Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.” A. A. Milne
There seems to be a shift occurring in the world of parenting, where more and more people are realizing the benefits of a responsive approach. Parents are more frequently choosing to follow their instincts, and opt for more compassion than our recent ancestors, from western cultures. As a result of this shift, there seems to be a merging of misconceptions, that can sometimes cause new parents to question their instincts to practice responsive parenting. The first misunderstanding has some new parents being told that attachment parenting leads to secure attachment, which also leads to a more independent child. There is truth to this statement but it is not that simple and this ambiguity seems to exacerbate the confusion. Attachment parenting will likely lead to secure attachment however, independence is not the immediate objective of attachment parenting. Attachment parents accept and honour this time of dependence for their child. The independence comes later but it may not look like the independent and emotionally distant behaviour of teens from my generation, rather, securely attached children are often more confident and have more fulfilling relationships. This teen may not mind giving his mom a hug in front of his friends because he is secure in his belief that emotions, affection, and connections to others, are healthy.
Attachment parenting provides a set of behaviours such as extended breastfeeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping and responsive parenting strategies that make secure attachment easier to achieve. Parents who are struggling to emotionally connect with their babies and children may want to look into attachment parenting as a means to reconnect with their child and their identity as a parent.
The second misconception is from the perspective of the “traditionalists”. Many believe an independent child is desirable, and responding to a child’s needs makes them dependent. This is where I believe the confusion begins. The new parent’s child is attached to her, as they should be. The grandmother says, “look at how attached she is to you! She’s not independent at all! Look at the separation anxiety!” With my knowledge of child development, I would accept this as an acknowledgment of my child’s secure attachment quality, but because it seems some people do not have this knowledge, it can be the moment mom starts to doubt herself. “I thought attachment parenting encouraged independence? What am I doing wrong? Am I coddling her? Am I spoiling her? Is my mother right? Look she is so upset and won’t go to anyone but me. All my friends who sleep trained their babies have children who are happy to go to anyone.” This is where a general knowledge about attachment is extremely helpful. There are many descriptions but I find this one to be the most effective in getting a clear picture of what attachment looks like.
Babies with an insecure-ambivalent/resistant attachment are clingy with their mother and don’t explore or play in her presence. They are distressed when the mother leaves, and when she returns, they vacillate between clinging and angry resistance. For example, they may struggle, hit, or push back when the mother picks them up.
These babies are not easily comforted. They seem to want the close relationship, but the mother’s inconsistency and insensitivity undermine the baby’s confidence in her responses. This pattern also undermines the child’s autonomy, because the baby stays focused on the mother’s behaviour and changing moods to the exclusion of nearly everything else. In insecure-ambivalent babies, separation anxiety tends to last long after secure babies have mastered it. Longitudinal studies show that these children often become inhibited, withdrawn, and unassertive, and they have poor interpersonal skills.” Dr. Diana Divecha
Babies in insecure-avoidant attachments seem indifferent to the mother, act unstressed when she leaves, and exhibit the same behaviours with a stranger. When the mother returns after a separation, the baby might avoid her, or might “fail to cling” when picked up.
The mothers in insecure-avoidant attachments often seem angry in general and angry, specifically, at their babies. They can be intolerant, sometimes punishing, of distress, and often attribute wrong motivations to the baby, e.g., “He’s just crying to spite me.” One study showed that the insecurely-attached babies are just as physiologically upset (increased heart rates, etc.) as securely attached babies when parents leave but have learned to suppress their emotions in order to stay close to the parent without risking rejection. In other words, the babies “deactivate” their normal attachment system and stop looking to their mothers for help.
As toddlers, insecure-avoidant children don’t pay much attention to their mothers or their own feelings, and their explorations of the physical world are rigid and self-reliant. By preschool, these children tend to be more hostile, aggressive, and have more negative interactions overall. Avoidance and emotional distance become a way of dealing with the world, and instead of problem-solving, they are more likely to sulk or withdraw.” Dr. Diana Divecha
When babies have a secure attachment, they play and explore freely from the “secure base” of their mother’s presence. When the mother leaves, the baby can become distressed, especially when a stranger is around. When the mother returns, the baby expresses her joy, sometimes from a distance and sometimes reaching to be picked up and held (babies vary, depending on their personality and temperament, even within a secure attachment). Then the baby settles quickly and returns to playing.
The mothers who fall into this pattern are responsive, warm, loving, and emotionally available, and as a result their babies grow to be confident in their mothers’ ability to handle feelings. The babies feel free to express their positive and negative feelings openly and don’t develop defenses against the unpleasant ones.” Dr. Diana Divecha
You can read more about disorganized attachment in the link. I’m not going to discuss it much as it usually only happens in cases of extreme neglect and abuse. Most parents who would take the time to read an article about attachment, likely do not have a child with disorganized attachment. If you have adopted or fostered a child, or you are concerned about a child in your community or care, consult a medical professional or child protective services.
Infants whose caregivers consistently respond to distress in sensitive or ‘loving’ ways, such as picking the infant up promptly and reassuring the infant, feel secure in their knowledge that they can freely express negative emotion which will elicit comforting from the caregiver” Dr. Diane Benoit
What does all this mean? Your baby will use you as a secure base. Temperament and development often influence how far a secure baby wanders from their caregiver, but most secure babies will feel safe enough to explore a little, even if that is done from the safety of mommy’s arms. A baby who is sitting on the parents lap but is engaging with someone else, or a toy, is demonstrating how the secure base works. If the child is sitting on the parents lap and is still inhibited, not engaging with others, clingy, searching for comfort, and the caregiver does not seem to know how to comfort the child, this child may have an ambivalent/resistant attachment quality. The child who is playing 5 ft. away from their caregiver and keeps checking in (social referencing), showing them a toy, pointing to something or just looking over, is demonstrating secure attachment. The child who is playing with little acknowledgment of their parent, except to receive their approval, may be demonstrating avoidant attachment.
Most of the time babies are upset for a solvable reason. It builds trust, not only in you, but in the world, when we problem solve for the helpless baby. Sometimes the reason for being upset is a disconnection from the mother, a lack of synchrony. If the baby is typically not overly inhibited, the fussiness is likely due to a solvable reason. If the baby is unsettled and the parent is always anxious and seems to struggle to read the baby’s cues, they may have ambivalent/resistant attachment (or a difficult temperament, or sensory sensitivities, etc.) We all have moments like this. This parent is ALWAYS like this, constantly seeking answers and switching tactics. One week they are attachment parenting and the next week they are sleep training. The following week they are trying to teach their 8-month-old how to play piano and the next week they are at the emergency room because there are two bruises on the child’s knee. Often the parent is very unsure of themselves, and has an obvious lack of confidence in their own parenting abilities. We’ve all seen this poor parent and we think JUST CHILL.
The best way to avoid resistant attachment is to chill out. Do not put so much pressure on yourself and your baby that you become overwhelmed. You may struggle to read your baby’s cues through all the noise and chaos in your mind. Parents who find themselves in this position, I highly recommend incorporating a mindfulness practice into your routine. That could be 5 minutes of meditation in the morning, yoga or Tai Chi, whatever helps you become calm and centred. My husband is able to live in the moment and be present with our children. What a gift to not worry about everything all the time and just be! I am incredibly jealous of this natural ability he has. I feel an ability to be present is one of the keys to being the parent you want to be. Also, researching child development from a credible source can be helpful (talk to a professional, like myself, if you need reassurance). Stop trying to change baby and start trying to accept your baby for who they are, not what the books, or your neighbour, or your mother, or the dry cleaner tells you they should be. Lastly, stop doing so much. Stay at home, relax, go for walks and do outdoor activities. Allow yourself to watch television and lay in bed with your baby or just listen to the bird’s chirp from your front porch. Whatever helps you to unwind, do it often and don’t feel guilty about it. It is better for your child to have a relaxed parent, than to constantly be stimulated.
An avoidant baby would not pay much attention to mom or would only pay attention when they saw an opportunity for approval (after they draw a picture they may bring it to the parent). This is where the confusion comes in, the child who is playing with the other children in the room and exploring their environment, are they secure or not? Well, the answer lies in the reaction, if the mom was to walk away. The secure child’s play would instantly become inhibited. They may get upset or simply reduce socializing and focus on the fact that the secure base is gone. The avoidant child will continue playing, uninhibited. Now some people may be concerned, saying “my child does not get that upset when I leave.” These changes in play can be very subtle at times and hard to observe. Especially if you have a child with an easy temperament and a secure attachment, that child could act in a more prosocial manor and have trust in your continuous presence. Like everything in life, it ebbs and flows. Your child may be really clingy one day, and really independent another day. If this is not ALL THE TIME, it actually demonstrates the secure base theory. Your child comes to you in times of need, and explores away from you, because they feel safe to do so, in your presence.
How your child reacts to your return is a major part of evaluating attachment quality. If your child goes to you upon your return and calms down within five minutes or so, that demonstrates secure attachment quality. If your child goes to you, but does not calm down for a long time, and this is how they act every time you leave, this child may be demonstrating ambivalent/resistant attachment. If your child does not go to you, or when they do, you lack a warm acknowledgment, your child may have avoidant attachment quality. That is how attachment parenting and attachment theory relate to each other. Attachment parenting provides a set of behaviours, such as extended breastfeeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping and responsive parenting strategies that make secure attachment easier to achieve. Parents who are struggling to emotionally connect with their babies and children may want to look into attachment parenting as a means to reconnect with their child and their identity as a parent.
Avoidant children tend to be overly friendly with other people. It is the child in the room who comes up and sits on your lap within five minutes of meeting you. They go to anyone in their time of need, sometimes this is their caregiver, but often they will opt for someone else, especially if there is someone who has responded to their need for connection. Avoidant children can be vulnerable to predators because they seek affection and acceptance from anyone and everyone. A responsive approach to parenting that includes unconditional love and acceptance, combined with an understanding of child development, can prevent avoidant attachment. Quite simply, go to them when they cry, accept and empathize with their feelings and avoid punitive discipline and shaming.
If you think your child may be demonstrating an avoidant attachment quality, or you are concerned that your parenting may create an insecure attachment quality. Ask yourself some questions. Do you get frustrated with your child often? Do you feel like your child is trying to give you a hard time? Do you often feel as though you are just too overwhelmed to deal with your child? Did you engage in any behavioural training that allowed your child to cry such as “Cry It Out” or making your child stay in one spot? If you answered yes, it never hurts to do some self-reflection. Again, an understanding of child development can really be helpful in adjusting your expectations to be reasonable for the child’s developmental stage. I also recommend reading about how to deal with parent anger (resources listed below) and the risks of conditional love, punishment and shame. Anything by Alfie Kohn should aide in altering your perspective, but if you don’t have time for a whole book, there are many helpful articles, You Tube videos and podcasts (resources listed below). Lastly, I recommend starting a regular relaxation and mindfulness practice (I know, it works for everything). Go for a walk, do yoga, join a meditation group. Also, irritability and despair can be a sign of PPD/PPA or depression, please talk to your doctor about your feelings. There is treatment for PPD/PPA (breastfeeding safe) and it will make you a better parent and a more peaceful person overall.
Our own attachment style affects our parenting and it can be quite helpful to figure out what that is. Securely attached children grow up to be confident adults and more frequently engage in positive communication and effective problem solving skills. They often have a sense of self, while being able to empathize with others. They are usually able to effectively express and cope with their emotions. This makes raising a securely attached child much easier, since the foundations of secure attachment come so naturally to the parent.
Ambivalent/resistant attachment creates an insatiable need for the caregiver and constant feelings of uncertainty in children, which often continues into adulthood. This type of attachment can leave parents seeking comfort and reassurance from their children, rather than the other way around. An example of this would be making a child feel guilty for not spending enough time with you or getting upset when they draw a picture for Daddy but not for you.
Avoidant children learn to shut off their emotions, eventually, to avoid upsetting their caregiver. This can cause emotional distance later in life, and especially in close relationships. These are the people who say “that’s how I was raised and I turned out fine,” while they suffer from challenges with genuine emotional connections. They usually struggle with their children’s typical emotional outbursts, often feeling the urge to suppress their child’s emotions, through punishment and/or shame. They sometimes view affection from others as “needy” and unnecessary. The challenge with this type of attachment is they have been so engrained to believe that emotions are bad, that they are often hard to convince of their own brokenness.
Reflecting on your own attachment quality may give you insight into your relationships and some of the challenges you face in your life. Even as I was writing this I realized more and more about myself and the people in my life. When you realize that someone is cold and distant because their parents did not respond to their needs as a child, you are more able to empathize with the reasoning behind their behaviour. You can start nurturing yourself and the people around you, instead of continuing the cycle of emotionally punishing yourself and others for feelings that everyone has. Once you stop punishing your children, you may begin to see how you emotionally punish yourself too, and it becomes easier to start to fill that void that insecure attachment left in your soul. I encourage you to reflect on your own attachment and how it may be impacting your parenting choices.
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