with their parents. They essentially are trying to control and influence their parents to avoid pain and any harm that their parents could inflict. They may be seen as meeting their own needs even if it is at the expense of others. 

Abuse and neglected children are seen to have a higher level of insecure attachment styles. This is something that can persist even when the child is removed from these parenting styles through foster care, moving in with a relative, or even adoption. This may take a long time to change, even if you are the best parents ever. Do not give up on these children as they have grown up with really difficult situations that have impacted how they see the world, especially adults

How to Work with a Child Who Has a Difficult Attachment?

If you are a parent who recently adopted or fostered a child that has a difficult attachment style, it is important to remember these things:

  • Do not take it personally. These children learned how to survive in a bad situation and are now learning how to survive in a family that the adults will meet their needs
  • Be consistent and responsive. Do not be too punitive but hold boundaries at a constant.
  • Be patient as it will take time to change. Celebrate the little victories, such as when a child expresses an emotion or asks for something. 
  • Have supports to help you when you feel upset, lost, or hurt by your child
  • Seek additional support for your child to discuss their past traumas in a safe environment. Connections Child & Family Center is a trauma-informed organization whose clinicians are trained in evidence-based modalities treating trauma

If you are interested in inquiring about treatment addressing a specific trauma event in your life, contact our Care Coordinator at 281-210-6677 to set up an intake with a clinician.

References: 

Julie J. Lounds, John G. Borkowski, Thomas L. Whitman, Scott E. Maxwell & Keri Weed (2005) Adolescent Parenting and Attachment During Infancy and Early Childhood, Parenting, 5:1, 91-118, DOI: 10.1207/s15327922par0501_4

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2020). The power of showing up: How parental presence shapes who our kids become and how their brains get wired.

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