O is for Optimizing secure attachment

When the average Joe and Jane Parent identify the most important ingredients in raising healthy kids, they’ll mention “love” in the top three every time. When you ask child psychologists this same question, they instead use the term “secure attachment”.  Since we all know that abusive parents claim to love their children, forgive me for moving on to a discussion of secure attachment. However, love is what most people would say makes life worth living and describes their feelings for their children. It is also the emotion that makes possible the magic juju of secure attachment.

A child is securely attached when the parent or caregiver is reliable, responsive, and attuned.  As a result, the child learns that the world is a stable place, safe to explore as he develops more and more a capacity to do so.  Initially, he explores with his eyes, mouth and hands, all of which serve to engage his loving parent. The securely attached child even stores his security in his brain in the form of neural connections which have been established through the delicate dance of responsive parenting over time. This security ends up predicting all manner of strengths that contribute to success later in life (more on that later).

Daniel Siegal, psychiatrist and researcher, is a bridge-maker in the study of secure attachment, because he has linked the worlds of child development, infant research, psychotherapy and neuroscience. He describes the “neurobiology” of attachment and how brain growth in the baby depends on positive connectivity of the caregiver and the infant. Learning and experience stimulate neural growth—literally.

Attunement is a sacred word in the secure attachment field.  An attuned parent “tunes into” the signals of the child and attends to the child’s needs. The baby is born with billions of neurons ready to connect, based on whatever her interpersonal experience may be. When the sensitive mom or dad coos, touches, soothes, revs up (or down) and feeds the baby according to her needs and comfort zones, BOOM—a symphony is born. Not only are neurons growing and synching up, but they are establishing a neural network that associates mom and dad with a sense of security.

Neuroimaging research corroborates what attachment researchers theorized decades ago about the vital importance of responsive caring for the infant—the baby’s brain is activated by caring interactions. But before anyone dreamed of neural movie shows, Mary Ainsworth observed hundreds of mothers and babies for hundreds of hours in order to understand “the dance” of optimal parenting.  She devised a lab procedure for measuring attachment patterns by categorizing behaviors during separations and reunions. Her discovery that about two-thirds of children are securely attached has held up over time and a multitude of studies.

Longitudinal research has documented that secure attachment with a primary caregiver predicts social, emotional, and academic functioning throughout childhood and into adulthood.  Children with secure histories had greater initiative, self-control abilities and capacities to make and keep friends than those with histories of anxious and insecure attachment.  Even while separating out the effects of social class, IQ and temperament, these findings held up. Furthermore, secure attachment was associated with an ability to form trusting romantic relationships in adulthood, greater resilience to stress and lower levels of mental illness.

As sublime as this research sounds for parents that feel pretty good about the first few years of their parenting life, it can be scary for those that remember hard times, high stress or turmoil. In the same way that you may have heard “genes are not destiny”, neither is early life. The plasticity of the brain allows people to have positive interpersonal experiences within and outside of the family that activate positive emotions and neural growth. Dan Siegal points out that the brain continues to remodel itself in response to experience throughout our lives. He postulates that we can even remove the legacy of early social deficits through therapeutic and loving experiences later on.

Temperament is a tricky issue for attachment experts. There is no question that kids with high energy, aggressive impulsivity and disruptive tendencies are harder to parent. Children who are anxious, reactive or avoidant are also more challenging. Let’s face it—it’s easier to soothe, entertain and discipline a child who isn’t screaming at the top of her lungs or hitting his sibling every other minute.

The one-third of kids who are “insecure” probably got that way as a result of interplays of many factors, including parent and child personality characteristics, a lack of support systems and rotten circumstances. As they say—“more research is needed” on this chicken-egg question about how much kids ended up with problems due to inborn temperament difficulty versus deficient parental responsiveness.

Parents often wonder what “responsive and attuned parenting” looks like with older children. Does “responsive” mean going along with teens when they tell you, “Leave me alone”, “I don’t need you” or “Just trust me”? (Not necessarily!)  If the baby smiles and relaxes when you walk them around facing out, there’s a good chance that it was an “attuned” response to baby cues on your part. When your young teen smiles approvingly when you give them an ATM card without rules, unlimited access to screens or approval for a co-ed sleepover, you’re nuts if you defend indulgence as “responsive” parenting.

Parenting that promotes secure attachment during middle childhood and adolescence is not just made up of loving moments, mutual enjoyment and connecting. In fact, it can often look and feel like “mean” parenting, because it involves saying “no” a lot, monitoring activities, and insisting on chores and rule compliance. Love is still the drive, but it is supposed to motivate us to do all sorts of hard (and unpopular) work as parents to get the prize—healthy children.

My operative phrase for parenting that optimizes secure attachment is figuring out “what is in the interest of the child”.  Since children are happiest when you give them stuff and give into their ploys for gaining an easier life, a child’s approving smiles are not good measures of your parenting. Oh, don’t get me wrong—smiles can still be a measure of wholesome and good loving moments—like when you are enjoying a joke, activity or conversation—they just aren’t foolproof. But that is true for all kids (of all ages) who would love to eat ice cream for dinner and watch movies all night.

Reading a child “cues” are only part of the story for how we figure out good parenting; the rest we derive from our knowledge about child development, our instincts, wisdom about childrearing, and values. The proof is in the pudding—do you like what you see in your child’s behavior, adjustment and sense of security?

Secure attachment includes smiling, nuzzling and feeding of the infant, but we must place it in context. It must happen in the context of our also going to work, getting to bed and answering some emails. In other words, we often disappoint our infants and we will do the same with our children and teens. Just as we only needed to be “good enough” as parents of infants, we only need to try for same goal with teens.

Teens who say “leave me alone” may need to be: (1) left alone; (2) given some space initially with another approach for connection a little later so that they know you care; (3) addressed directly about their feelings; or (4) given a combination of the former options. When teens are irritable and despairing, we need to figure out the best action from considering a whole host of factors with the assumption that teenagers often cannot articulate their feelings and needs. Whoa—talk about confusing!

Responsive and attuned parenting means knowing your child, his history and his current life dilemmas, so that you can interpret his “Leave me alone” refrain effectively. It also helps to know a bit about adolescent development, since teens can give contradictory signals, have mixed feelings and benefit from skillful connection with their parents even while giving “go away” signals.

Attunement is still a sacred art, whether practiced with infants, children or teens. Ideally, we are attuned to ourselves, not just our children. When we are toxic with fatigue or resentment (for our spouses, children, selves, bosses), it is best to get replenished somehow before returning to the dance of parenting.

How can we expect ourselves to “read” the cues of our children accurately or respond effectively when we are burnt out and irritable? This raw reality is why folks who lack family support and resources have it so tough. Life stress compromises parental attunement and responsiveness even in the best of circumstances.

Burnt out parenting days are one thing, but long term deprivation, loss or neglect constitute another realm of risk altogether. There are parent counselors, therapists and attachment promoters that have used attachment theory to promote forms of “attachment therapy” with children as modes of healing for early trauma. Controversy abounds, and I recommend skepticism until research helps us suss out the harms or benefits of these treatment approaches.

I remember a conversation I had with Mary Ainsworth in l978 when I was a doctoral student at University of Virginia. She told me that attachment was not merely about providing quality nurturing, but also about the baby’s experience of caregivers. She was speaking of the mothers she observed in Uganda; they were not intrusive or overly involved with their role in giving loving attention every minute. They were responsive, available and going about their routines in ways that seemed to work for them and their children alike. There was also a family and tribe of assisting caregivers.

Oh, she made it sound so simple (read: I heard it as “simple” way back then). While life in another century and country may sound simpler for babies during the l950’s, you know it has never been so (think war, poverty, disease—the usual pox on life). Still, the “secure attachment” dance seemed to have been orchestrated well for the mothers and babies in Uganda. 

We’ve been trying to figure out the “good enough” version of childrearing with respect to our culture and others ever since! But we know that this brain-love-connection-symphony between baby and attachment figure is central in the equation. Since parents and babies have been doing this dance for tens of thousands of years (and millions if you count our ancestors), it only makes sense that parents’ behavior with their young is an essential ingredient for optimal emotional, social and human development.

Promoting and maintaining secure attachment with our children until their brains are mature in their early twenties is a tall order. (And note that bodies become mature a full decade earlier, so don’t let bodies fool you as a total measure of maturity!) We need to know what children need from us over about twenty five years.

No wonder I have 26 tools in my Toolbox for parents!  Essentially, we all aspire to do a “good enough” job staying connected to our kids and building their competencies. Figuring out which of these tools to use, tweak or refine at any particular parenting moment is challenging. But maintaining secure attachment is of the highest priority since it is the neurobiological infrastructure of the parent-child relationship that allows the other tools to work. Inner security then permits them to explore the world, form lasting relationships and become successful adults.

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