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. John Bowlby, the psychiatrist who first coined the term, ‘attachment’ stated, “What is believed to be essential for mental health is that the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother-substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”
While there is widespread agreement on the critical role of attachment in emotional and cognitive development, it remains a complex and dynamic field. The science of human relationships is more than just baby bonding, it embodies the fusion of instinct and emotion which drives us to seek contact and closeness with others.
Gordon Neufeld, one of the world’s leading developmental experts, has put the pieces of the attachment puzzle together revealing the complexity of human relationships. While the hunger for relationship is part of the human psyche, how attachment serves to bind us together is a dynamic and fluid story that infuses all aspects of life. 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 behaviour would not reveal the answers he needed, it was when he started to understand what had happened to their relationship that he could start to make headway with him.
Five Things to Understand About Attachment
- 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. 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, 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.
- 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 three primal emotions in a child – pursuit, frustration, and alarm. They 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 – 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 that they desire to be close to.
- Relationship is 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, then 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, 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.
- 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 behaviour 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.
- The depersonalization of attachment – Attachments can become depersonalized meaning that instead of seeking contact and closeness, a sense of belonging, significance, caring, or being known by a specific person, that 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 behaviour. What gets missed is the child’s attachment needs and the emotional issues that drive the most problematic behaviour. 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.
Neufeld, G. (2012). The Attachment Puzzle Course, Neufeld Institute, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center. For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com and www.neufeldinstitute.org.