We have noticed well intentioned Attachment Led Parenting sometimes leads to big emotions such as anxiety, anger and sleep difficulties. Why? Attachment theory suggests that through meeting a child’s attachment needs the child should feel more secure and confident with a positive understanding of themselves, others and the world. So how do we make sense of the difficulties?
The issue with Attachment Led Parenting
We think the issue is how Attachment-Led Parenting is understood and applied. We see parents trying hard to do the right thing but losing sight of what attachment theory is all about. We see parents negotiating with children who do not have the cognitive capability to assess and manage risk, problem solve or consider consequences. We see anxious or fearful parents lacking confidence in their own decision making. We see parents who experienced difficulties in their own childhoods trying despertately not to replicate their histories and being frightened to assert authority or impose rules or restrictions. We see parents struggling with guilt and trying desperately to please or make it up to their children.
What is attachment anyway?
Attachment is primarily about safety and survival. Attachment theory has its origins in evolutionary biological research. Human infants are the most immature developmentally, physically and emotionally at birth in comparison with all other animals: they are more dependent upon their caregivers for longer for their very surivial and growth. Infants ensure their survival by forming attachments to a small number of caregivers. For a child to feel security in their attachment relationship they require fairly consistent and emotionally responsive caregiving. This provides a secure base from which the infant can grow, develop, understand themselves and safely explore the world around them. The attachment relationship also provides a template or blueprint for the child’s future relationships and expectations. So a securely attached child will, on the whole, have positive expectations of themselves and how others will treat them.
Holding the focus of Attachment Led Parenting – it’s all about safety
The aim of Attachment Led Parenting is to ensure a secure attachment relationship. That means, first and foremost, ensuring the child’s physical and felt safety. It also means being fairly consistent in meeting the child’s needs; that includes being emotionally available and responsive to meet their emotional needs.
The most common difficulty we see is the child not feeling safe. This can lead to anxiety and related behavioural difficulties such as angry behaviour and sleep or toileting problems.
We see children feeling overwhelmed with responsibility, choice and power that they are poorly equipped cognitively to handle – remember a child has very limited executive functioning abilities (planning, problem solving, risk assessment, big picture thinking, considering consequences).
We see children doubting their parent’s ability to protect them or ‘secure the fort’ when the parent discusses, negotiates and changes boundaries. Similarly, when the parent tries to be responsive and obliging, the child can be left feeling both overly powerful and frustrated because the parent has not recognised or met the underlying emotional need. Finally, the child can feel terrified if their rage is not permitted, understood and co-regulated when the parent tries to keep everything positive and calm.
Top Tip! Try the ‘Two Handed Approach’
On the one hand you recognise and acknowledge the child’s underlying communication and need. One the other hand, you clearly state the limits, boundaries and expectations. For example, “I know you are so angry that your baby brother takes up so much of my time and you feel left out. It isn’t fair, is it (recognising and validating the emotion under the behaviour)? But you are always my boy, I never forget about you, let’s go to the park later, just you and me (meeting the need for safety – a child’s survival is threatened if their parent forgets about them). But you are not ever allowed to hit your baby brother or throw things near him, that is a rule you must follow (clear boundaries places parent in authority and able to keep everyone safe).
Attachment focused therapies
Attachment Led Parenting can be tricky work with all sorts of pitfalls. An attachment focused consultation or two can go a long way in supporting a family’s goals. At Pocket Family Psychologist and Shortland Psychology Associates, we work therapeutically to support families to create secure attachment relationships. We deliver specialist attachment focused therapies such as Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy, Theraplay and Attachment Focused Family Therapy. Attachment focused therapeutic work might mean supporting a parent who is struggling with a traumatic experience, relationship difficulties or overwhelming emotions that are making it difficult for them to create a feeling of safety in the home or to be consistent and emotionally responsive to their child. Or it might mean working with a child with early attachment difficulties to connect and repair in their relationship with their parent. In dealing with particular child behavioural issues, it can mean supporting the parent to consider and respond to the underlying emotional communication and needs of the child – that can be a lot harder than it sounds.
Dr Andrea Shortland is a clinical psychologist specialising in trauma. anxiety, attachmnet and family work at www.pocketfamilypsychologist.com and www.shortlandpsychology.com.