Attachment: A New Way of Understanding the Problems of Parents and Kids

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by Debra Wesselmann, MS, LPC

The Advantages of a Secure Attachment

The research in the field of attachment opens up a whole new world for all of us in understanding the problems of parents and children. Attachment is the emotional connection between any two people. However, life's first attachments are by far the most important, as they set a template for all later relationships. Attachment between kids and parents evolved naturally eons ago, as the infants and children who developed a strong need to remain near their parents were the ones who were most likely to survive - both physically and psychologically. Children who feel the most secure in their early relationships with parents have tremendous advantages in life. They tend to grow up feeling good about themselves and others. They cope well with life's ups and downs, and they have a strong capacity for empathy. These kids naturally form other healthy, close relationships as they go out into the world. Kids who have not developed a healthy, secure attachment with parents tend to grow up feeling more insecure, disconnected, and angry.

Three Ingredients of Attachment

There are three main ingredients to a secure attachment relationship. The first is physical connection, which means plenty of touch and eye contact. Such things as cradling an infant while feeding, cuddling with a toddler before bedtime, and hugging a teenager increase the sense of physical connection, especially if touch and eye contact take place on a daily basis throughout the childhood years. The second ingredient is emotional connection. Children sense their parents are connected on an emotional level when their parents are tuned into their feelings. Infants feel their parents' attunement when parents respond accurately to their infants' cries or when they share their infants' delight in new discoveries. Children sense the emotional connection when their parents empathize with their feelings or provide them with comfort or reassurance. Even discipline, when carried out with empathy, can increase the emotional connection. Finally, children need an environment that is consistent, predictable, and safe in order to develop a quality attachment. Children need to know that if their feelings or behaviors get out of control, their parents will remain steady and calm. They need to be able to depend on a consistent schedule, consistent limits, and consistent parental responses. Without this kind of safe, dependable environment a child will develop emotional walls which will prevent a secure attachment.

Obstacles to a Secure Attachment

All babies and children are biologically programmed to attach to their parents, but not all children develop quality attachments. There are several situations that can interfere with a good attachment. For example, children with a difficult temperament may be so highly active or so extreme in their emotions that their parents naturally have difficulty connecting with them either physically or emotionally. Children who endured an abusive or chaotic early life and who are later placed with an adoptive family may have emotional walls that are difficult to penetrate.

Parents who live in stressful circumstances may have difficulty creating secure attachments. Out of necessity they may be so preoccupied with solving the problems of living and coping that they are unable to tune into their children's feelings and needs. Parents with addictions are unable to stay attuned to their children or provide a consistent, safe environment because they are preoccupied with the addictive substance or behavior, and the whole family may be on the addictions roller coaster together.

Finally, parents who grew up without secure attachment relationships themselves often have difficulty providing the ingredients of a secure attachment relationship with their own children. Parents who did not experience nurturing and closeness growing up may feel uncomfortable with closeness, and may subsequently distance themselves from their kids. Parents who were mistreated as children may have a strong need to be in control in order to avoid feeling vulnerable, and may therefore become excessively controlling with their children. Parents who were mistreated may perceive normal child misbehaviors as attempts to mistreat or hurt them, and may overreact in these situations. Parents who feel unlovable may fear their children don't love them, and may attempt to placate their children or give them things to get them to love them more. Parents who were not securely attached in childhood may be disconnected from their own painful feelings, or they may be overwhelmed by painful feelings. Parents who experienced poor attachments are also more vulnerable to the use of addictive substances or behaviors to cope.

There is Hope for Parents and Kids

Most parents love their kids and want to give them the best start in life possible. By gaining a clear understanding of attachment and the obstacles present in their own relationships with their kids, parents can overcome these obstacles and strengthen the parent-child bonds. Parents who lacked quality bonds as children can be helped to identify and overcome the effects of their poor attachment histories so that they may give their children a better emotional start to life than the one they had.

The Whole Parent: How to Become a Terrific Parent Even If You Didn't Have One, by Debra Wesselmann, helps parents understand attachment, and teaches them how to provide the ingredients of a secure attachment for their children. The book helps parents who did not have the advantages of growing up with a quality attachment understand and overcome the effects of their early experiences in order to give their children a better emotional start to life than the one they had.

Click here to learn more about the book The Whole Parent: How to Become a Terrific Parent Even If You Didn't Have One

About the Author:

Debra Wesselmann, MS, LPC, is a therapist in private practice specializing in work with adults and kids, trauma, abuse, attachment, and breaking generational patterns of unhealthy relating. She is the mother of two step-children, two children by birth, and one child who joined the family through adoption. Debra lives with her husband and children in Omaha, Nebraska.

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 29, 2014