Attachment does not always come easily or naturally when raising children. When you are parenting a child with a history of trauma, abuse, or neglect, those experiences can further challenge the attachment process between you. How can you strengthen the attachment with your child and build a more cohesive family dynamic?
We went back to the archives for this one, to a 2015 CreatingaFamily.org webinar with Dr. Dan Seigel for adoptive parents, called Importance of Parental Attachment Styles in Adoption. Much of this same information on attachment can be found in his book, Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive (10th Anniversary Edition).*
8 Ways to Strengthen Attachment with Your Child
1. Creating attachment with our children begins with the understanding of how our childhood attachments impact our current life.
Our interactions with our children shape the way their brains develop. To maximize opportunities for our children to build healthy attachment, we should seek to understand our own history of attachment and what areas we might need to seek healing. For example, a parent’s unresolved grief or trauma can create fear, disorganized attachment, and negative interactions in a child’s attachment style, according to Dr. Seigel.
Many parents benefit from talking with a counselor or therapist to discover those tender points. We recommend these two CreatingaFamily.org resources to get you started with the exploration:
- How a Parent’s History with Attachment and Trauma Impacts Adoption and Fostering (podcast)
- How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Adopted/Foster Kids (article with links and resources)
2. Let go of your expectations for how your child should be and accept the child you have.
Our experiences shape our expectations. When we thoughtfully examine and identify our expectations, we can adjust or even let go of those that are not realistic for the child we are parenting. When we willingly approach the child we have in front of us with complete, nurturing acceptance, we optimize his ability to grow and develop into the best person he can be.
3. Give your children the language of emotions by actively discussing how they, you, and others feel.
Building emotional intelligence does not have to be an overwhelming task. Through everyday activities together, you can start teaching your child to identify and label his emotions quite early.
Look for life events and experiences that you can narrate and discuss as your child grows. For example, when you read board books to your baby, stop and comment on what the main character is feeling. As your child grows, continue the habit of pausing together during reading time or movie nights to reflect together on how the characters might be feeling.
4. Take the long view in parenting by focusing on what motivates the child’s behavior, rather than doing whatever works at the moment to stop the behavior.
Kids can have some annoying behaviors, it’s true. However, most of the time, our kids’ behaviors serve a purpose – especially when they are young and still learning language skills. Try flipping your perspective to consider that behavior is an expression of a need or of lagging skills. With that shift in framing, you can act to satisfy your child’s need or offer a tool he doesn’t yet have under his belt.
For example, it’s admittedly annoying to sit at the breakfast table trying to drink your coffee in peace while being accosted by a gazillion questions, right? Now, try to flip that annoyance at your chatterbox’s non-stop talking to a curiosity about why she’s talking at you a million miles a minute. Can you see that she is trying to reconnect with you after being apart all night long? If so, you can tackle the challenge differently. Take a bracing sip of coffee and ask a few questions about that dream she had. Share your crazy dream. Ask what she thinks will be the best part of the day ahead. You can forge a connection that resets her sense of felt safety – reassuring her of her place in your heart and mind.
Not all of our kids’ behaviors are so easy to discern. But the tool of curiosity will be your best friend if you choose to take the long view of parenting your child’s needs vs. behaviors.
Resources for Finding an Adoption/Foster Competent Therapist
5. Create a culture of compassion in your family by acknowledging, discussing, and honoring differences.
Many adopted, foster, or kinship kids feel different from the families they live in for many valid reasons. How you handle those differences can make a world of difference for how your child feels in your family. His sense of safety and attachment will deepen when his differences are accepted and celebrated. Your curiosity (again) and openness toward those unique things about your child also build his self-confidence.
Further, seek to honor the differences between your child’s temperament or abilities and the outside world’s expectations. Your choice to do so offers him compassion for the challenges of gaps between his skills and, for example, academic expectations. You are making your relationship and your home a safe place for him to struggle and learn how to manage those differences.
6. Discuss a shared experience with your child and what you each remember. The point is the shared telling of the story, focusing on the emotions rather than the accuracy.
Sharing emotional experiences builds connection. Think about how you feel after watching an inspirational, uplifting movie with your family. When you talk about the emotions you experience and even compare or contrast these feelings together, you build a connection. The act of sharing stories brings common emotions to the surface, normalizing that humans experience a wide range of feelings in one event.
7. Create a family book with all members of the family. Include a chapter for each member to create a story in images and words about themselves. Also include chapters on family vacations, celebrations, traditions, etc.
Every family will have its spin on its family book, but the crucial ingredient should be including everyone’s contributions. Whatever format your family chooses, each person should share their experiences and memories without expectations for how or what is shared. Then, when the book is complete, take a night to go through the book and talk about it. Indulge the trip down Memory Lane that some chapters spark. And spend time unpacking the challenges or painful moments that other contributions highlight. Each member of your family will have unique responses to each other’s additions to the book, and trust will deepen when you accept the hard with the good.
8. Hold regular family meetings and allow family members to share what they think and feel about upcoming events, recent happenings, the family schedule, or whatever else is paramount to you.
One of the benefits of a weekly meeting is that you create a habit of consistent communication with each other. No one feels left out of the loop, and it’s a tangible way to say that everyone belongs. Regular meetings can deepen attachment by giving an official place for everyone to be seen and heard. Make them fun and engaging to maximize participation and help everyone feel attached to the purpose.
Practically speaking, it’s also an effective tool for teaching your kids how to manage time and responsibilities collaboratively, which fosters teamwork in the family unit. The cohesiveness of that teamwork gives our kids confidence and security.
Build the attachment one step at a time!
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by these eight tips – especially if you started reading this with the feeling that attachment is waning or missing altogether. Like we’ve said in other articles like this, pick one tip to start. Try to pick one that you think will be “easy” or most accessible to you (and your partner if you have one). Work that tip until you have it “down pat,” and then use the sense of accomplishment to boost you to try another one.
Finally, remember that none of these parenting tips are “once and done” tips. So, feel free to keep trying new ways to implement them in ways that work best as your children grow and change. Again, parenting needs the long view.