As we have all learned over the past year of social distancing, relationships with other people are incredibly important. This is even more true for our children and teens. From day one, we all start building attachments with those around us: caregivers, family, friends, etc. Those relationships help us to learn about ourselves and the world around us. John Bowlby (1969) described the need for attachment as an instinct that is innate in all of us. Healthy attachment promotes our social/emotional development, but can also be linked to all facets of development. These relationships are so important that researcher Harry Harlow (1958) claimed that the need for love is just as strong as our need for food, shelter, etc.
Our goal is to form secure attachments with those we interact with most, but how do we form these attachments?
Healthy attachments are learned through interactions throughout our lives. We take each experience that we have and use it to better understand ourselves, the world around us, and our relationship to that world. What we learn, we carry with us through our lives to help us make decisions and form relationships.
In early life we build attachment through consistent responsiveness from caregivers, touch, eye contact, and play. As we get older it becomes more and more important to use emotional language (labeling emotions, validating feelings, etc.) to build a safe environment. Creating shared memories playing, talking, and connecting emotionally allows for a strong bond to be built between child and caregiver. Children also need their caregivers to communicate support and understanding verbally and nonverbally as well as create and maintain healthy boundaries between guardian-child subsystems.
So what can you do at home? Here are some ideas for building a stronger attachment bond with your child:
- Spend time doing activities your child is interested in. Are they always playing that one game on their tablet? Ask them to teach you. Do they love to paint? Do some art together. Movies are more their thing? Let them pick the movie for movie night.
- Spend quality time playing together. Technology is great but every now and then it’s good for everyone to unplug and play a board game or with action figures. You will both appreciate the undivided attention!
- Cuddle together while watching a movie or tv show. Physical touch is important in building bonds with other people, so (as long as everyone is comfortable being cuddled – it’s ok to not want to be touched!) find a cozy spot and sit together for a while.
- Talk about feelings! Talk about your feelings, your child’s feelings, the characters on tv’s feelings….. This will help your child not only learn that you are someone they can turn to when they have feelings they don’t understand, but also it will help them learn important empathy skills.
- Cook a meal together. Not only do many kids really enjoy the process of creating something, you are showing them how you nurture and care for them physically.
- Give your child affirmations and teach them how to affirm themselves. Tell them the things you like about them and things they should feel proud of in themselves. Kids crave approval from adults and teaching them how to be proud of themselves will help them develop higher self-esteem in the future. You believe in them and they should believe in themselves too.
- Follow-up discipline with reminders that you love and care about them.
It is never too late to be intentional about attachment building!
Danielle Russo MS, LMFT, CFLE-P