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Episode #9 | Love + Attachment (part 1)
Why is it so difficult to teach my own children?
It feels like my child is emotionally distant. How can I repair our relationship?
Why has my child become so defiant?
Although these parenting issues may seem unrelated, they all have one thing in common: attachment. Unconditional love is the foundation for parenting and teaching because loving relationships are what keep our children’s hearts tender and teachable. This episode is part one of two episodes where we discuss the big idea of love and attachment and how it affects our authority as parents and teachers.
In this episode I dive deep into the spiritual aspects of relationships and how parent either harden or soften their children’s hearts.
“Unconditional parental love is the indispensable nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child’s heart for the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love — in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost. It is not conditional. It is just there, regardless of which side the child is acting from — “good” or “bad.” The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny, uncooperative, and plain rude, and the parent still lets her feel loved.” (Hold on to your Kids, Gordon Neufeld)
“Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:5-14)
“A master teacher, rather than pushing pupils toward independence, supplies them instead with generous offerings of assistance. A master teacher wants her students to think for themselves but knows the students cannot get there if she resists their dependence or chastises them for lacking maturity. Her students are free to lean on her without any sense of shame for their neediness.” (Hold On To Your Kids, Dr. Gordon Neufeld)
“Imposed sanctions, artificial consequences, and the withdrawal of privileges–are self-defeating. Punishment creates an adversarial relationship and incurs emotional hardening.” (Hold On To Your Kids, Dr. Gordon Neufeld)
Read the Episode
In 1907 London, a little boy, John Bowlby, was born to Sir Anthony Alfred, a baronet and member of medical staff to the king. Like most children from wealthy families he was raised primarily by a nanny and saw very little of his mother. When he was four years old his nanny found employment elsewhere. Although it was probably a difficult separation for her, it was life-changing for the six children she has raised. John experienced a deep sense of loss, and when he was 7 years old was sent to a boarding school, further preventing him from forming a relationship with his family, especially his mother.
John Bowlby eventually became a psychologist and took an interest in maladapted children, especially children left orphans after World War II. His childhood experiences and relationships with his caregivers were a driving force behind his interest in parent-child attachment. As he studied orphaned children he began to see a pattern, both in their circumstances and subsequent behavior. He theorized that infants form attachments with their most present, attentive caregivers, usually mothers, and this attachment sets the foundation for future relationships and behavior. Attachment is a survival technique, and only those that are able to form secure attachments will survive. The infant will attempt to develop an attachment at all costs, even if its with an inconsistent or abusive caregiver. And if the caregiver is not present enough to form an attachment, the child may form attachment to peers or objects. These attachments cause many issues, the most serious is reactive attachment disorder in which a child has never formed a secure attachment and is unable to form a relationship with any person. This child shows little or no emotion , and shows no desire for affection.
What is attachment and how is it formed?
Attachment is described as a relational force, like gravity or magnets, keeping a child close to their parent like the earth orbits the sun. But attachment doesn’t just apply to the parent-child relationship. It also applies to all human relationships as we are all capable of becoming attached to another person.
- Physical touch and proximity.
- Sharing secrets
Why Attachment is Important
Bowlby’s student, Mary Ainsworth, went on to experiment and learn more about attachment theory. Her most well-known experiment is the “Strange Situation.” This is how it went: a mother and child play in a room for about 5 minutes, while a research assistant sits in the room and the researcher watches from behind a 2-way mirror. At the signal, the mother gets up and leaves the room. The child is left alone with the assistant for 2 minutes, and the researchers observe how the child reacts in the absence of his mother. The absence is interesting, but it’s not the most revealing part of the parent-child attachment. The reunion of mother and child is what the researchers are looking for. A child with a secure attachment will run to the mother and seek comfort. After a minute or two the child’s stress is calmed by the dopamine produced by his mothers presence and he resumes playing. A child with ambivalent attachment is clingy and will take a while to warm up to a new situation, even when his mother is there. When the mother leaves, the child is in great distress, and when she returns the child may seek comfort, then hit and push the mother away. Mothers of children with anxious or ambivalent attachment are usually inconsistent; sometimes psychologically and physically available and responds to the child’s cries, but most of the time they are not.
A child with an avoidant attachment shows no emotional response to his mothers absence or her return. The child usually avoids his mother and shows no preference to his mother or a complete stranger. This indicates that the mother hasn’t been available and the child does not feel he can rely on her for comfort or to meet his needs.
One of the most profound findings was that attachment is generational; a child with an insecure attachment to her mother will, most likely, grow up to form an insecure attachment with her children.
Since Bowlby first discovered the theory of attachment, more and more psychologists have studied the effects of attachment on behavior, psychology, and success in life.
One day at McGill University, a neuroscientist named Michael Meaney went about his day in the lab by picking up some rat pups to examine and weigh them. This is a very common occurrence for most scientists as rat’s brain structure is very similar to humans, making them a perfect candidate for research. As Meaney and his colleagues were putting the rat pups back in their plexiglass cages they noticed a curious thing: when the pups arrived back in the cage some mother rats rushed to their babies and spent a few minutes licking and grooming them. Other mothers would simply ignore them. The researchers took note of this and soon began to notice a distinct physiological difference in the pups that were groomed upon return and the ones that were ignore. When the researchers handled a pup it produced anxiety, a flood of stress hormones, but the mother’s licking and grooming counteracted that anxiety and calmed down the surge of hormones.
This sparked a flood of questions by the researchers – are there different patterns of licking and grooming? What are the long-term effects of these different patterns?
They observed the mothers and their pups and labeled the mothers as either LG (low grooming) or HG (high grooming). Once the pups were weaned, separated, and housed with their same-sex siblings, After 100 days Meaney’s team gave the pups a series of tests to compare the Low-LG offspring to the High-LG offspring.
One is called the open-field test. A rat is placed in a large, round, open box for five minutes and allowed to explore at will. In the second test, hungry rats are placed in a new cage for ten minutes and offered food.
On both tests the difference between the two groups was striking. The rats who hadn’t been licked and groomed much as pups spent, on average, fewer than five seconds of their five minutes daring the explore the inner part of the open field; the rats who had been licked and groomed a lot as pups spent, on average, thirty-five seconds in the inner field– seven times as long! In the ten minute food test high-LG rats began eating, on average, after just four tentative minutes, and they ate for more than two minutes in total. The low-LG rats took, on average, more than nine minutes to start eating, and once they did, they ate for only a few seconds.
The researchers ran test after test, and the high-LG rats excelled: they were better at mazes, they were more social, they were more curious, they were less aggressive, they had more self-control, they were healthier, the lived longer. Meaney and his team were astounded. And they wondered: does this effect take place in humans?
Through ten years of research cooperating with geneticists they found that yes, it does. Maternal responsiveness and nurturing can turn on certain genes (a process called methylation), and it turns out that the gene sequence that got turned “on” was the precise segment that controlled the way the hippocampus would process stress hormones in adulthood. And this was true in both rats and humans.
In her book, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, Psychoanalyst and clinical social worker Erica Komisar lays out all the evidence why the amount of time a mother spends with her baby in the first three years of life is vital for future success and happiness. The research is indisputable: the first three years are critical for forming attachments, and a secure attachment with a mother will develop the brain in ways that set a child up for a happy, fulfilling life.
Another psychologist that has contributed greatly to what we know about attachment is Dr. Gordon Neufeld. While practicing developmental psychology for the past 40 years he’s noticed a disturbing trend in our culture; peer orientation. After WWII the parent-child attachment began to deteriorate and be replaced by peers. Although peer orientation was certainly a phenomenon before WWII, it wasn’t so widespread and culturally accepted as it is now. Culture and tradition used to be passed down from parent to child, but this has been replaced by pop culture; children and teens passing on the trends, ideas, speech, and culture to each other. And why is this happening? Since WWII more and more women entered the workforce and never returned home. Which resulted in more children entering childcare before school age, and school hours being increased, not for the benefit of the children, but to accommodate parents’ work hours. These long hours apart from an early age made it more difficult to nurture a secure attachment between parents and more likely for children to form attachments to each other.
In most daycare facilities the caregiver to child ratio is upwards of to 1:6, and 50% of daycare workers leave the profession within 4 years making it very difficult for each child to get sufficient time to form an attachment with their caregiver.
Another less obvious attachment disruptor is the cell phone. As adults we tend to see the mote in our teens eye, and are unaware of the beam in our own. In other words, we see their cell phone use as the main problem, when in reality our cell phone use during their entire childhood may actually be the thing disrupting a healthy attachment. Think how often the cell phone keeps us from watching our child at their activities, how often it prevents us from making eye contact with them, and how often it prevents a natural conversation from forming (“mom, MOM! I’m trying to talk to you!”)
It is so ingrained in our society for children to prefer the company of other children, teens the company of teens, and adults the company of adults, that it is hard to comprehend any other way. But it was different in the early 20th century; children were securely attached to their parents, and enjoyed, and could relate to, people of all ages.
Why is peer orientation such a big deal?
When a child is peer oriented they essentially turn against their parents. Dr. Gordon Neufeld compares this phenomenon to a magnet; one side is attracted while the other side is repelled. He also compared it to Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” If a child is truly peer oriented they will feel annoyed by their parents and avoid being around them. Almost anything the parent says is inflammatory and irritating. This makes it nearly impossible for the child to want to follow boundaries set by parents or listen to their counsel.
When a person is attached to another they imitate them; you’ll notice your child feeling pressure to dress like their peers, even if it’s not their style or personality. You’ll notice them adopting speech and beliefs of those they are attached to.
A child’s self-esteem and value are wrapped up in the people they are attached to. Unfortunately, immature adolescents are not known for their unconditional love and acceptance of those around them. Can it be any wonder that bullying, suicide, and substance abuse have increased substantially in the past few decades if children have put their vulnerable hearts and self-esteem in the hands of their peers?
Most importantly, when your child becomes peer oriented it means their attachment with you is suffering. A child gains valuable skills through a secure attachment to an adult, much more than he does from peers. A child needs a secure attachment to a loving, caring adult for so many reasons. Here are just a few:
How Attachment Affects Happiness + Success
- Develops prefrontal cortex. Attachment produces dopamine, which counteracts stress hormones in the brain; Prefrontal cortex is responsible for self-control, focus, attention, and making plans.
“The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions.” (How Children Succeed, 17)
- Creates resilience. When the brain is constantly exposed to adrenaline and cortisol through chronic stress, it alters the brain and makes it more sensitive to these hormones. When a child is responded to and comforted during stressful moments the brain is actually becoming more resilient to stress.
“But there is also some positive news in this research. It turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents. Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment.” (How Children Succeed, 28)
“When mothers scored high on measures of responsiveness, the impact of environmental factors [family turmoil, chaos, crowding] on their children seemed almost to disappear. High-quality mothering, in other words, can act as a powerful buffer against the damage that adversity inflicts on a child’s stress response system.” (How Children Succeed, 32)
- Nurtures play. Low-stress environment nurtures curiosity, imagination, creativity, and attention. When the brain doesn’t have to worry about the security of relationships or safety of the environment, it is free to wonder and create.
- Establishes docility and authority. When a child has a secure attachment to an adult they trust them and want to please them. A secure attachment is the foundation of authority and docility.
- Develops self-esteem. A child first learns to view his worth through the words and actions of those he’s attached to. If the parent shows unconditional love for the young child, he will learn to love himself. If the parent shows the child he is valuable even when he makes mistakes or misbehaves, the child will be more likely to pick himself up when he fails because he sees himself as valuable.
- Develop Good Habits. When they are securely attached they seek to emulate and learn from whomever they are attached to. Thanks to mirror neurons in the brain, whomever the child is attached to and spends time with they will naturally mirror the behavior of those they are around. As Deborah Macnamar, author of Rest, Play, Grow wisely noted: “The values a child adopts have more to do with to whom they are attached than with the outcome of learning.” (Deborah Macnamara. Rest, Play Grow. pg 83)
How Are Attachments Damaged?
Think back to the list at the beginning, of how an attachment is formed. Simply think of the opposite of each item and that is how attachments are damaged:
- Spend less and less time together and/or we rarely show physical affection. Using time out as a form of punishment.
- Annoyed and irritated by everything the child does. Or show distaste for the things they love. Taking away privileges or beloved items as punishment.
- We show or express that we’re not proud they’re our child. Joking “he’s not my kid!” Showing embarrassment or not wanting to take them places with you.
- Looking at your phone while at their activities (sports, gymnastics, etc). Looking at your phone, book, computer while they are trying to talk to you. Declining their offers to play or be together for an activity you’d rather do.
- Showing disgust and resentment for the child, while rarely expressing love and appreciation. This pops up mostly in correcting behavior and your body language — pushing them away, rolling your eyes, spanking, squeezing arms, slapping, etc.
- Not listening to your child when they want to talk to you. Choosing not to share your own thoughts, feelings, ideas, experiences with them. Giving them the silent treatment as punishment.
How to Mend Relationships
Show physical affection. Lots of studies show that children who are given healthy physical touch throughout infancy and childhood grow up to be more social and moral than children who were give negative touch or deprived of any touch. When you’re talking to your child, touch their shoulder, hold hands, give hugs often, cuddle before bed, or massage their hands after a long day at school.
Spend time together. Just spending 10-15 minutes of unstructured time with your child is enough to maintain a secure attachment. This time should be spent just being together, no distractions and avoid making it an interview by bombarding them with questions.
Take Time Off to Bond Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting, coined the term “soul fever” after noticing symptoms like irritability, inability to focus, oppositionality, and anger. He recommends taking your child out of school and/or taking off work to give them rest from their worries and time to bond with you. Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On to Your Kids, recommends the same treatment for children who are suffering from stress, anxiety, overstimulation, and under-connection.
Show appreciation. One of the most powerful ways to show love (in any relationship) is to express appreciation. This is different than praise, it is simply acknowledging a positive behavior and showing gratitude for it.
Write love notes. For young children, draw a picture of your favorite thing to do together, or a favorite memory made together. For older children, write a simple note expressing appreciation or some things you love about them.
Serve them. In the last episode I talked about the importance of serving and allowing your child to be dependent when they need it. Find ways to serve your child and show love. One thing I will remember forever is my dad waking up at 6 am to turn on my car so it would be defrosted before leaving for early morning high school musical practice. Yes, I could have done it myself. Yes, I should have been more independent and done it myself. But that act has been much more influential than my dad lecturing me about doing it myself.
When young children are dysregulated (tantrums) they need connection. They need their parents. Time outs and ignoring the “bad behavior” does not work, and can make things worse. While children are still learning to regulate their emotions they need your help.