Forming Secure Attachments – Handout for parents and caregivers


Forming Secure Attachments

Handout concerning helping a child to form a secure attachment – an alternative to behavioral intervention and other parenting strategies that might not have worked for your child

1.) What is attachment theory?

          In short, humans are “wired” to be in relationships. The quality or security of a person’s relationships has a dramatic affect on every aspect of their life – research is even finding that helping relationships is perhaps one of the more effective ways of treating behavioral disturbances, and mental health concerns such as depression.

Attachment theory looks at the way in which humans are drawn to bond with one another. Attachment theory suggests that we all have vulnerabilities concerning feelings of losing relationships to significant others such as primary caregivers, siblings, or other important people.

The fundamental questions associated with attachments to significant others are, “can I trust you (for safety, love, predictability, nurturance, and acceptance etc)” and “are you going to be there for me when I need you? (Will you ever leave me?)”

During life people can be affected in different ways when a significant person was not trustworthy or not available enough for that individual’s specific needs. (Note – this differs dramatically from person to person – it is possible to parent two children exactly the same way and have one child be perfectly secure while the other child struggles a bit). Romantic and platonic non-family relationships can also have an affect on a person’s sense of security as related to their attachment to others.

Adoption, foster care, infidelity, trauma, and divorce are some examples of instances that might affect a person’s attachment style.

What can you do as a parent or a caregiver? How can you help a child with special attachment needs?

1.)      It is important to help the child to understand and to communicate with non-verbal language. You can do this by encouraging eye contact, by using a soft tone, by using nurturing touch (hugs), and by using various movements and gestures while communicating with your child.

Your goal is to communicate safety, acceptance, playfulness, curiosity and empathy. Threat and coercion will not be helpful in the process.

Your child will learn how do reciprocate over time… be patient… you can only truly control how you communicate (to an extent) … your child’s communicative and emotional ability will evolve over time.

In some instances where attachment is a concern, the child may not have had much contact with other humans during their early years … these early years (especially the first 6 months to be most specific) are an important time in relation to human development. The good news is that children tend to be very resilient, so spending extra time offering sensory communication and other sensory-based learning experiences will be beneficial.

2.)      Ensure that there is a large amount of positivity, happiness and enjoyment throughout the day… if you think about it, all of us deserve to laugh, to play and to have fun… these benefits should not be solely something that is earned or something that can be taken away for misbehaving. In short, your child should always have access to enjoyment so be wary of punitive practices that limit access to happiness and be wary of interventions that suggest that happiness is something that a child must always earn by complying with a behavioral expectation.

There are times for teaching and behavioral adjustments, but they should not take the place of times spent attaining happiness or times spent enjoying a relationship.

3.)      Set your child up to succeed. If you have a goal pertaining to your child’s behavior start small… allow them to successfully navigate the “baby steps” toward the ultimate goal. For example if your want your child to wash their own dishes start by congratulating them for putting their fork in the sink. We are far more effectively motivated by positive feedback then by negative feedback… tell them what they did right seven times for every time you tell them what they did wrong.

4.)      When your child is successful they learn to motivate themselves… this means that they will engage in age appropriate behaviors because they enjoy feeling good about their ability to successfully do those behaviors. If a child is only motivated by fear of a consequence they will not be as able to engage in the desired behavior without the person around who delivers the consequence. This is setting the stage for a child to learn how to be internally motivated as opposed to being solely externally motivated.

5.)      The child’s symptoms, or negative behaviors, or problems are met with acceptance and a degree of understanding and emotional regulation on the caregiver’s part. This does not involve condoning a behavior – again there are instances where teaching or timeouts are appropriate.

Remember that timeouts are not punishments – used correctly they involve the caregiver using a neutral emotion, while avoiding a power struggle (defensiveness, critiquing, emotional reaction, and answering the child irrelevant questions should be avoided… with a neutral face you just say, “I need you to take a time out” or “time out please.” It is not particularly effective to offer education while the child is escalated… so wait until they have taken the time out and are cooled down to tell them what they can do next time (always tell people what they should do as opposed to what they should not do).

when an attachment concern is present it is important to remember that the child may have a heightened fear of being abandoned, they might have a negative self-image, and they might have anxiety or stress levels that make them a bit more sensitive to your reactions surrounding their behaviors.

It is particularly important that the child understands that the behavior was disagreeable without the child believing that they are inherently bad, unlovable, or expendable.

Attachment theory influenced interventions are in contrast, to a degree, with behavioral intervention. Behavioral intervention runs on the assumption that there is a function to every behavior which in some way benefits the person engaging in that behavior… Attachment theory would suggest that some behaviors are engaged in that do not truly benefit the person.

There are times when children with attachment concerns (or children who have survived trauma) engage in behaviors that were either historically beneficial to them (and are no longer) or they are trying (unsuccessfully) to get an attachment need met. In these instances it is ideal to get the attachment needs met (trust, bonding, unconditional love, acceptance, safety, predictability, nurturance etc) while trusting that the ‘negative behaviors’ will slowly go away as they no longer serve any purpose (or function) for your child.

6.)      The child’s resistance to parenting and treatment interventions is responded to with acceptance, curiosity, and empathy.

There is good reason for the child to be resistant to parenting and to therapeutic treatment; their resistance should be met with acceptance. Often children with attachment concerns survived a period of time in their life where it was very important for them to be in control and for them to not trust or depend on people (doing so was either not an option or was dangerous)… their resistance historically was important to their survival… slowly they will learn that people are trustworthy and that they can give a degree of control to a supportive caregiver or parent.

Acceptance does not mean that you take no action. Acceptance is needed before a person will be able to offer help from a sincere, authentic, and empathetic place. People are very unlikely to accept help from a person that they feel does not accept them. Acceptance is not the opposite of change… instead; acceptance is perhaps the most important variable when attempting to reach meaningful change.

7.)      Being patient with yourself and with your child is very important… even if you are doing everything “perfectly” the process might move slower then you had hoped. And perhaps more importantly, no one is actually perfect and you are likely doing a great job. It is important that parents and caregivers are well supported for this reason… often you are doing your best and perhaps you are at times judged a bit unfairly because of your child’s behaviors… you are doing your best and your efforts deserve more admiration that they probably receive.

This is true of your child as well… they are doing there best given the circumstances and they need a bit of patience and an honest “congratulations” when they make small steps in the right direction.

8.)      The parents’ ability to self-regulate their emotions will help the child to learn how to regulate their own emotions. Authenticity is important… I am not suggesting that you go through life faking, hiding, repressing, or rationalizing your emotions; instead I am suggesting that you convey them in a useful way to the right people at the right time.

As people learn to use stress reduction strategies and other techniques (such as mindfulness) they learn to explore their emotions more fully… in this exploration we often find that we were actually feeling something different than what our immediate reaction suggested (mad people are usually sad, fearful or embarrassed) and the source of that feeling is often from a different source than they might have originally thought.

Children and adults often react to the emotion that is being presented as opposed to the narrative… you can help your child to understand your message by monitoring what emotions you are presenting (this is unbelievably helpful with teenagers).

9.)      Eventually the child will need to make sense of his or her history so that they can better understand how their history affects their current level of function (the way they behave and relate to others etc). This is not for justification but for self-awareness – with increased awareness we gain new ways of perceiving, and new ways of moving towards a solution.

10.)    The adults must make every effort to remain empathetic to the child, as the child is likely doing the best that they can given his or her history. It is very important that the adults in such situations are very well supported as quite a lot is being asked of them. Again… don’t be too hard on yourself, and if you need help it is a sign of strength and integrity to ask for it.

11.)    Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is to trust that offering safety, security, unconditional love, and nurturance is the most effective way to help a child with special attachment needs. At times you may feel as though you are swimming against the current as you are inundated with parenting suggestions from sources that do not truly understand attachment theory or the trauma recovery process. Because of this fact, it can be immensely helpful to find a group or community of caregivers who are in a similar situation as yourself.

12.)    The symptoms or behaviors of a child with special attachment needs can look very similar to that of a child who either was spoiled or was raised with limited structure and guidance. This can be very confusing and the general public is far more capable of using interventions to aid the child who simply needs better structure and direction.

We need nurturance and support from others in order to learn how to be in control of ourselves…when a child does not receive the nurturance that they need during their early life they can have times where they have limited control over themselves… their action don’t always match their intentions (this is true of everyone).

At times the public needs help to understand that what works for one child might not work for another child.

13.)    In some instances a child might feel so overwhelmed, over stimulated, escalated, or deregulated that they will benefit from being away from an environment that might have expectations that they will not be able to meet.

Often children with attachment concerns will feel guilt for behaviors that they had little control over… In these situations they need to be offered compassion and they would appreciate your assistance in removing them from the difficult environment until they feel in control again. (They might fight you at the time, but deep down they appreciate you helping them to avoid feelings of guilt).

Caregivers can learn to be pre-emptive in these difficult situations… if you pay attention there are often precursor behaviors (actions they will do before) to “blow-outs” (tensing, fidgety behaviors, tone of voice, facial expressions, repetitive movements, teasing (by them or at them), feelings of failure or inadequacy, embarrassment etc are just some examples).

14.)    Therapists will often recommend one on one playtime with the child who has special attachment needs. Play (reading books, doing art, playing with toys etc) is a perfect setting to carry out the non- verbal (and verbal) communication goals. During play the child has the opportunity to tell you things that are important to them and to tell you about emotions that they are carrying (they are not conscious that they are doing this… most caregivers have scene this, the child will be playing with toys and acting out a scenario that very obviously happened to them)… You are not responsible for helping the child to reach some kind of existential insight, simply offer them unconditional positive regard, empathy, acceptance and all of your attention. The one on one playtime offered at a predictable time every day is a perfect way to help the child in receiving their attachment needs. Playtime does not need to be too long and if there is more than one caregiver it is beneficial to share this responsibility.

15.)    Mostly children with special attachment needs are just like any other child. This means that they will thrive with clear boundaries, with realistic expectations, with structure, with education, with developmentally appropriate activities, with proper nutrition, with plenty of exercise and play time, with opportunities for peer relationships, with nurturance, with safety, and with predictability.

16.)    It is important to note that not everything about a child is directly related to attachment concerns… they can still be spoiled, they will still have their own unique personalities and interests, and they will all be uniquely gifted in their own individual ways. The suggestions above could be beneficial to any child.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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