I thought I’d chat today about attachment and when it can be misconstrued.
Attachment is of course the development and emotional experience that takes place when a parent bonds with their baby or child. This has in fairly recent years become the subject of much research and has often been found to be the cause of healthy and unhealthy neural activity that affects the development and capabilities of a child.
With the right work, negative effects can be reversed as we know that our brains have elasticity and can rewire. But I’m guessing that most of my listeners have had a good relationship with their children from birth, so today from a parenting perspective, I’m not addressing de-tachment, but what I do want to talk about is the tipping point of attachment.
All good behaviours have a tipping point.
It’s good to be disciplined about food - the tipping point is starving ourselves
It’s good to be kind – but the tipping point is when we get walked over.
And so on...
So, what could be the tipping point of attachment? When does it become unhealthy?
Surely all parental love and care is positive? Well, yes, but what is LOVE?
We could get quite deep and ethereal at this point. But suffice it to say, that whilst love is:
hugs and hot chocolates,
Kind words and nice deeds
It’s also the responsibility to be our children’s frontal lobes whilst theirs are still under construction.
To that end, love is sometimes:
Saying no (of course you know that)
But what many parents find more difficult is standing back.
Standing back and letting their children succeed or possibly fail, when with the simple wave of a parent wand, we could ensure success.
YES, love is allowing them to fail.
This isn’t just a Madeleine-perspective, in case you were wondering.
Attachment is something that is very sketchily taught and shared. But with a little more examination, it includes developing an ability in your child to overcome.
The avoidance of any situations that might provoke stress means that they don’t develop the part of their brains that ….well….overcome.
The long term effect of this is that they don’t cope with challenging situations.
They can switch off when life becomes tough. They can retain the need for childish certainty over structure, mealtimes and predictability of life that is not commensurate with their age and the expectation of their maturity.
In short, they are overly dependent, they don’t cope and this leads to insecurity and believe it or not fear of abandonment. (not the end goal of attachment at atll)
All this because you swoop in when you think it’s the most loving thing to do.
Leaving a child to work things out
Believing in your child to overcome
Allowing your child to fail even though you could have rescued them
It is part of development.
Think of it this way.
If your child has a challenge that they're finding hard, you can be supportive or intrusive.
Nobody wants to be intrusive do they? Sounds a bit invasive and over the top. We prefer to call it supportive or assistive. But the whole point about supporting and assisting is that you don’t do the job for them – even though we so easily can. No, doing it for them is intrusive.
Imagine if you went to drop your child off at a swimming lesson and then sat at the side to wait for the lesson to finish. You notice that the teacher has set them a difficult task, perhaps a few extra lengths or having a crack at the butterfly-stroke. Would you jump in the pool, push your child out and do the lengths for them?
I think not;
Yet, that is metaphorically what we are doing when we swoop in and do things that they should be doing to strengthen themselves, grow, develop.
If you’ve got a toddler, it’s easier to clear up the toys than expect them to; it’s quicker too. Especially as they huff and puff and get distracted. But if you leave yourself a little longer and encourage them past their point of desperation, it’ll be developmental.
With a 6 or 7 year old, setting household chores can feel like it’s more work for you to monitor their efforts than to do it for them. But expectations that feel a little too hard, are healthy. Think of it like buying the next size up of clothing, so they’ll grow into it.
There’s being supportive with homework and then there’s doing that project for them. Yes, I know you do it, because teachers tell me you do.
What about getting them to make appointments or necessary phone calls, rather than doing it for them.
Do you rescue them by finding their lost items?
Make their lunches, when they’re big enough to make their own. I always think that if they can save the world on screen with two thumbs, they’re surely dexterous enough to pull a sandwich together.
And I hear you say, but they leave a mess…make clearing up part of the expectation. Did you know we thrive when we’re stretched.
Have a think next time you’re:
Packing their sports kit
Covering their mistakes
Being the fall guy in difficult situations with teachers or friends
Letting them get away with something you or a teacher or coach had asked of them
When I'm chatting with a parent in a private session or in a group on a course, we explore what is behind the parent wanting to intrude or over-nurture. And there are two common themes.
One is the desire to nurture.
And the other is the child’s mood and response if they’re being asked to do something they don’t want to do, or if they’re not getting the assistance they want.
Firstly, it’s great to nurture. I get that, what parent doesn’t. But if it’s feeding our needs, it can’t hurt to look at whether it’s right for them, just because it feels nice for us.
Will it rob you of all the wonderful warm feelings of being a nourishing parent, if you raise your expectations a little? Not at all. In fact, it will leave you space for other nourishing moments.
Secondly, don’t let them threaten you with relationship. It’s the beginning of manipulation. Yes, we love our children’s approval, we like the peace. but that's fake peace. We’d rather give in than walk through potential conflict.
Yet, we’ll do it for the physical stuff. We don’t want them in nappies when they start school, we’ll encourage them to walk, even if they fall. But when it comes to their emotional world, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance.
So let me encourage you: They’re not really going to stop loving you because you expect them to take responsibility. It might look like it in the moment. But trust me, I’ve been doing this a long time. It isn’t the loving expectation of a parent to grow their child that causes broken relationships.
Be confident that you’re not disconnecting. Remember the analogy of the bridge? You keep your side in good order and it’s up to them to tend their side.
As long as you’re not yelling at them or being unkind, the simple fact of expecting them to take on age-appropriate responsibilities is not a blight on your side of the bridge. You can keep your side in good repair, even when they’re in stress mode.
Stress isn’t something we strive to offer our children, but without any of it they don’t develop the ability to overcome it.
Next time your child is in a bit of a pit, think about a way you can come alongside them and encourage them, like a coach cheering on an athlete. See if you can watch them stretch to the neural point of resolving. Or experience the disappointment of failure and know that your love and support is consistent, no matter whether they achieve or fail.
We need to disassociate failing and feeling like a failure. They’re not the same. Yet employers and universities complain that young adults are fragile in this area. They haven’t experienced conditional love through perseverance and failure enough times to know that failure doesn’t define them.
Here’s one of my favourite sayings. Made up by me…
failure is an event, not an identity.
So, all to say. You won’t ruin your attachment with your child if you stand back a little. In fact, they will become attuned. That’s the technical word for it. I like to think of it as tuning up.
Can you love them enough to see them in peril and not rescue them?
Remember childbirth? If midwives put babies back when it all got too hard, we’d be in an interesting mess.
I dare you
Tune up your kids
Love them through their stress
Encourage them through their challenges
Raise your expectations
Coach them when life is hard
It’s part of healthy attachment.
It builds culture
It shows them unconditional love
It's a healthy part of attachment