Many days – as parents – we go through our daily routine with our kids without really thinking about the power of what we’re doing when we interact with them.

But any time we show love and affection toward our child – whether it’s a welcoming Good morning! greeting, a quick hug or a goodnight chat at bedtime – we’re doing something extraordinary, even though we’re not always mindful of it.

Those loving advances from us are literally kindling subconscious instincts in our child that strengthen our kiddo’s sense of connectedness to us. Child development experts call them attachment instincts.

When our child’s sense of attachment to us is strong, he or she feels loved, valued and secure. That’s a great foundation for building a child’s self-esteem, and for learning too, it turns out. Besides that though, other important benefits accrue as well. A strong attachment to us primes our child to instinctively trust us and depend on us.

Flowing out of that sense of trust and dependence, our child allows us to fulfill another subconscious need on their part: they accept us as their guide in life.

As psychologist Gordon Neufeld and physician Gabor Maté explain in their book Hold On to Your Kids, building a strong bond of affection and trust with our child prompts him or her, quite subconsciously, to follow our cues, absorb what we model, obey our instruction and internalise our values.

In a very real sense (although it takes place at a subconscious level), we don’t earn our child’s cooperation in parenting them until we’ve demonstrated how much we love and value them. Sensing love from us helps our child listen to us.

Neufeld and Maté put it this way:

“Children do not automatically grant us the authority to parent them just because we are adults, or just because we love them or think we know what is good for them or have their best interests at heart. . . . For a child to be open to being parented by an adult, he must be actively attaching to the adult, be wanting contact and closeness with him. . . . Children who lack this kind of connection with those responsible for them are very difficult to parent or, often, even to teach.”

Whether we’re getting our child out the door in the morning, or settling them down to do their homework, it’s all much easier when our child wants to cooperate with us.

But there’s a much more compelling reason why we need our child to look to us as their guide in life. Their trust in us helps our child respond to their Heavenly Father, says Wendy Kittlitz, vice president of counselling for Focus on the Family Canada. “If their experience of us has been loving and their trust in us is strong, their heart will be open to our teaching that God loves them and wants a relationship with them.”

Habits that strengthen connection

While all the ways that you love on your child help strengthen your child’s attachment to you, Neufeld and Maté suggest adopting these powerful practices as well:

Surprise your child with invitations to interact – We can be spending all day, every day, with our child and yet not convey the message that we enjoy them. That’s why surprise invitations to some special one-on-one time with you are wonderfully powerful. Those unexpected playtimes show your child that you want to be with them.

Whatever type of one-on-one activity you invite your child into, make sure your child knows you are excited about it – either by expressing how much you’re looking forward to it, or by often referring back to it later. Choose something your son or daughter really enjoys; don’t let your child feel like they’re just an add-on to one of your tasks or outings. For example, you might:

  • request a tea party together, or time to build a sofa-cushion fort

  • show up at school to spend lunchtime with your child

  • take your child out for ice cream when they’re in their pyjamas and expecting to go to bed

  • invite your teen to the shops to buy an item of clothing, a book or some other treat.

Reconnect after separation – Whenever you’ve been apart from your child, including after sleep, always take time to connect warmly and re-establish your relationship before you start trying to hurry them through your parenting agenda. Build rituals into your day that help reunite you both at the heart level – something Neufeld and Maté call collecting rituals.

In the morning, perhaps snuggle in bed with your child for 10 minutes or so, or simply sit with them on the stairs and just enjoy interacting with one another. Work hard to get smiles from your child and make lots of eye contact. “Morning would be a lot different in many families if the parent did not insist on parenting until the child had been properly collected,” say Neufeld and Maté.

As you chat, strengthen your child’s instinct to look to you as their guide by rehearsing upcoming activities. You could simply say something like:

What are you looking forward to today?
I’m looking forward to _____.
And tomorrow after school we are going to ____. That will be fun, won’t it?

With older children too, make it your priority to reconnect in a fun and light-hearted way after school, after sleepovers, after a Saturday apart.

If your child attends daycare or kindergarten, making time to reconnect when you’re reunited is especially important, because physical separation from you will stress a young child’s attachment bond more so than with an older child. Any activity that gets you both laughing hard together is powerful for building connection, so consider tickling games, roughhousing or a high-energy dance session. Allow for a quiet calm-down time together afterwards too. You’ll notice that a fun, intense workout brings intense experiences and emotions to the surface for your child and they’ll be wanting to talk these over with you – a sure sign your reconnection time is working well.

It’s very important to reconnect with your child, too, after any kind of emotional separation – after an argument, misunderstanding or disciplinary measures. It’s always the parent’s responsibility to restore the relationship, stress Neufeld and Maté. “We can’t expect children to do it – they are not mature enough to understand the need for it.”

Make your personal mannerisms welcoming and affirming – Your small gestures speak volumes to your child about their worth in your eyes. Here are a few to consider:

  • greet your child in the morning (or after their nap) with a smile and show you’re genuinely pleased to see them – regardless of what happened the day or hour before

  • be known for welcoming interruptions; make a point of putting your phone aside, closing your laptop or pausing your TV show when your child is trying to engage you; let your face show you are listening.

Establish routines that connect – Take steps to protect the time you and your child need to connect. For example:

  • build 15 minutes of “Our Special Together Time” into each day for child-led, one-on-one play with your preschooler through primary-age child (you’ll see their sense of well-being and general compliance improve)

  • sit alongside your child while they’re enjoying an after-school snack

  • resist letting your child “age out” of a bedtime routine; pray over your teen at bedtime

  • “date” your tween or teen child weekly or bi-weekly, or do something special together you both enjoy, such as a regular bike ride together, working on the car or making a meal together.

Consider attachment issues before you discipline – Given your child’s instinctive need to feel close to you, discipline issues call for caution. Children can interpret punishment as rejection, and feeling rejected tends to escalate a child’s insecurity and agitation, which leads to more misconduct, not less. Make sure that you:

  • recognise when “annoying behaviour” in your child is actually being driven by a need for more connection to you, and therefore calls for tenderness rather than discipline.

A young child, for example, will often start to pester their parent as soon as the parent seems unavailable – when the parent’s on the phone, making a grocery list, tending to a new baby. That’s attachment insecurity kicking in in the child. The child needs a hug and reassurance that Mum or Dad will be fully available to them again soon.

  • learn discipline strategies that preserve your child’s sense of being wanted and respected, and that help you guide your child well in teaching them what more appropriate behaviour looks like.

We’ve got competition, and the competition mustn’t win

The same attachment instincts that help us capture our child’s heart can also work against us. Parents need to appreciate, say Neufeld and Maté, that a child’s instinctive, subconscious need for a guide is really strong. “Children cannot endure the lack of such a figure in their lives; they become disoriented.”

That’s not to say, though, that our child will always automatically see us, their parent, as their guide.

When a child believes their parent is not interested in them, they may, at a subconscious level, transfer their attachment from their parent to their peers.

Much of Neufeld and Maté’s book is devoted to discussing the results of peer attachment, and it makes distressing reading. Parents can lose all influence over an increasingly defiant child. And for the child, their misaligned instincts can be disastrous. Outcomes for kids who reject the mature, sacrificial guidance of their parent and rely instead on inherently fickle peers for approval and direction can include:

  • anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • impulsivity and diminished self-control
  • emotional immaturity and immature choices
  • defiance and rebellion
  • toleration for abuse or bullying targeted at themselves or others
  • becoming a bully themselves; high aggression
  • self-limiting of their own academic performance, ambition and potential.

The seeds of peer attachment can take root in the primary grades, say Neufeld and Maté, but the signs don’t become clear until later on. Not until grades seven or eight do some parents start to notice they’re being increasingly disregarded, and that friends seem to have an unusually strong and worrisome influence over their child.

As our kids move through adolescence and the teen years, they may not appear to want our attention and affection as much, but we mustn’t be dissuaded by that. They still need it from us. They can, and should, move toward maturity and independence without losing a sense of our affection, or their attachment to us. We must be continually wooing our child.

Listen to a related broadcast:

“Understanding Your Child’s Love Style” with guests Milan and Kay Yerkovich

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Catherine Wilson

Associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

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