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What every parent should know about attachment theory

You've probably seen this interaction play out in your home many times: You're playing with your baby (about a year old) on the floor and then realize you need to get up and do something in another room. You leave the room briefly and your baby starts to cry—she's missing you.

You may be slightly surprised (or maybe a bit annoyed) that they're so dependent on you. You hurry back to them and all is well within their world once again.

This simple interaction may seem inconsequential to us today, but 50 years ago researchers used a similar scenario (in a lab) to develop what at the time was considered a somewhat revolutionary psychological idea—attachment theory. Attachment theory forever changed how we understand the parent-child relationship.

What founders John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth came to understand that previous behavioral psychologists had not, was that attachment is developed in the context of a responsive relationship, not just through feeding.

Previously, psychologists had thought that as long as a baby's physical needs were met, they would thrive. After seeing the damaging emotional effects of children being separated during hospitalizations and war, Bowlby and Ainsworth began to more closely examine how the psychological bond develops between babies and caregivers in the early years of life.

At its essence, attachment theory focuses on the emotional bond between caregiver and baby, not just the physical interaction that occurs through feeding, changing diapers, etc. Ainsworth concluded that the interaction between the parent and child is key to determining what type of attachment is formed.

If the parent is responsive to the child's emotional need for security and safety, the child learns that the parent can be relied upon. In contrast, if the child's needs are met with unresponsiveness from the parent, the child learns that the parent cannot be relied upon and the child may develop means of coping with this such as becoming overly clingy or avoiding the parent.

The subtle interplay of attunement

All this discussion of attachment and responsiveness may have you wondering about your own mothering experience. Am I responsive enough to my baby? What about that time my baby had to wait to be fed because we were driving home?

We've all had experiences in motherhood where we realize our attunement with our baby was a little off. That day you were SO exhausted you could hardly function during the day. That time you misread you baby's signals about being tired and kept them up too long. The beauty of attachment theory is that it allows room for missteps. The research behind it does not presume that mothers are perfect. As preeminent British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott suggests in his description of motherhood:

"The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure..."

In other words, the "good enough mother" is one who establishes an attachment with her baby early on by attending to her every need, even at the sacrifice of her own needs. This establishes a relationship in which the baby knows they are cared for and the parent can be trusted to meet their needs.

However, this level of constant attention and self-sacrifice cannot be continued indefinitely.

At some point, the mother will "fail" in little ways that require the baby to adapt or cope with stress. Here, of course, I am not implying instances of negligence or abuse. Those circumstances fall into a whole other category. The little "failures" are the little instances when mother and baby are not completely attuned—the misread signal of hunger, the delayed nap.

Intrinsic to attachment theory is the idea that these little "failures" or breaks in attunement are actually important to the developing child. Those times when you felt like you "missed the mark" in understanding your baby's needs, are the times that help your child grow in crucial skills.

These little disruptions in attunement, if resolved, help your child slowly learn about coping with stress, and lead to independence. As the years pass, these "failures" help children understand how conflicts in relationships can be resolved peacefully and build trust. Trust, of course, is one foundation of a healthy relationship. Children who have a deep-seated trust are more likely to accept your guidance (even discipline).

Can a baby be too attached?

If you've spent time around folks of an older generation lately, you may have heard a well-meaning elder comment that you "don't need to hold that baby all the time. It will make them spoiled." Now, most of us in this generation of parents know that you really cannot "spoil" a baby. Babies' only means of communicating their needs is through crying and holding a baby a lot is no longer thought to be linked to any later behavioral issues.

However, this does bring up the issue of whether parent and baby can be "too attached." We have all seen the kids who cling to mom or dad's leg in social situations, well beyond the age when they could walk on their own or the baby that fusses anytime anyone but mom holds them. While onlookers often chide the parents that these children are "mama's boys" or "spoiled," research might look at this in another light.

As we have seen, attachment is really about responsiveness—responding to a need, not predicting a need or ensuring that a child never experiences a need. This is where a key distinction comes into play.

If a parent is genuinely responding to a child's need, the likelihood of becoming "overly attached" is usually not an issue. However, there are rare occasions where a parent is preemptively responding to a child out of their need.

This situation becomes one less about attachment and more about over-parenting. If parents are actively interfering with a child's normal desire for exploration or independence (with the exception of safety concerns), then the relationship is no longer a responsive one.

At that point, the parent is not responding to the child's inherent need for exploration. As we saw in the discussion of attunement, if there are never any breakdowns in attunement, a child may not learn the coping skills needed to ultimately face the world.

In an atmosphere of strong attachment, most children will feel safe and secure enough in their parents' care that they will eventually explore on their own. However, that exploration comes on their schedule, not based on other's expectations.

It's important to remember here that we in American culture really value independence. As soon as our toddlers can toddle, many folks expect them to be off and running with the 5-year-olds, playing independently. This is a cultural expectation, but not necessarily a developmental one. Most kids inherently stay fairly close to their parents until their early elementary years.

The role of temperament in attachment

Another key piece is the child's temperament. We are just now beginning to understand the complex interaction between a child's temperament and their attachment style. Temperament is that collection on inherent tendencies your child has toward the world. These tendencies have to do with areas such as activity level, persistence, adaptability or intensity.

If you've been a parent for any length of time, you realize how different kids can be in terms of temperament and it often emerges in infancy. Some babies are "laid back" and do not respond strongly to changes in routine or environment, while others react much more easily.

These normal differences in temperament might influence the attachment of parent and child if the parent comes to interpret the child's behavior as problematic or inconsistent with the family's values.

For example, consider a child who has a more introverted, cautious temperament with a parent who has a more extroverted, outgoing temperament. The parent might interpret the child's cautious behavior as difficult or burdensome due to the fact that it is so different from her own tendency to be outgoing. If the parent starts to encourage the child to be overly friendly or outgoing in situations where the child is uncomfortable doing that, a breakdown in responsiveness could result.

In other words, the role of responsiveness in building attachment has to come from a place of understanding that particular child's needs, not a presumptive understanding of need based on the parent's desires.

In our modern parenting world dominated by tidbits of advice, collections of strategies and no shortage of labels, attachment theory reminds us of one important truth: Parenting is a relationship. It's not a job or a collection of techniques or even something to be mastered.

Parenting, in its best form, is the process of forming a lifelong relationship with your child. Like all relationships, each parent-child attachment relationship is as unique and nuanced as your child.

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Toxic masculinity is having a cultural moment. Or rather, the idea that masculinity doesn't have to be toxic is having one.

For parents who are trying to raise kind boys who will grow into compassionate men, the American Psychological Association's recent assertion that "traditional masculinity ideology" is bad for boys' well-being is concerning because our kids are exposed to that ideology every day when they walk out of then house or turn on the TV or the iPad.

That's why a new viral ad campaign from Gillette is so inspiring—it proves society already recognizes the problems the APA pointed out, and change is possible.

We Believe: The Best Men Can Be | Gillette (Short Film) youtu.be

Gillette's new ad campaign references the "Me Too" movement as a narrator explains that "something finally changed, and there will be no going back."

If may seem like something as commercial as a marketing campaign for toiletries can't make a difference in changing the way society pressures influence kids, but it's been more than a decade since Dove first launched its Campaign for Real Beauty, and while the campaign isn't without criticism, it was successful in elevating some of the body-image pressure on girls but ushering in an era of body-positive, inclusive marketing.

Dove's campaign captured a mainstream audience at a time when the APA's "Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Girls and Women" were warning psychologists about how "unrealistic media images of girls and women" were negatively impacting the self-esteem of the next generation.

Similarly, the Gillette campaign addresses some of the issues the APA raises in its newly released "Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men."

According to the APA, "Traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males' psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict and negatively influence mental health and physical health."

The report's authors define that ideology as "a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence."

The APA worries that society is rewarding men who adhere to "sexist ideologies designed to maintain male power that also restrict men's ability to function adaptively."

That basically sounds like the recipe for Me Too, which is of course its own cultural movement.

Savvy marketers at Gillette may be trying to harness the power of that movement, but that's not entirely a bad thing. On its website, Gillette states that it created the campaign (called "The Best a Man Can Be," a play on the old Gillette tagline "The Best a Man Can Get") because it "acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture."

Gillette's not wrong. We know that advertising has a huge impact on our kids. The average kid in America sees anywhere from 13,000 to 30,000 commercials on TV each year, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics, and that's not even counting YouTube ads, the posters at the bus stop and everything else.

That's why Gillette's take makes sense from a marketing perspective and a social one. "As a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man," the company states.

What does that mean?

It means taking a stance against homophobia, bullying and sexual harassment and that harmful, catch-all-phrase that gives too many young men a pass to engage in behavior that hurts others and themselves: "Boys will be boys."

Gillette states that "by holding each other accountable, eliminating excuses for bad behavior, and supporting a new generation working toward their personal 'best,' we can help create positive change that will matter for years to come."

Of course, it's not enough for razor marketers to do this. Boys need support from parents, teachers, coaches and peers to be resilient to the pressures of toxic masculinity.

When this happens, when boys are taught that strength doesn't mean overpowering others and that they can be successful while still being compassionate, the APA says we will "reduce the high rates of problems boys and men face and act out in their lives such as aggression, violence, substance abuse, and suicide."

This is a conversation worth having and 2019 is the year to do it.

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Teaching a young child good behavior seems like it should be easy and intuitive when, in reality, it can be a major challenge. When put to the test, it's not as easy as you might think to dole out effective discipline, especially if you have a strong-willed child.

As young children develop independence and learn more about themselves in relation to others and their environment, they can easily grow frustrated when they don't always know how to communicate their feelings or how to think and act rationally.

It's crucial that parents recognize these limitations and also set up rules to protect your child and those they encounter. These rules, including a parent's or caregiver's follow-up actions, allow your child to learn and develop a better understanding of what is (and what is not) appropriate behavior.

Here are a few key ways to correct negative behavior in an efficient way:

1. Use positive reinforcement.

Whenever possible, look to deliver specific and positive praise when a child engages in good behavior or if you catch them in an act of kindness. Always focus on the positive things they are doing so that they are more apt to recreate those behaviors. This will help them start to learn the difference between good and poor behavior.

2. Be simple and direct.

Though this seems like a no-brainer, focus your child using constructive feedback versus what not to do or where they went wrong. Give reasons and explanations for rules, as best as you can for their age group.

For example, if you're teaching them to be gentle with your pet, demonstrate the correct motions and tell your child, "We're gentle when we pet the cat like this so that we don't hurt them," versus, "Don't pull on her tail!"

3. Re-think the "time out."

Many classrooms are starting to have cozy nooks where children are encouraged to have alone time when they may feel out of control. In lieu of punishment, sending a child to a "feel-good" area removes them from a situation that's causing distress. This provides much-needed comfort and allows for the problem-solving process to start on its own.

4. Use 'no' sparingly.

When a word is repeated over and over, it begins to lose meaning. There are better ways to discipline your child than saying "no." Think about replaying the message in a different way to increase the chances of your child taking note. Rather than shouting, "No, stop that!" when your toddler is flinging food at dinnertime, it's more productive to use encouraging words that prompt better behavior, such as, "Food is for eating, what are we supposed to do when we're sitting at the dinner table?" This encourages them to consider their behavior.

The above methods help create teachable moments by providing opportunities for development while making sure the child feels safe and cared for. It is important to mirror these discipline techniques at home and communicate often with your child care providers so that you're always on the same page.

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To the mamas awake in the middle of the night,

If you are one of the many moms with a little darling who doesn't sleep through the night, I feel your pain. I really do.

Having been blessed with two wonderful sleepers (aka my first and second babies), my third baby has been a shock to my system. He hasn't slept through the night since he was born and he's now 16 months. I do everything "right." I put him down sleepy but awake so he can settle himself to sleep. I keep the room dark and quiet.

But one simple fact remains: When my son wakes up in the night, he wants me. And he'll scream the house down if he doesn't get me.

Last night my 1-year-old woke at 3:30 am. He was stirring a bit at first, then started to really let it rip, so I got him up out of his crib and brought him into bed with me. We cuddled for a while. Then suddenly, he wanted to get off the bed and I said no. Then he started to scream and throw himself around on the bed before eventually being sick everywhere.

It was now 4:30 am. I dutifully changed the sheets, changed my son, changed myself, and then we climbed back into bed, the smell of vomit still lingering.

I tried to put him back in his crib around 5 am but he woke right up. I brought him back into bed with me, but quickly realized this wasn't what he wanted either. He was thrashing around again, trying to figure out a way off of the bed.

Finally, close to 6 am he decided he wanted to go to sleep. After about 10 minutes of watching him sleep, I felt brave enough to try to put him back in his room. I gently lifted him up, placed him in his crib and quietly crept back into my bed.

This left me with just enough time to fall back into a deep sleep, which meant I felt exhausted when my alarm went off just after 7 am.

Sadly, last night wasn't a one-off. This is a fairly frequent occurrence for me (although dealing with vomit is luckily quite rare!). Which means that when I say I understand what it's like to have a baby who doesn't sleep, I really mean it.

So here's what I want you to know, mama.

If you are awake in the night because your baby needs you then you are not alone. Despite what you might read, it's common for babies to wake up through the night. So if you're sitting in bed feeling like you're the only mother in the world awake, trust me, you're far from it.

There are mamas like us all over the world. Sitting there in the dark. Cuddling babies or soothing them to sleep again. Some, like me, might be changing sheets or abandoning any hope of getting sleep that night at all. Others might be up and down like a yo-yo every few hours. The rest might just be up once and then will be able to go back to sleep.

There will, however, also be mamas who are sound asleep. Mamas who have older children who no longer wake in the night. And they would want you to know that it will be okay. It won't be forever. One day, you'll realize that your baby no longer needs or wants you in the night.

And while you'll be so glad for your sleep you'll probably also be a little sad that there are no more night time cuddles.

It's hard to cope with a baby who doesn't sleep well at night. Really hard sometimes. You may feel like you can't deal with it anymore or you may be wishing that this phase would just stop already so you can get some rest.

Exhaustion often means that you struggle to get through the day. It can mean that you find it hard to drag yourself out of bed. Or if you're anything like me, you might be irritable and snap at the people you love. Or maybe it means relying on caffeine, sugar and Netflix to get you and your kiddos through the day.

But here's the amazing thing about mothers—no matter what has gone down during the night, we get up as usual. We go about our day just like everyone else. We care for and love our children, without giving them a hard time for disrupting our sleep. We don't moan, we don't complain. We just get on with it.

And when night comes, we go to bed knowing that there's every chance we'll be awake in the middle of the night again...

We get up without fail when our babies need us and we do what we need to do for them. Because we are the nighttime warriors. We are mamas.

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No one decides to be a stay-at-home mom for the paycheck—but if we were to earn one, it would put us in league with some CEOs. Although it doesn't do much for the bank account, a survey that calculated what the average salary would be for a stay-at-home mom is mighty validating. (Remember this next time anyone asks what you do all day.)

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