A father sat in my office, visibly upset that his 7-year-old son wasn’t listening to him. He recounted challenge after challenge with his son, from leaving the park to getting dressed in the morning, from eruptions of frustration to bedtime battles.
Exasperated, the father looked at me and asked, “Why would any child follow any parent in the first place?” It was a good question and one I couldn’t answer without making sense of attachment first.
Attachment science is the name given to the study of human relationships. Attachment is how we root our children to a secure base, create a sense of belonging and significance, and nourish them.
What the father of the 7-year old boy didn’t understand was that all of the unrelated challenges he was having with his son stemmed from his relationship with him. Focusing on his son’s behavior would not reveal the answers he needed—it was when he started to understand what happened to their relationship that he could start to make headway with him.
Here are five crucial things to understand about attachment:
1. Understand that attachment is a two-way street
When parents consider how strong their attachment is with a child, they often reflect on how much they love their child or want to be around them. But attachment is not just a matter for the parent but for a child too.
We often fail to take a step back and consider whether a child is attached to their parent and if so—how deeply?
Without a strong relationship there is little capacity for a parent to harness a child’s instincts to follow, obey and adopt the same values, or seek help from their adults.Instead of being able to lead a child, a parent may face constant eruptions of frustration, resistance and opposition, as well as bossy and commanding behaviour.
When assessing how good our relationship is we should consider it through the eyes of our child. The answer for the father who asked me why a child would follow a parent was attachment. It is a child’s love for us that empowers us in our caretaking role.
You cannot truly care for a child who has not given their heart to you.
2. Realize that separation is the most impactful of all experiences
Attachment is the greatest need a child has. Therefore separation is one of the most impactful of all experiences. Separation is especially provocative for young children because of their immaturity and high dependency needs.
The experience of separation can stir up primal emotions in a child—hey may cling or clutch, erupt in frustration, or exhibit fear and anxiety, well after the separation has occurred.
The answer is to ensure wherever they go, they are attached to the adults who will care for them—from teachers to extended family members— is connection.
Connection is key when leaving them with others. Attachment and separation are two sides of the same coin, that is, our children only miss the people they desire to be close to. (Don’t we all?)
3. See your relationship as a shield to protect against emotional wounding
One of the challenges for kids is the range of emotions and feelings they experience, with the capacity to be hurt and wounded deeply. Being rejected, not loved or cared for, can be wounding to the heart, but this is offset by a caring relationship with an adult.
When a child cares more about what an adult sees in them, the wounding ways of their peers and other adults is less likely to hurt as deep.
The key to resilience and surviving stress and adversity in kids relies on the availability of at least one strong caring emotionally available adult who can comfort, provide a sense of consistency, warmth and guidance, and who will invite tears or sadness when necessary.
The reason children need to be attached to adults is that it gives that adult the capacity to preserve and protect the emotional health in a child.
4. Consider the instinct to detach instead of attach
Just as human beings come with instincts to seek connection with others, they also come with instincts to detach when the threat of separation or wounding is present. If caring about someone or something sets you up to get hurt, the brain can reverse the attachment instincts and lead the child to push away from that adult.
For example, the father in my office discussed how his son held him in contempt, did the opposite of what he was told, mocked, defied, countered, or talked back, or in other words—parenting had become a nightmare.
When a child detaches, the type of behavior that ensues can be very difficult to manage and usually creates more separation between the adult and the child. The goal is to focus on restoring the relationship while at the same time, having to deal with behaviour that is challenging and provocative.
5. And don’t forget about the depersonalization of attachment
Attachments can become depersonalized, meaning that instead of seeking contact and closeness, there is a turn to less personal forms of connection. Someone could move to collect belongings rather than seek a sense of belonging to someone. Someone could seek significance in groups, workplaces, through their constant achievements or striving, or through social media—all of which are one step removed from a close social bond with an individual.
Depersonalized attachments are an attempt by the brain to move someone towards connecting with others, but in ways that are less vulnerable and provide a buffer zone against the potential wounding from separation.
It is too often the case that when our children act in ways that defy understanding or are uncivilized, we are quick to focus directly on their behavior. What gets missed is that the child’s attachment needs and the emotional issues that drive the most problematic behavior.
While we cannot condone uncivilized behaviour from our kids, we can move to protect the relationship as well as use it to help influence and guide a child in a different direction.
If we treated the biggest problems we have with our kids as attachment issues, we would likely be closer to the root cause, and closer to making headway in the right direction with them.