Helping Your Child Develop a Secure Attachment

It is well-known that children who are comfortably and securely attached to their parents do much better at growing up and thriving than children who are not secure. According to Psychiatrist John Bowlby and a large body of research on children, children with a secure attachment style easily go back and forth between turning to their parents for emotional support and expressing their independence.

In more recent years, Psychologist Peter Fonagy and his colleagues have highlighted some of the things that parents can do to help their children become secure. Here are some tips from this body of research on mentalization and marked contingent mirroring:

  • Try to see your child as a separate person from you. When you imagine how your child feels in a particular situation, try to ask yourself: Is my child showing me that this is how he or she feels, or am I simply assuming that my child feels the way I would feel in this situation? Or, ask yourself “How do I know that my child is feeling the way I think he is?”
  • Whenever reasonable, respond to what your child is asking for. Children who ask for things and get them learn that they can go after their goals in an assertive way and that the world will respond to them. It is important for children to learn that they can play an active role in getting things they need in life; this encourages an active instead of passive way of interacting with the world. (This is especially true for babies who cannot use words; as children develop language, you can say “no” to them some of the time and still convey that their desires are valid through your words).
  • Find words for strong emotions. Parents who are good at talking about feelings (especially strong ones) instead of acting on their feelings or ignoring them, tend to have children who are more secure.
  • Don’t confuse intentions and effects. When a two year old bites someone and it hurts him, this does not mean that the two year old intended to cause pain. He may just be frustrated and not know how else to express his frustration. Or, if your toddler is throwing a tantrum in the supermarket and you feel embarrassed, this does not mean that your toddler is intending to embarrass you. He or she may simply be tired, hungry, or bored and not know how to cope with those feelings. Similarly, if your child doesn’t listen when you ask him to do something and you feel frustrated, this does not necessarily mean that your child is trying to frustrate you. He may be busy with something else and preoccupied, upset about something, or simply not understanding what you are wanting, etc. It is important to try to separate what is going on in your child’s mind from how his actions affect you.
  • Separate between actions and feelings or wishes. Understand and validate feelings even when they cannot be acted on. If you’re the kind of person who only cares about what you should do about things (not how you feel or what you think) then this will be challenging for you. In attachment relationships, understanding what a person wants, feels, or thinks is just as important as focusing on actions or outward behaviors. If your child wants a toy and he cannot have it, it’s still important to understand that he wants it and to communicate this understanding.
  • Reflect the Same and The Opposite Feeling at the Same Time. When you reflect your child’s feelings, it’s important to convey both your understanding of how he or she feels, and a different feeling at the same time. This is called “marked contingent mirroring” and it lets your child know that you are showing him how he seems to be feeling, and not expressing a feeling of your own. It also shows him that his feelings are not contagious and that they can be coped with.

For example, if a toddler falls down and is about to cry and looks over at his mother, it is not helpful for the mother to become hysterical or anxious. This will increase the child’s feelings of fear, and he also won’t know whether the feelings of fear belong to him or to his mother. At the same time, it is not helpful to dismiss the child’s feelings, because then he doesn’t learn to stop and pay attention to them. A potentially helpful response is to say to the child something like, “Oh, no, you fell down!” and pick the child up, with a smile on your face. This shows that you realize that the child is scared, but also that you are not scared yourself and believe that everything will be okay.

Similarly, if your child comes home and says dejectedly “I didn’t get picked for the team again, nobody likes me!”, it is not helpful to feel rejected for your child- this will increase his feelings of rejection or distract him from his own feelings and focus him on yours! A helpful response might be, “Hmm, it sounds like not getting picked for the team today has you pretty upset” in a calm and relaxed tone of voice, showing understanding and keeping things in perspective for him at the same time.