One of the most important qualities you want to instill in your children is a deep sense of security in themselves and the world. There are three messages you want your children to get to nurture their developing sense of security:
- Others: There are people in my world who will protect me when needed.
- Self: I am master of all that is me (body, mind, spirit) and am capable of taking care of myself.
- World: The world is a safe place that I can explore with confidence and free from fear.
I will explore #1 today and the other two in subsequent posts.
The first message of security involves your children feeling securely attached to you. The operative word with attachment is trust. Simply put, secure attachment develops in children who learn that they can rely their parents to meet their physical and emotional needs. When they are cold, hungry, or thirsty, they know you are there to provide them with warmth and sustenance. When they are scared, sad, or lonely, they can turn to you for comfort.
This attachment isn't just important for you and your children to develop healthy relationships. The perceptions they develop about their relationship with you, the emotions they feel toward and from you and the experiences your children have with you become the template for relationships that they will develop in the future.
Imagine children who grow up without that attachment, trust and sense of security. They learn that others can't be trusted to care for them. Such a worldview would have a profoundly negative impact on every aspect of their future lives, including how they come to see themselves and their emotional life, relationships and strivings. Who they would ultimately become and what they would eventually do would emerge from this dark place of doubt, fear and need. Children with insecure attachment experience significant separation anxiety when parents leave, yet find little comfort when the parent returns. They are often described as needy and clingy by teachers and other caregivers. In adulthood, they fear intimacy, have difficulty expressing their emotions, lack trust in their intimate relationships and take rejection badly.
Now consider children who are raised with a strong feeling of attachment with their parents. They come to view their parents as safe, friendly and predictable people who they can count on to meet their needs. The view of relationships that they would subsequently develop would be one of comfort, interest and opportunity. Securely attached children separated from their parents with ease and welcomed them back with enthusiasm, and were readily calmed by parents when frightened. In adulthood, these children had generally high self-esteem, were socially competent, able to establish and maintain intimate relationships and emotionally expressive.
Respond to Your Children's Uniqueness
Children have distinctive temperaments, moods, emotional styles and needs. They also send messages in different ways to alert you to their specific needs. You need to learn your children's personalities and the particular messages they send about their needs.
An essential way to build the trust that underlies secure attachment is to interact with your children in ways that are consistent with those unique attributes and messages. If they are shy, you provide them with comfort in social situations. If they are risk takers, you provide reasonable limits to ensure their safety. By doing so, you respond to their needs in ways that are most meaningful and comforting to them. This congruence between your children's needs and your responsiveness sends a powerful message that you understand them and can give them what they need in the way that they need it. Their recognition of your understanding acts as the foundation for that trust and secure attachment. In contrast, when you respond to your children's needs in ways that are out of sync with who they are, their deepest needs are not met and they feel misunderstood, disconnected, and unvalued.
The importance of consistency, is especially true for establishing secure attachment because your children's trust in you is based on your creating a consistent and predictable world around them. The dangers of inconsistency in attachment behavior is evidenced by what is called disorganized attachment. Children with disorganized attachment demonstrate no clear pattern of attachment behavior, sometimes approaching, other times avoiding, and still other times resisting their parents. They often appear to be disoriented and anxious. Inconsistent responsiveness by parents may contribute to disorganized attachment, for example, quick to respond at one time, but neglectful the next, or loving and supportive at one turn and angry and critical at another. With these mixed messages, children can't predict if, when, or how their parents will respond, creating a state of mistrust, detachment, and insecurity.
When your children see you as consistent in your emotions, behavior, and reactions, you enable them to see you, relationships in general, and the world as predictable and, to a greater degree, controllable. This experience of consistency makes them feel more comfortable and less threatened, resulting in a strong sense of security that will generalize to all aspects of their lives.
This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).