Secure attachment is built during the first 10 years of our little ones’ lives. This article is about building a secure attachment from the very first day.
Secure attachment is built by the fulfillment of physical and emotional needs, which are the cornerstone of every relationship, every connection made in life.
Gordon Neufeld, the Canadian developmental psychologist who wrote “Hold on to Your Kids” (which I recommend everyone to read), coined the needs below, labeling them as the six Attachment Stages. In my point of view, the word ‘stage’ implies the abandonment of the previous stage when moving forward to the next, where in our case, these six needs are entwined, in harmony and compatibility, just like the roots of a tree – all responsible for its thriving well-being. A need is not abandoned once fulfilled, but rather, changes its fulfillment strategy as the years go by. I refer to these as the six roots of attachment:
For nine whole months, your child was carried within you, constantly embraced, feeling your heartbeats, hearing your voice. He was never cold or hungry, he was as calm as he could be, having all his needs met. The second he is born, all that comfort is taken away from him. It’s cold. It’s suddenly lit and loud. The world crashes. Everything he learned to know is now gone.
The need for proximity is an existential need. Babies would not survive without their mother’s (and father’s, of course) touch, without the comfort of their voice, and the warmth of their bodies.
The first four months of your baby’s life are called The Fourth Trimester for a reason – although you already gave birth, in many aspects your baby is still a fetus. His physical systems are not yet fully functional; his digestive system is forced to digest for the very first time, causing him gas, discomfort, and even pain. His eyesight is very limited, and the constant transition from light to darkness is overwhelming. His muscles are met with gravity for the first time and most of his movements are involuntary, still controlled by reflexes. During these months, your baby is a fetus, out there in the world, still seeking uterine environment.
Constant touch was proven critical for optimal brain development and positively affects your baby’s motoric, sensual, cognitive and emotional development. Holding and cuddling your baby when he asks for it is not pampering or spoiling him, but rather meeting his existential needs.
Read this post for my personal journey through baby sleep, from day one and until Ilay turned 2 and started sleeping through the night 🙂 Or check out this comprehensive guide to baby sleep, breaking the modern myths we are so accustomed to.
Around 18 months of age, sameness becomes another need. They will start mimicking everything they see us do, repeating everything they hear us say, desiring what we have. You can be reading a book when he suddenly wants that book, not a book, but precisely that book, the one you’re reading, because he needs to be like his subject of attachment. Boys will insist on wearing their father’s shoes and driving the family car, girls will start mimicking their mother’s feminine body language, asking for dresses and makeup. This is a beautiful stage in child development.
The need for sameness is existential as well; without it we would not talk or walk. You might have heard the story of Oxana Malaya, the Ukrainian girl who was neglected by her alcoholic parents and was raised by the village’s dogs. She was found by the authorities when she was seven years old, she didn’t talk or walk. She ran around on her fours, ate and cleaned herself like her fellow dogs. She, too, met her existential need for sameness towards her subjects of attachment, the dogs.
Your child internally knows that he needs to follow your example to become the best individual he can be, because, to him, you are the best in the whole wide world. Don’t get upset when he cries to hold that book, or absolutely has to sponge-clean the floor at the very moment you do. Let him 🙂 Meet his need for sameness, and tell him how thankful you are for him, and for his help.
When I was little, I remember trying to hang the laundry to help my mother with her chores. I did it quite a few times, and each time I did, she would tell me I got it all wrong and started showing me exactly how she wants it done. The laundry was, of course, an excuse; I wanted to show her that I am like her, that I can, and want, to be like her. Instead of meeting my need for sameness, she rejected it, once and again. I absolutely hate hanging the laundry until this very day.
Loyalty and Belonging
Most parents are amazed to see how each tiny request they make is followed by the excited “Me! Me! Me!” as the toddlers turn about three years old. As the attachment deepens, in addition to proximity and sameness, your child will start seeking the bigger picture, wanting to take an active part of everything you do, with you and for you, because he belongs to you and you belong to him, too.
Simultaneously, you will see your child’s counter-will taking an increasingly bigger part of your daily life and the “Me!” from above will be followed by a “No”! Although sometimes hard to cope with, counter-will is a natural protective instinct that doesn’t only assist us in the development of our unique selves, but also protects us from coercion and following the lead of those we don’t belong to, and those we are not attached to. Like strangers at the park.
With very well established attachment, towards four years of age, your child will actively start seeking your approval and praise. “Mom!! Look at me!!!”, “Did you see? Did you see? Mom!!! Did you see”?
Your child needs to know that you find him significant, special, capable and unique. He needs to feel that from you in order to become such himself. The need for significance is easily met! Even if you are busy or bothered, let love and attachment govern the way you look at your child, the way you talk to him. He really is incredible and he does deserve to know and feel it.
And you know what? Putting the daily hassles aside when you communicate with him will also help you put things in the right perspective, help you remember what really matters.
No matter what Ilay does for me, he’s already 2.5 years old – so he helps quite a lot, I always make him feel that without him – I wouldn’t have made it.
What was attachment and affection in the younger years, becomes true love towards five or six years of age. Your child will start bringing you presents (he might cut out hearts from your favorite blouse – don’t be mad), writing you poems and maybe asking to marry you. This is a beautiful stage when your child will be constantly looking to express his love to you, but also, constantly making sure that you love him. Even when he’s angry, screaming, doing things he knows he’s not allowed to do and generally – giving you a lot of headaches.
All he wants is to know that he is loved. Even then. You might witness more challenging behaviors at this age, this is where they stem from. The fuller you child’s attachment tanks towards this age are, the easier it would be to “prove” to him that he is indeed loved.
Moreover, since your child already knows he’s loved, it is much easier for him to vent his feelings in a safe and secure environment, rather than anywhere else. Consider how easy it is for you to tell your other half he, or she, is an awful creature and that you absolutely hate them, because they didn’t do the dishes. The truth is that you had a terrible day at work, it has nothing to do with your other half or the dishes, and you really hoped they would see and hear through your pain and just gave you the hug you really needed.
Keeping secrets defies closeness, and attached children know it. At age six or seven, they will tell you everything and anything, and they will expect you to know each and every detail, even if they didn’t share it with you. “Mom! Do you know who my favorite Shrek character? Mom!! Do you know? Do you know?” And he will really expect you to know and might be offended if you didn’t (try your best to recall or make up something that would work).
Knowing that someone knows us, really knows us, is knowing that we’re not alone, no matter what we do or where we go.
Imagine a friend at work offering you a cup of coffee, and not delivering it exactly to your liking. That’s ok; you’ll just sip that coffee until she’s out of your office and move on with your day. But if your other half manages to mess up your cup of coffee… Well, this can really hurt! After so many years, you still don’t know how I like my coffee??
Finally – Some Tips!
The below are just a few ideas on how you can fill up your little ones’ attachment tank, following the roots of attachment. While the later roots haven’t yet developed with younger children, the early roots keep their relevance at all times.
- Proximity – invite your child to share activities, lure him closer to you to increase the connection. Kiss, hug and cuddle at your (and his) will.
- Sameness – when your child wants to mimic you – let him. Even if it means you’ll need to wash the floors later on 🙂 Praise him for doing well, even if he didn’t. In due time, he will learn exactly how this is done without you teaching him.
- Loyalty and belonging – take them everywhere with you, give them chores and things to do, let them help and feel helpful, Even if they aren’t – this is another form of proximity, but it is psychological rather than physical.
- Significance – he brought you a glass of water, don’t just take it and nod, tell him you’d die of thirst if it wasn’t for him! Instead of saying “what?” when he calls you, say “yes, honey”? Make him feel important, know that he is important and that his feelings and wishes matter. Just like you would like to feel.
- Love – there’s very little I can say about this one. Just love him. 24/7, rain or shine.
- Being known – to meet this need, you’ll need to be truly attentive. Listen to your child when he talks, invite him to talk to you when he doesn’t, but don’t push; let him know that you are there for him when he makes the decision to come to you. Draw him to be able to depend on you, showing that you are always there for him, no matter what.
Attachment is the heart of every relationship. When we are in a relationship with someone we’re attached to, we want to be good for them, we want to better for them. It is easier for us to meet their needs as much as it’s easier for them to meet our needs. When the attachment is in place, it’s not you or me, it’s our relationship that counts.
Join my Facebook group for a broader discussion, or tell me what you think in the comments below.