Life lessons are things that are learned and that affect you for a lifetime. When you think of "life lessons" most people don't think about teaching them to their baby. But of all of life's lessons, the most important one is actually the first one that everyone learns. We all learn the lesson, but how it is taught will affect us for the rest of our lives. Early life experiences with trust and attachment are a powerful predictor of a child’s life-long social and emotional health, and you have the ability to provide experiences that will set your child up for success.
Quality parental attachment increases a child’s sense of security, self-esteem and self-control. The impact of attachment goes further to affect memory and learn in school, and ability to get along with others. It reaches all the way into adulthood affecting quality of relationship and ability to cope.
Attachment is a big deal. If you have a new-born or toddler, learning about quality attachment is essential for long term health and success.
What is Attachment?
Think of attachment as the way a child learns to trust their caretaker. How this trusting foundation for love is formed gets imprinted on the child and can have profound, long-lasting effects for the rest of their life.
All children attach to their parent, even in the most neglectful or abusive situations. The factor that predicts childhood and adult wellbeing is how the child attached to their parent. And how a child attached to a parent all depends on the parent's behaviors, particularly how parents respond to their infant or toddlers needs.
What's the Best Way to Establish Attachment?
High quality attachments form when parents respond to an infant's feelings of distress from being ill, physically hurt, or frightened. Not only do parents need to be attentive and responsive, but they also need to be fairly consistent in their response.
The goal is to respond to distress in loving ways such as picking up your baby and reassuring you baby. It is also important that your baby or toddler know that they can freely express their distress as a way to signal their need for your comfort and love.
If you can do this consistently, your child will feel secure around you. They will explore more, will be able to separate more easily, and build a sense of self-confidence that follows them through life. They will be more empathetic as older children, less disruptive, less aggressive and more mature. As adults they will have better relationships, have higher self-esteem and feel more comfortable with intimacy ass well as independence.
What is the Wrong Way to Do It?
There are a few things you do not want to do when your child is distressed. If you reject your child or respond insensitively to their cries then you will teach them that you are not a source of comfort and they will, in turn, develop alternative strategies for dealing with stress. Children in this circumstance learn to not display negative emotions around the parent and simply avoid the parent in times of need. As adults they tend to have intimacy problems, engage in casual sex, and invest little emotion in social and romantic relationships.
Parents who act inconsistently or unpredictable when their child is distressed may find that their child exaggerates their negative emotions in trying to get noticed by the parent. The child is very weary of strangers, can become greatly distressed when the parent leaves and is not comforted when the parent returns. As adults they tend to worry that their parent doesn't love them, are reluctant to get close to others and get very distraught over breakups.
In situations where a child faces abuse or extremely unpredictable behavior from the person who is supposed to be their caregiver, the coping mechanism is often to disassociate from themselves, appearing dazed or confuse. These children often develop serious psychopathology and maladjustment through childhood and adulthood.
Dos and Don'ts
If you are feeling confused or overwhelmed, I've pulled together cheat sheet of "dos" and "don'ts."
- Respond warmly and attentively when your baby/toddler is stressed from fear, sickness or physical pain - responding will not "spoil" your child
- Allow your child to express their fear or stress freely
- Respond consistently so your child can learn to trust and make sense of their relationship with you
- Worry about spoiling your child - allowing early dependence will lead to better independence
- Ignore cries or attempts to connect from a scared, ill or hurt child
- Reject or try to "toughen up" your child in those critical early years
- React inconsistently because your child depends on you to understand their needs for survival and consistency helps your child make sense of the world
- Be self-absorbed, controlling, abusive or hostile because it can have long-lasting, damaging effects.