What if I told you that I knew the secret to providing your child with the tools to create authentic happiness, fulfilling success, rewarding relationships, increased overall physical and mental health, and a sense of well being that could weather the stressors of life with grace and resolve? How much would you pay for that kind of profound magic elixir? What if I told you, to quote Glinda the Good Witch, “You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” The ability to provide your child with the gifts mentioned above begins in creating a secure attachment.
According to John Bowlby, a British developmental psychiatrist and the founder of Attachment Theory states that “[a]ttachment is the emotional bond that forms between an infant and their primary caregiver.” Generally, the primary caregiver is acknowledged as the mother.
How to Create a Secure Attachment
A secure attachment bond provides the child with many benefits throughout their life. Things such as better grades in school, increased happiness, and increased trust in others and the world at large. It also helps the child develop better relationships with peers and authority. Children with secure attachments are physically healthier and less impulsive. These benefits continue well into adulthood. Creating a secure attachment does not mean that you simply enjoy your child’s company or you meet all of their physical needs, like food, shelter, clothing, or schooling. It is more profound than that. I have included the factors for creating a secure attachment by utilizing the word itself, as an acronym, SECURE.
The S in SECURE stands for showing up. Showing up refers not only to being physically present for your child but also emotionally present. When you are on the floor playing with your child, are your thoughts about your to-do list taking you away from being present? When your child comes to you upset or excited about something, do they have your full attention, or are you half-listening?
Showing up is about engaging in what your child is doing and/or how they are feeling. It is about genuinely listening to them and making them feel like you are completely engaged in their experience simultaneously. Showing up makes them feel like they are important, and they matter. It, more importantly, teaches them that they exist. Children that are neglected, either physically and/or emotionally, may question their existence and seek validation from others well into adulthood. They may seek either excessive positive or even negative interactions. It does not matter to them, as long as they elicit a response from another, which validates their existence.
The E in SECURE stands for empathy. Empathy involves mirroring your infant’s facial expressions or communicating to them that you see that they are feeling a certain way. You are acknowledging their expressed emotion via their facial expressions and why they may be feeling that way. For example, if they are crying, you could validate that they must be hungry, and you are coming with their bottle.
The ability to develop empathy in a secure attachment is crucial to stimulate the baby’s mirror neurons in their developing brain. This is the origin of empathy development. Empathy development can be compromised during childhood abuse and/or neglect. Without empathy, there can be severe consequences well into adulthood, such as some personality disorders. One of the hallmark traits used in diagnosing these personality disturbances is a lack of empathy.
Consistency and Co-regulation
The C in SECURE refers to two different terms: consistency and co-regulation. Consistently responding to a baby/child’s signaling of a need creates a sense of trust in others and the world. It tells them that their needs are heard, and they matter. Consistently responding to needs should be executed promptly and with sensitive and attuned responses. For example, picking the baby up with tenderness and concern when the baby is crying instead of jolting the baby upwards quickly and harshly.
Co-regulation is defined as warm and responsive interactions that provide the support, coaching, and modeling children need to understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is crucial that a parent assists a child in modulating their emotions. Co-regulation will look differently at different ages. It can be a caregiver rocking a crying infant. Or hugging a preschooler who skinned their knee. The goal is that the child can take over self-regulation, calm oneself back to baseline, and need less assistance from the caregiver for the co-regulation.
The U in SECURE is a phonetic pun! The U is y-o-U! Children acquire traits, either positive or negative, through modeling. They watch their parents and imitate learned behaviors. If you want your child to be grateful, show gratitude to them, the waiter, the teacher, etc. If you want them to be respectful, show them respect, and act respectfully to others in front of your child. It is not a do as I say, not as I do mentality. Be the change that you wish to see in your child. “Your children will become what you are; so be what you want them to be!” – David Bly
The R in SECURE refers to resilience. Resilience is not a hardwired trait, despite the notion that “kids are so resilient.” This excuse is often used when adults want to justify their potentially poor choices and their effects on the children. Resilience is a learned skill that comes from the repair when the secure attachment is briefly “broken.” Such as when the infant’s cries are not swiftly addressed. Or when the toddler cries that the parent is leaving home without them, and the parent sneaks out and does not make a concerted effort to prioritize a celebration upon return. Brief periods of broken attachment are not the issue. The issue comes when the bond is broken more often than not, and repair is not made. It is about being “a good enough mother,” as coined by D.W. Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst.
The second E in SECURE represents emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, also known as EQ, is a better predictor of future success than IQ. Studies have shown that emotional intelligence better predicts future success in relationships, health, and quality of life. It’s been shown that children with high EQs earn better grades, stay in school longer, and make healthier choices overall (for example, they are less likely to smoke).
Perhaps more importantly, having high emotional intelligence is a more significant predictor of career success than a high IQ. Parents can teach emotional intelligence by naming and labeling emotions, facial expressions, or reading social stories that revolve around emotions like, The Way I Feel, by Janan Cain or Listening to My Body, by Gabi Garcia. Inside Out, the Disney movie is another great resource to teach children emotions and how to label them.
Creating a secure attachment bond between infant and primary caregiver is imperative in giving our children a chance at living their best life.
“Raising secure, emotionally competent, cooperative children who have free access to their creativity and expression is desperately needed for the health of the human race and the health of the planet. Raising secure children matters.” –Ruth Newton, Ph.D., The Attachment Connection