How Your Own Childhood Can Influence Your Child’s Attachment
Caitlyn Andrews, MA, LMFT
Like it or not, how we were loved, attended to and supported as children influences the way we parent our own children. But how? Attachment is the emotional bond between child and parent/caregiver and affects their emotional, social and cognitive development. More specifically, it’s a regulatory function that helps the child to understand emotions and feel safe. It also influences the way a child relates to other important people throughout his or her life.
Much of what we know about parenting we learned from being parented. But this doesn’t mean we’re doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes or things we wish they’d done differently. In fact research shows that the more we understand our past, the more able we will be to decide our future. Shining a light on our own experiences allows us to more fully relate to our children and what they need. This process of understanding is less about blaming and more about accepting our past and acknowledging the challenges and successes of our parents. Like us, the probably were doing the best they could with what they knew at the time.
So, how do you incorporate the best aspects of what your parents taught you and learn from the worst? Try these tips to attune to your child and create a safe space for your child to connect with you.
- Express yourself:
- Tell your child “I love you” daily and praise your child for things they are doing well!
- If something is bothering you in another part of your life (maybe a problem at work or a disagreement with a friend), tell your child that you may be concerned about something but it has nothing to do with them. Reassure your child that “everything will be okay” and that stressors outside the home are not the child’s fault.
- Express, but don’t “over-express.” Consider what is age appropriate for your child and what might cause them to worry or try to fix your upset.
- Make time to talk:
- Encourage your child to ask questions, lots of questions! If you don’t have the mental energy or time to answer your child’s questions, consider asking your child to write it down (with your help if appropriate) so you can address it at a later time.
- Consider having weekly family meetings to discuss upcoming family events, priorities and feelings. Coming up with a check-in question at dinner such as “high/low” about the high and low points of your day can communicate a desire to more fully understand your child and respond to their needs.
- Play with your child:
- Play is how your child connects with you and gains a better understanding of their world, develops self-confidence, practices social abilities and language.
- If you can, set aside a few times a week for uninterrupted play (preferably without a phone nearby) with your child. Even with short play sessions of 10-20 minutes you may see a shift in how you are relating to your child, and in how your child responds to you.
- Your child’s attachment can impact the neural pathways that are connected to many things, including how your child will operate in relationships, cope with emotions and tolerate stress. Making time to play and connect can improve the way you relate and the ways in which your child handles stress.
- Catch yourself:
- Do you ever catch yourself saying “Because that’s how I was raised”? Take a minute to consider how you felt when you were a child and if you think this practice created a more or less happy child that is now you!
- This can go the other way as well. Be aware that many parents also can overcompensate by going the other direction in response to a negative experience as a child (e.g. the parent who had strict discipline as a child now takes a “hands off” approach to parenting).
- Do you ever fly off the handle and later wonder “What was that about?” Sometimes as adults we are faced with situations that remind us of things we felt as a child and cause us to react strongly from our “primal brain.” Try to reflect on why this might be happening and be patient with yourself. Notice if there’s a pattern or a persistent trigger.
- Take time for you:
- Your own mother might have been a paragon of sacrifice, or you may have felt neglected, but the lesson either way is that finding balance is tricky. With the million and one demands of daily life, it can be difficult to find any time for yourself. But remember, you can’t really take care of anybody else if you don’t take care of you. It’s just like on an airplane when they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first. It’s important to take time for your own self-care and spend time thinking about what you need and how to be the best you!