Attachment + parenting: Building an emotional foundation that endures

October 21, 2014

URBANA, Ill. - Child development professionals call it secure attachment—a young child’s deep sense of knowing her parents are there for her. That bond gives a secure base from which to explore the environment, protection in times of uncertainty, and a source of joy in everyday interactions, according to University of Illinois attachment experts Nancy McElwain and Kelly Bost.

As a result of that security, children come to believe that they are competent in managing challenging situations, are worthy of care and attention, and can trust others in close relationships. And that sense of well-being can endure throughout a child’s lifetime.

So how do kids develop a secure attachment? “It depends on how a parent responds when the child is distressed or upset and needs emotional support,” says Bost, professor of human development and family studies.

Parents have a key role in helping kids learn how to regulate and express their emotions. Secure attachment gives young kids an emotional foundation as they learn how to handle powerful feelings like sadness, frustration, social fearfulness, and anger, says McElwain, professor of human development and family studies.

“When parents punish their children for being sad, angry, or scared, kids learn to hide their emotions instead of showing them. These children become increasingly anxious when they experience these feelings because they know they’ll face negative consequences,” she adds.

Here are some everyday examples of how parents can replace negative responses with more effective ones when challenges arise:

Say a young child returns from a birthday party crying because her friend neglected her, choosing to play with another child instead.

  • Rather than dismiss her sadness (“Just forget about it, honey. Don’t be sad”), support your child as she experiences this difficult emotion: “I’m sorry you’re upset. Let me give you a hug.”
  • Instead of minimizing the emotional reaction (“Don’t be a baby. You’re making a big deal out of nothing”), help your child identify and understand her feelings: “I know that you feel sad and hurt that Betsy played with Estela more than she played with you. Tell me how you feel about that.”
  • Rather than punish her (“Go to your room until you can control yourself”), help her problem-solve: “Let’s think of something you can say or do if this happens again.”

In recent research, the two experts have discovered some really good reasons for nurturing attachment in young children.

Bost has discovered that a parent’s attachment style, which is thought to stem from the mom’s or dad’s own attachment-related experiences, may influence parenting behaviors that have been implicated in childhood obesity.

In a recent study, insecure parents were significantly more likely to respond to their children’s distress by becoming distressed themselves or dismissing their child’s emotion.

A child who doesn’t learn how to properly handle sadness or frustration is more likely to engage in comfort eating, using food for self-soothing, she says.

McElwain’s research has taken her in a different direction. “Because a child’s early attachments are close and emotionally intense, those first relationships may be important in guiding the way children think about and function in other close relationships in later life,” she says.

She has learned that children who are securely attached develop stronger early friendships, “probably because they enter relationships with positive expectations. If they’ve had a secure, emotionally open parent–child relationship, they’re more responsive to their peers, and that promotes more positive interactions with friends during the early school years.”

In another benefit, McElwain says, a securely attached child who encounters a peer who doesn’t interact well can adapt to the situation and be assertive, by either making suggestions or giving directions.

McElwain’s research has shown that little boys, especially those who are prone to feeling anger, fear, or frustration intensely, may need extra support when their emotions threaten to overwhelm them.

“In our culture, boys are discouraged from expressing their emotions. If you add parental punishment to these cultural expectations, the outcome may be especially detrimental for boys who often experience negative emotions intensely,” she says.

Bost says that parents shouldn’t confuse a difficult temperament with an insecure attachment. “You may have a fussy infant, but if you respond to him sensitively and consistently, he will develop a strong bond with his parents and will likely go on to develop close relationships with others.”

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