Forming a Healthy Attachment

Whatever your child's history, use these 12 steps to responsive parenting to form a secure, loving relationship.

Forming a Healthy Attachment

When an older baby or young child comes to us with a history–having experienced, say, the loss of an adored caregiver at his orphanage–many of us worry: Will this child form a strong attachment to me? The basic steps of healthy attachment are the same whether a child has been adopted or born into a family. Attachment is a process. Just as one wonderful moment of love and protection does not make an attachment between parent and child, neither does one difficult moment mean an attachment problem.

No matter what your child’s history, she almost certainly has the ability to form a healthy, secure, well-attached relationship with you. I originally prepared these points of parenting with babies, toddlers, and young children in mind. But parents who have adopted older children, too, can use them as a basis for enhancing and supporting the relationships they want to develop with their children.

Twelve Points of Parenting to Promote Healthy Attachment

1. Be predictable. Be there for your child. Respond to his cries, yells, and calls. No matter what your child’s age at the time of adoption, respond either verbally or physically within 15 seconds. Your child needs to take you for granted; she needs to know that if she needs you, you will come.

2. Be empathetic and sensitive. Ask yourself, “What might my child be thinking right now?” or “What would this look like from my child’s point of view?” Don’t assume that your child is experiencing events as you do–or as you think he should. Go slowly. Watch for your child’s cues.

3. Be emotionally available. Your child should see you expressing a range of emotions. Demonstrate pleasure when you see her and smile when you talk to her; talk about sadness when you have tears. Your child needs to begin to understand and express his own emotions. If he has words to describe his feelings, he won’t need to act them out or keep them buried inside.

4. Don’t take your child’s behaviors personally. Many parents share how hurt they feel when their child pushes them away, runs from them, or refuses to cuddle. As children learn to express themselves with words, a parent might hear “You’re mean!” “I hate you!” or the dreaded “You are not my real mommy.” These aren’t rejections, but expressions of fear, anger, frustration, terror, and other difficult feelings. Your child’s ability to express emotion is not yet fully developed.

5. Pair words with actions. When you walk into your child’s room after his nap, begin talking. “Good morning! How was your nap? I’m going to get you up now, and then we can go for our walk. How does that sound? I missed you when you were sleeping. I hope you had a good rest. You are the best boy in the whole world!” Your child needs to associate nurturing actions with you and your voice.

6. Interact with expectation. Behave with your child as if she has reacted to you in the way you wanted or expected. If your child turns his head when you come to pick him up, pretend that he looked right at you, reached for you with open arms, and smiled. Look right at your child, hold your arms out and open as you walk into the room, smile, and say loving, welcoming words, such as “There you are! I’ve been waiting for you. Look, my arms are all ready to hold you.”

7. Become child-centered, and follow your child’s lead. Under normal circumstances, children come to feel they are the center of the universe. This is an expected part of development, and an important one. Having a period in your life where you feel the center of all that goes on around you helps to define who you are and your sense of self-worth. It builds inner strength. Parents who are supportive in this phase of development often find their children becoming more independent and self-reliant. Allow your child to be in charge. Imitate her, play follow-the-leader, Simon-says, or let her pretend she is Mom and you are the child.

8. Make eye contact. If your child refuses, work on it over time–not forcing, but not ignoring the behavior either. Play “I See You” by peeking at your child, making eye contact, then hiding again. Playfulness decreases feelings of threat and makes interactions with you fun and rewarding.

9. Expect whininess, clinging, and tantrumming. Don’t leave–stay and see it through. The child’s goal is to keep you close to him. These behaviors will subside when your child learns to express himself better. Respond in a positive manner. Put words to your child’s actions: “It looks like you need to be with Dad right now.” “Are you trying to tell me you want me to stay with you?” Pulling away usually intensifies these behaviors. It is okay, however, to set gentle limits: “It sounds like you need me to sit with you right now; can you tell me that in a big girl voice?” “I would love to have you sit on my lap, but you have to give me a little ‘mommy space’ so I can see you better.” Stay with a tantrumming child and tell her everything will be alright, and it is okay to be mad. This does not mean you give in to tantrums and let the child have his way–except when his “way” is being closer to you. And sometimes you have to leave–for instance, at daycare drop-off. Your child will come to understand this. Also, be aware of the child who never tantrums; he may not know how to express his needs and may need help in learning how to express difficult feelings.

10. Create rituals and routines. If your child knows what to expect, he will experience less stress. Routine built into transitions, such as going to bed or going to daycare, increases confidence. Predictable activities also help to provide structure for the expression of emotion. Your child may cry when you leave, but the crying should be related to normal sadness over the temporary separation, not because of a disorganized transition. Over time, as the child grows, the rituals and routines should change. A reading of Goodnight Moon might be an every-bedtime activity when a child is a year old; when she is two, she may be able to select two or three books for you to read; and when she is eight or nine, she may read her own book before bed.

11. Never let her feet touch the floor! Hold her, touch her, and wear her. With babies, soft carriers are helpful, keeping your child close to your body. With older children, keep them close by holding hands or putting your arm around them. Carry him to bed or in from the car. Play piggyback. Cuddle and rock.

12. You cannot spoil this child! The more secure your child feels now, the more independent she will become later. The more you respond, the fewer behaviors you will see designed only to gain your attention. Your interaction will become richer and deeper.

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