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7 Ways to encourage secure parent-child attachment: A therapist's guide to attachment styles
Before we talk about how to encourage healthy attachment between your child clients and their caregivers, let’s take a closer look at what we mean by attachment, and the four major attachment styles.
What is attachment style?
Based on the principles of Attachment Theory, an attachment is a relational bond, and an attachment style is the specific pattern of behavior that characterizes the type of bond. The very first bond an individual will develop is with their primary caregiver(s), and this first relational experience forms the beliefs, attitude, and expectations an individual will have regarding relationships. As a result, the way a child’s primary caregivers interacted (or did not interact) with them during the first two years of their life plays a highly influential role in not only developing the child’s attachment style, but also setting the foundation for all future relationships the child will experience.
What are the 4 attachment styles?
There are four primary types of attachment styles:
- Secure Attachment
- Anxious Attachment (Or Preoccupied Attachment)
- Avoidant Attachment (Or Dismissive Attachment)
- Disorganized Attachment (Or Fearful-avoidant Attachment)
Signs a child has a secure attachment
Children with a secure attachment style will generally respond positively to caregiver initiated interactions, and when experiencing fear, a child with a secure attachment style will seek comfort from their caregiver(s). Generally, a child with secure attachment will clearly prefer their primary caregivers to other caretakers. Children with secure attachment styles also generally tend to play well and get along with other children more so than children with a non-secure or insecure attachment style.
A strong fear of abandonment is dominant for children with an Anxious Attachment style, and a child with this attachment style may seek constant reassurances to remedy the anxiety they feel regarding the security of the parent/child relationship.
Signs a child has an Anxious Attachment style
Symptoms of Anxious Attachment style with children/adolescents include:
- Emotional insecurity
- Intense separation anxiety
- Lack of conviction that they are loved
- Strong fear of abandonment
- Excessive wariness of strangers
Signs a child has an Avoidant Attachment styleA child/adolescent with an avoidant or dismissive attachment style may not outrightly reject their caregiver(s), but they will be more inclined to avoid seeking interaction and/or comfort from them. As the child/adolescent grows up, they typically find forming new relationships difficult, and they avoid investing much excitement or interest in their relationships. When a relationship ends, children/adolescents with an Avoidant Attachment style usually don’t show much (if any) distress.
Symptoms of avoidant-dismissive attachment style with children/adolescents include:
- Avoidance of parental interaction
- Aversion to being comforted
- Parental/stranger indifference
- General sense of dismissiveness
- Lack of interest in expressing thoughts or feelings
Signs a child has a Disorganized Attachment style
A Disorganized or Fearful-avoidant Attachment style is a bit like a blend of Avoidant and Anxious attachment styles. The primary characteristic of a Disorganized Attachment style is confusion, and that confusion is the result of the child feeling conflicting emotions towards the caregiver(s). For instance, a child with a Disorganized Attachment style has likely experienced both fear and comfort from their caregiver(s), and when a child experiences both reassurance and intense distress in their interactions with their caregiver(s), a disoriented attitude towards relationships typically develops. Disorganized Attachment is typically identified by the dazed, hesitant, or apprehensive attitude a child may adopt towards their caregiver(s).
Symptoms of Disorganized/Fearful-avoidant attachment style with children/adolescents include:
- Apprehension – especially with decision making
- Hesitant communication style
- Dazed or frozen attitude
- Avoidant behaviors
- Spastic responses
- Excessive expressions of fear
- Resistance / obstinance
What causes a non-secure attachment style?
A child’s attachment style is generally formed during the first two years of their life. If (for any reason) a child perceives that their needs are going unmet, then the child will be at a disadvantage for forming a secure bond with their caregivers. While the parent-child bond is the overarching influence on a child’s attachment style, a child's attachment style is based on a variety of different factors in addition to caregiver/child interactions. The following circumstances are a few examples of the many different influences that play a developmental role in the creation of a child’s attachment style:
- Children who have experienced trauma
- Caregivers who have experienced trauma
- Breaks, stops, or major changes in a child’s attachment timeframe such as with foster care transitions or adopted children
- Children with mental health concerns
- Caregivers with mental health concerns
Can attachment styles change?
How to fix an insecure attachment style
Research suggests that around 35-40% of people do not have a secure attachment style. Attachment styles are deeply rooted, but they are not permanent and change is possible. With time, effort, and awareness, an attachment style can be either reinforced or unlearned throughout the course of an individual’s life.
7 Ways child therapists can encourage healthy attachment between parent/child
There are many ways child therapists can encourage healthy attachment between a parent and child, and many of these ways are highly accessible to every caregiver. However, It’s important to remember that many caregivers did not receive the nurture and attention they needed to develop healthy attachment styles to their own primary caregivers. Therefore, prior to recommending a parent or caregiver take a particular course of action to build attachment with their child, pediatric therapists must assess how the parent’s own history can make it challenging (or unhealthy) to carry out the suggested recommendations and consider whether a referral for parent counseling may be appropriate to support the caregiver. If the parent/caregiver is willing and able to support their child’s healthy attachment, here are 7 ways a therapist can encourage healthy parent-child attachment.
Encourage caregivers to schedule routine caregiver-child playtimes.
Enjoying quality playtime with parents is one of the best ways for children to learn trust, self-regulation, and relational safety, and purposeful play nurtures healthy and secure attachment. The age and interests of a child should determine what forms of play or games are performed, and if any play activity emotionally triggers a child in an upsetting way, then the game or activity should be immediately paused to practice some emotional regulation and soothing techniques.
Encourage caregivers to give their child genuine compliments.
Children are naturally inclined to seek the approval of their caregivers, and they respond extremely well to positive reinforcement. Encourage caregivers to be specific and show authentic admiration for their child’s creativity, imagination, kindness, smile, etc.
Encourage caregivers to spend quality time with their child on their child’s terms.
Children, and especially teens, have unique personalities, and they may simply not be interested in bonding with their caregivers the way a caregiver may prefer. Encourage caregivers to be open minded and express interest in the child’s individuality. Children will be more emotionally invested if they get to play an active role in deciding what constitutes quality time.
Encourage caregivers to develop routine stability.
Children find comfort, security, and belonging when there is a reliable, predictable environment surrounding them. One way to reinforce emotional stability is to create an enjoyable routine or ritual for the family to enjoy together such as always having dinner together, always going to the park on weekends, always singing a goodnight song, etc.
Encourage caregivers to practice respectful affection.
All children require affection, but some children may be more or less touchy-feely than others. Encourage parents to be respectful of their children’s boundaries, and find appropriate ways to express affection such as with hugs, high-fives, pats on the back, fist bumps, etc.
Encourage caregivers to give their child their undivided attention.
Adolescents and teens get called out often for “being on their phones” – but parents are often just as guilty. One of the best ways for parents to practice attunement with their child and develop positive attachment is to put the phone on silent and give their child their undivided attention. Children don’t just want attention, they need it, and research shows that giving a child even just 10 minutes of undivided attention each day can be enough to instill a sense of belonging and reinforce relational connection.
Encourage caregivers to attend (or keep attending) family therapy.
Improving parent-child attachment takes time and sometimes professional support. Encourage caregivers to be patient and remind them that you are there to help and support them.