The science on how valuable being securely attached is very clear.
But what are the ways that parents create that for kids? One of the most important things we can help our kids with is developing an environment that creates secure attachment. What do parents need to focus on in their own behavior in order to help their kids bond to them.
The development of the human infant is challenged by the fact that the human brain needs to be smaller to get through the birth canal of the female. This limitation has made it necessary for infants to arrive under much more vulnerable circumstances than many other mammals. In order to be successful human beings developed emotional bonding tools to insure the infant was cared for properly.
Attachment is the biological response to this vulnerable beginning. Human infants attach to their caretakers so they can insure their survival.
When this goes well children feel secure and nourished enough of the time that they develop a secure attachment with their caregivers. This form of attachment is the best predictor of future life success. Securely attached people are able to be more successful in relationships, professional goals and general life satisfaction. Kids who are securely attached have the resilience to manage the challenges of life.
The Four S’s of Security.
In their book, “The Power Of Showing Up,” Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain four things that parents can do to insure that they are helping their kids to securely attach.
1. Safety: There are a lot of different ways children feel safe. If they are safe in the home and have the basics of shelter, food and clothing that is a good start. However, it also means relational and emotional safety as well. This means that children are allowed to be themselves and are not demeaned for challenges they might have. Caretakers are able to stay regulated (managing their emotions) enough of the time (you don’t have to be perfect) that the child feels like they can count on their caretakers. Relationships with caretakers are a safe place for kids.
When there’s peril or the possibility of peril, parents protect. The more our kids know they can count on being safe, the more secure the child-parent attachment can become. Safety is the core aspect of our attachment experience. It allows kids to feel connected and protected (Bryson & Siegel, 2020).
2. Seen: There are three parts to helping our children to feel seen. First we get into their experience and feel what they are going through. This means that they feel like we get them. Second we imagine what it is like for them and how things are impacting them. We guess at what is happening and it’s okay if we are not 100% accurate. Third we respond to what they are going through as much as we can in the moment so that they know we are getting their upset right then. Obviously this isn’t always possible. One way to think about this is that we are paying attention to what is happening, empathizing and then helping our kids to make sense of what happened.
3. Soothed: Soothing children means that we are able to recognize their distress and step into their lives with presence and understanding. We are able to match the distress with our words and allow the child to know that their distress is okay while simultaneously using our more regulated nervous system to help them calm down.
4. Secure: This is the bringing it all together part of the four S’s. When we use the first three we start to create a secure place for our children to be with us. We hold limits and boundaries in a way that allows our kids to get upset. We maintain our own emotional regulation in the face of their upset.
It is so difficult to be the bigger person when our kids are lashing out at us. However, in doing this we are building the foundation of a lifelong relationship with our kids. We hold the space for them to struggle and we don’t demand them to change their feelings.
By creating safety, seeing our children in their distress and soothing them when they need it we are building a security that will help to build successful relationships with their future partners and their own children.
One of the wonderful things about this dynamic—providing security for our kids—is that over time, they will actually depend on us less for it. Relationships will always be important—even secure individuals rely on others and find meaning and significance in connection—but as kids grow up, having security makes it less and less necessary that someone else provide the other S’s in every situation. Their security will become established as an overall mental model of their identity, and they’ll have the internal resources to keep themselves safe, to see themselves as worthy, to soothe themselves when things go wrong (Bryson & Siegel, 2020).
In much of what I’m talking about attunement is really important. I wanted to add one more point that I think is relevant.
When we are attuned to our kids we are not attempting to get them out of their experience or emotions. Sometimes when children are upset a caretaker will attempt to put on a happy smile and act as though what happened isn’t a big deal. This isn’t attunement.
Attunement involves joining in the upset of our child and responding with a similar tone and non-verbal cues. If we use happiness or act excited when our child is feeling really upset the child will often feel as though the parent isn’t getting them. Children will try and play along but the moment for the child to really feel met is missed.
When parents attempt to act happy when a child is distressed there is the risk of the child feeling like his or her feelings are not valued. We want to continually attune to our child’s distress not in a way that encourages it but in a way that helps them get to a more regulated place. When we acknowledge what is happening to the child they are more likely to calm down and feel seen.
Repairing When Things Go Wrong
It is important to note that it’s impossible to do these things all of the time. In many of the studies I have read you can create secure attachment if you are attuned 40% of the time.
I hope that makes everyone feel a lot less anxious. But what happens when you blow it and get angry with your child. That’s where repair comes in.
Repair requires humility and love. It means we come back to the moment and we let our kids know we screwed up in getting aggressive with them. Then we acknowledge that they have a right to throw a fit, get angry and be emotional beings.
As parents we also have a right to have feelings but because we are in charge we must also handle our emotions better than our children are capable of doing. When we don’t do this we need to repair the hurt we may cause.
This act of repair will communicate to your child, “Things may get tough between us, but you can’t lose my love. I will be here for you. Always and no matter what.” (Bryson & Siegel, 2020).
Bringing This Into My Life
When I read these books about creating secure attachment I often worry that I’m not being the perfect parent. But then I slow down and realize that this isn’t about being the perfect parent but the good enough parent.
The other night one of my little ones was about to go to sleep when he suddenly said he had to go to the potty. This is usually a red herring to get out of going to bed. Since my little guy had been attempting to sleep for awhile I believed him. So we went to the bathroom. When we got there I realized that he didn’t have to go to the bathroom at all and just wanted me to read him a book.
When I informed him that we were not in there to read a book but instead to use the potty he got very upset. I was exhausted and frustrated as well. I didn’t soothe or listen I told him he needed to put on his diaper and go to bed in an aggressive tone. You can imagine that this kind of demand didn’t go over well.
As I calmed down I realized that I was bringing into this my frustration and wanting my child to be different rather than accepting things for what they were. I stepped back and allowed him to do what he wanted and then, after a few minutes, he finally got up and let me put his diaper back on.
In these moments I realize that doing the four S’s or learning how to be more attuned isn’t just some ideal way of handling things. It is actually a better way for us and our kids. When we push against our children because of their behavior they push back. When we allow them to push on us and hold things in a safe loving way they are able to calm down easier and find themselves.
So much of being a good enough parent is doing my own work. It is learning how to be emotionally regulated and not pushing against my children.
When I screw up I use the power of repair to maintain a healthy, loving bond with them.
Kids who believe that their caregivers will show up for them over and over again develop the independence and resilience that give them the self-confidence to step beyond their comfort zones. They will explore more courageously, and venture farther out, than children who haven’t received that kind of attention and care (Bryson and Siegel, 2020).