Bonding with your child is one of the most important aspects of parenting and may be the foundation on which your child forms future attachments. However, some children find it more difficult to connect with others. This behavior is a self-preserving tendency often stemming from feelings of disappointment, isolation, and neglect. If a child feels that their needs are not being met, they may begin to anticipate that their needs will never be met. This may create feelings of sadness and loneliness.
While most secure children and adults often move past these emotions, children with attachment concerns often seem unable to overcome such feelings. They tend to distance themselves from everyone and frequently lack the ability to connect with others. Even among those where trust has been cultivated, these children tend to question every feeling, positive or negative, and often distrust, dismiss, or discarding such feelings. This behavior is easily triggered, resulting in further detachment and isolating behaviors.
Older children often assume that regardless of their feelings others will ultimately disappoint them, and often established patterns of avoidance to cope with such feelings. They may say things such as, “Why should I?” or “What’s the use?” This behavior enables them to may discredit any form of attachment and dismiss the importance of connecting with others. While there is a substantial amount of research providing answers to what may cause a child’s inability to attach; there is also a substantial amount of information on how a parent, caregiver, or individual can introduce or strengthen attachment with a child.
Looking back on my adolescent years, like many of you, my family was blessed to own a dishwasher. However, our dishwasher was rarely, if ever, used to wash dishes. Instead, my parents required that all of us help clean up after dinner. My mother would first wash the dishes, my brother and I would then dry the dishes and my father would finish up by placing them neatly in the cupboards. At that time I didn’t understand my parents reasoning behind making us all do the dishes when we had a perfectly working dishwasher. As an adult, I can now look back at those times with clarity and understanding. By sharing the responsibility of cleanup after dinner, they kept us connected.
Dishwashing time became a great opportunity to have meaningful conversations about things that were important, without the awkwardness of having to look each other in the eye. This was a time to talk and think about things. This was a time to ask and respond to questions I could not run from or avoid. After all, my parents expected us to stay until the dishes were finished. I later realized that the literal act of moving in synch together bonded us as a family and strengthened our cohesiveness. Parents of children with attachment concerns can incorporate many subtle activities that may support healthy attachment. Many of these activities will require repetition in order to be effective. The following is a list of practical activities that you may want to incorporate within your own families.
- Play rhythmic games with your child. For example, clapping games encourage you to look each other in the eye strengthening your connection. If you do not know a game, make one up. For older children, this could be playing catch, even if it’s raining! It will just add to the memory.
- Dance together. Dancing is fun at any age. Play silly music, make up a dance and have a dance party! If you make it a surprise, the more fun it may be.
- Remain positive. Allow your child to express their feelings. Listen to what your child is saying. During these times, they are using you as a sounding board. If you are not open to their feelings it may be hard for them to be open to yours. Avoid being judgmental of your child’s feelings and try not to tell them it is silly to be mad. Also avoid jumping to conclusions and being too quick to respond to your own emotions. If this starts to happen, tell your child that you need time to respond. This not only shows your child you are serious about your relationship but also that you are using coping skills.
- Be an observer of emotions. State what you see without being intrusive. Most children have a hard time finding words to express their emotions but can recognize them if you help point them out. When they come home from school, ask them how their day went. If you do not get an answer, say something like, “It looks like it was a hard day for you.” or “It seems like you had a good day!” They will generally tell you if you are right or if you are wrong. They may not even say a word! In this case, read their body language and respond appropriately.
- Share your feelings, while keeping your emotions under control. Children learn to manage their own feelings from observing others. Tell your child you love them, even when they do not say or show it back to you. Tell them you are glad to see them when they come home from school. If they hurt your feelings, tell them that it hurt and move on. They have a hard enough time dealing with their own emotions and may not be able to handle yours on top of it. Make home a safe place.
- Be clear in your expectations with your child. Tell them step by step what needs to happen so that they understand. Children with attachment concerns often have a hard time filling in the blanks. For example, when you tell them to not walk in the house with muddy feet, they may hear that they are not welcome. Instead, welcome them home and then ask them to please take off their muddy shoes when they come home. Compliment them when they fulfill an expectation, weather you had to remind them or not. Simple language changes can make a not-so-happy family into a happy family.
- Remember that children can take a longer time to respond to requests. Children need time to think. Be patient and when you ask your child a question and they do not answer, wait 30 seconds and then ask, “What are you thinking?” This will help them clear up any confusion or miscommunication. It also gives them the respective time they need for their brain to process what you said.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to have children with attachment concerns in your home to then just turn around and send them far away for treatment; some children’s emotional instability produces many problems which can result in compromised safety not only for the child but for the family that loves them. This is where Provo Canyon School can help. For more information or to find out how we may help you and your child, please call us at 800-848-9819.
~ Kimberly Martin LMFT, Early Adolescent Program