Attachment-based Parenting Tips
The key to navigating challenges between parents and children is co-regulation, collaboration, and respect. It is based on attunement, attachment, and felt safety. Establishing a secure connection between parent and child is integral to problem solving and creating harmony within the relationship. It becomes even more important when children are struggling. When parents and children share a secure connection, it is easier to spot the signs that a child is struggling and in need of help.
What is attachment theory and how can parents create a secure attachment?
Attachment is the connection between two human beings. Attachment theory conceptualizes a child’s needs based on their relationship with their parents and other primary caregivers. Attachment theory tells us that the primary goals of the parent-child relationship are security, trust, and understanding. To create secure attachment, parents can engage their children with compassion, empathy, and respect, while avoiding shaming.
Parents can create a secure attachment with their children by engaging children with respect. Understanding that a child is an individual with thoughts, feelings, needs, and wants of their own is key to engaging with respect. Once a parent recognizes this, they can attune to children’s needs and emotions. Attuning to needs and emotions does not mean giving a child any and everything they want. Rather, it means creating a safe space for children to share needs and emotions, no matter how big, and responding without judgment or criticism. It means allowing children the opportunity to cry, meltdown, yell, or simply speak their feelings, while the parent takes the time to really listen and understand. It means validating the child’s emotions, perspectives, and experiences. It means holding boundaries, but doing so kindly and gently. It means allowing children reasonable opportunities for choices and control.
Parents can create a secure attachment by showing up for their child and attending to them fully and completely. While more time is ideal, quality over quantity should be the goal. One great way to create attachment is to set daily one-on-one time in which the child leads the play with the parents. This should be a time without technology and without interruption. This will benefit the relationship even if it is only 10 minutes each day. Similarly, when a child is seeking attention, giving them full focus for even a couple of minutes can benefit the relationship. Alternatively, the parent might let the child know when they will be available to provide them with attention.
A sense of physical connection is key as well. Depending on the preferences of the child, this may simply involve physical proximity, or it may involve lots of hugs and connected touch (e.g., massages, a shoulder squeeze, long periods of cuddling). When a child is upset, parents can help by staying close, getting below eye level, making eye contact if the child prefers it, keeping their body language and face open, welcoming and kind, offering quiet or gentle words depending on the child’s needs, and offering hugs or other physical touch if the child prefers it. This creates felt safety for the child, and allows co-regulation. Felt safety is also created by changing the environment to meet the individual child’s emotional and sensory needs (e.g., dimming the lights, turning on quiet music, providing sensory materials, etc.).
These strategies are all part of co-regulation. Co-regulation occurs when a parent stays calm and regulated, soothing their child through their own calm and regulated presence, so that the child, over time, can internalize the soothing and self-regulate.
How can parents and children navigate challenges?
Once a respectful, securely attached foundation exists between parent and child, navigating challenges becomes easier. Sometimes, the experience of attunement and co-regulation is enough to manage a difficult moment. It allows the parent and child to safely and respectfully interact as big emotions unfold. To further build attachment, parents can:
Get to know their child. Marvel at who they are.
Notice their strengths, interests, and skills.
Pay attention to how they think, speak, and learn.
Reflect on ways they are growing.
Look for positive mirror traits. For example, they can’t focus on their homework very well, but they can spend all day creating a detailed Lego structure, drawing a picture, or programming a computer.
Engage with them around their interests, and share parental interests.
Again, set daily 1:1 time with the child. Let them lead the play or activity.
Remember the day the child was born, and how helpless they were. They need parents today as much as they did then, even if their behavior seems to be pushing parents away.
Parents can also use their children’s interests, skills, and strengths:
To help offset vulnerabilities
To build self-esteem
To create a stronger connection
To help manage transitions
To help them cool down during or after difficult moments
To aid repair
In navigating challenges, many parents wonder about discipline. It is important to understand that discipline and punishment are not the same. Neuroscientific research indicates punishment does not build respectful relationships, teach children lessons we want them to learn, or benefit development. Similarly, isolating children, screaming at them, or utilizing verbal or physical aggression creates fear, terror, and pain. The brain interprets pain as a threat, and the child’s body demonstrates physiological and neurological responses to that threat. Children may change their behavior out of fear, but not because they are learning or growing. The internalization of pain and shame can lead to long term trauma, impacting future behaviors, relationships, and well-being. Discipline, as opposed to punishment, helps children develop self-control. It can be accomplished through love and nurture.
To discipline effectively, it is helpful to first ask “why.” This might look like, “Why is the child having this feeling right now?” “Why is the child behaving in this way?” or “Why are we struggling?” Often, the answer is that the child does not have a better way of regulating or managing a need, want, or demand in the moment. It is not that they do not want to, it is that they cannot. When we see this as parents, we are often able to shift our lens and approach the child with compassion rather than frustration. We can move away from rewards and punishments, and focus on connection while still teaching family values, upholding safety rules, and maintaining boundaries. Before engaging with our children, we may first need to self-regulate, and if we misstep, lose our temper, or approach our children in a way we don’t feel good about, we have a strong opportunity to repair and model accountability and self-compassion. Once we are regulated, we can co-regulate. And finally, when everyone is regulated, we can collaborate with our children for problem solving. Problem solving may be as simple as co-regulating, or as complex as making a plan to try the next time a similar situation occurs.
No Drama Discipline – By Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson (attachment based discipline)
Brain-Body Parenting – By Dr. Mona Delahooke (co-regulation and attunement)
Livesinthebalance.org – Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative & Proactive Solutions Model for collaborating and problem solving
Dr. Jaclyn Halpern
Director/Co-Founder, The SOAR for Psychotherapy and Testing; Licensed Psychologist & Clinical Supervisor