Are you being the parent your child needs you to be?
A strong, healthy attachment between parent and child makes parenting much easier and reduces the odds that the adolescent will suffer from emotional stress, have suicide thoughts or behaviour, engage in violence or use substances. So how do we improve our parenting and learn how to avoid the power struggles? How do we regain connectedness when we have temporarily lost it and how do we maintain confidence in the middle of those parenting storms that makes us feel completely helpless?
Being in charge
Many parents believe it’s important that their children see them as their friends. But in truth, children need us to be the Captains of their ships. Parents should not be in control of their kids but rather they need to be in charge. There’s a difference. Control is an attempt to compensate for feeling powerless or afraid. Being in charge means that we’re capable of keeping calm even when the seas are rough or our kids are pushing our buttons, defying our requests, or melting down.
The Captain of the ship
If you’re a passenger on a cruise ship, you want the Captain to be the guy who oversees the smooth sailing, steering the ship through storms or around icebergs. You want to be able to depend on the Captain, whether or not you like him or understand everything he’s doing. It’s a hierarchical relationship, with the Captain assuming his rightful role as the one in charge, and the passengers relaxing in the sense of safety that comes from knowing they can rely on someone to competently steer the ship through calm and rough waters.
Imagine our reaction as passengers if we saw the Captain completely lose his overview upon discovering that his vessel had a leak. If our Captain were incapable of dealing with reality, it would significantly undermine our sense of security. If he responded to rough waters by running through the ship, shouting out in panic, “Oh, no! I can’t handle this!” we’d be very worried. In the same way, when we refuse to deal with reality as it is, such as our child’s anger toward his sister or our teenager’s use of alcohol, we leave him without the sense of comfort that comes from knowing he has someone capable of getting him safely through whatever crisis he might be experiencing.
When our children perceive us as steady and calm—regardless of their moods or behaviour—they can relax, knowing they can rely on us to get them through the challenging moments of their lives.
Setting the course
We want a Captain who anticipates where the rough waters might be, who adjusts his course to avoid bad weather when possible, and who stays cool when things go wrong. If there is a storm, we are far more comforted by a Captain who takes charge, calling out directions to his crew with authority and issuing instructions to the passengers about where to go to stay safe, than we would with one who cowered in a corner or jumped ship. Similarly, when we fully inhabit the role of Captain of the ship of our home and family, we set the stage for providing the quiet and comforting authority that our children so profoundly need.
The six roots of attachment
Attachment is the most primal need of the child, surpassing even hunger in its importance. So how do we build and maintain a strong emotional connection with our children?
The bonds of deep attachment begin to form when the children are little. While some parents may find it relatively easy to build a connection with a younger child it’s vital that if the relationship begins to break down they take steps to regain that all- important connection.
The six roots of attachment develop during the first six years of a child’s life, in a certain order. If they somehow fail to develop during this time, they can be cultivated at any time in a person’s life, in any order.
The first root is through the senses. Babies during their first year of life hold on to their parents through seeing them, hearing their voices, feeling their touch, smelling them and tasting the food they are fed (breastfeeding provides all of these). In the second year, children become mobile and have a venturing-forth kind of energy.
In order to stay close to their parents, nature provides a second root – sameness. This is when you see your child imitating you. He also wants to play with your belongings – your hat, shoes, keys, mobile, glasses, etc. If he holds your mobile, he is holding on to you! This is the key to learning language, as the child imitates his parent’s speech.
However, by the third year, he develops a third root – belonging. Since the child needs more room to express his growing individuality, he can remain close to you when he is not the same as you by possessing you. You are now “my mommy” or “my daddy.” On the heels of belonging comes loyalty. This is when you hear your child say, “My daddy is the strongest” or “my mommy knows the most.” He will now do your bidding and do his best to please you.
This still doesn’t leave enough room for the child’s own thoughts and ideas, so nature comes to provide a fourth root – significance. The child needs to feel that he matters to you, that he is special in your eyes, that he is important to you. “Mommy, look at me!” “Daddy, see what I can do!” are familiar expressions of seeking to matter at the age of four. Now even if he doesn’t agree with you, he is special to you.
If all goes well, the fifth root will develop at the age of five – love. The child falls in love with you. He gives you his heart. He draws hearts and flowers for you; he wants to marry you and live with you forever. We must cherish this and realize that we have a great responsibility to protect his soft heart.
The last root is to be celebrated – being known. Now the child wants to share with you all that he has in his heart. He wants to tell you his secrets. This creates psychological intimacy. These six roots need tending and cultivating for the rest of our lives. This is the key to giving the child the secure base he needs, the womb, in which he can develop and become the fully mature and wonderful individual that he potentially is. Children grow older, but growing up is not guaranteed. If we are mindful of tending these six roots for all the years our children need our guidance and understanding, they have the best chance of truly growing up. And then their connection to us becomes eternal. The child is both deeply attached and truly unique and individual.
Promoting healthy attachment
Here are a few ideas for strengthening the parent-child relationship by using the six stages of attachment:
Proximity: Sit nearby when they are busy playing, or focused on video games or emailing friends. Be available in case they turn to you to share a comment. Ask your child to teach you something he’s good at: drawing, downloading music, making a soccer goal, etc. Offer a back rub or foot rub, or have a family pillow fight. Go for a drive without planning a destination; have them tell you to turn left or right as you go.
Sameness: Play a game you both enjoy. Share a meal (at home or at a restaurant) of the foods you both drool over. Listen to music or watch movies that you both enjoy. Let your child know when you agree with the opinions he expresses. Do something you both like doing: sports, hobbies, collecting projects.
Belonging/loyalty: When your child is overwhelmed with homework, make him a hearty snack or rub his shoulders, letting him know you’re here to help support him. Allow her to hear you explaining to someone else how impressed you are about something she’s done—or tell her directly.Thank your child for ways he’s helped you out, appreciating his loyalty. If your child has a teacher problem, deal with it in a way that doesn’t pit you and the teacher against him. Make it clear that your involvement is about helping to solve the problem and that you’re on his side. Make sure you are alongside your child if she’s misbehaved, communicating that you want to see the situation calmly and through her eyes so you can best help her meet her needs in a healthy and acceptable way.
Significance: Tell him the story of how you chose his name. Watch home movies together. Look your child in the eye, when she least expects it, and tell her how glad you are she’s here. Surprise your child with a card highlighting some of the countless things you appreciate about her.
Love: Tuck a loving note in the lunch box or under the pillow or text it. Say “I love you” randomly without also asking him to do homework or chores. Slow down and take in any tokens of affections he shows you, fully taking in those moments.Tell her how thankful you are to be her parent.
Being known: When your child speaks, make sure you listen, or let him know when you’ll be able to, if you’re busy. Refrain from offering advice without first letting her say what she needs to say. If she reveals a problem, stay open and maintain the sense of being her ally, rather than reacting in ways that might discourage her from opening up to you again. Thank her when she’s shared her heart with you. Fortify connection in all the other stages of attachment. Keep up the good work and stay cool, calm and connected
Sources: “Parenting without power struggles” by Susan Stiffelman. “ Hold on to your kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers” by Gordon Neufeld.