Is Your Attachment Deep Enough?
I once read an article on a very popular Attachment Parenting (AP) website that said this: “A mother should never leave her child’s side until the child is at least three years old because it will traumatize the child.”
This is simply not true.
Attachment is much more than baby-bonding.
One of the main confusions that continues in the AP literature is the belief that attachment is all about being physically together. To help move the conversation forward, lets turn to the brilliant research of Gordon Neufeld. After taking a year to study all of the various descriptions of how human beings stay connected to each other, Gordon landed on a model that describes six levels of attachment — five beyond physically being connected.
The Attachment Roots
As I have written about in a previous posts, the deeper your children attach to you in a healthy way the more independent, confident, and resilient they become. And, of course, they also become more capable of deep intimacy with those whom they love. Gordon describes six ways that kids attach as they develop over time. If all goes according to the developmental plan — if your child gets all five essential elements of relational nourishment — a new way of attaching appears each of the child’s first six years. Lets take a look at these different forms of connecting as described by Dr. Neufeld.
The Five Senses
In the first year of life, infants connect primarily through the five senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. This is the mode of connecting that much of the Attachment literature focuses on: breastfeeding, baby-wearing, bed sharing, talking to your baby, etc.. It is very important to establishing strong feelings of safety in the infants developing nervous system.
Beginning around the start of the second year, toddlers begin to connect to their caretakers by imitating and emulating them. This is how language and culture is transmitted. When your child is connected to you, they identify with you and want to be like you. This is why modeling of healthy behaviors is so much more powerful than simply telling children how they should behave.
Belonging and Loyalty
When a child begins attaching through a sense of belonging, she will want to possess mommy as her own and not let anyone else interrupt their connection. If daddy comes up to cuddle with them, she will say, “No daddy, go away!” She wants mommy all to herself. Loyalty is slightly different in that the child will want to remain on the “parent’s team” by not going against them in word or deed. It feels right to be faithful and obedient to your attachments at this level.
This fourth way of pursuing connection is where the child feels like he matters to his caregivers. He lives for your smiles, your actions, and your gifts that communicate to him, “You matter to me, my son.”
Feelings of Love
Around the start of the 5th year — although often earlier for little girls — strong feelings of love start to become the glue that connects. Children start drawing hearts on everything and expressing their profound love for their parents. Many even want to “marry” their parents when they connect at this level.
In this layer, the child desires to be psychologically and emotionally understood and seen. When you really listen and understand your child — especially when they reveal something vulnerable about themselves — they feel incredibly close to you. When connecting through this layer of attachment, children will tell their secrets and innermost desires and feelings to you because to withhold is to feel disconnected from you in some portion of their being.
As children attach more deeply, they can become more independent from you.
Each new layer of connection provides a little more space for the child to individuate and become their own person without a loss of connection.
- When your child can be like you, it frees them up to not be physically with you.
- When your child can be faithful to your wishes, it frees them up from having to be exactly like you.
- When your child knows they matter to you, they aren’t required to be possessive of you.
- When your child’s heart is filled with feelings of love, they can disappoint you without it feeling like the end of the world.
- When your child feels known and accepted by you, they can continue to feel connected even if the love isn’t flowing in the moment.
Out of deep connection arises great freedom
Take Home: Your job is to recognize how your child’s developing psyche is trying to “hold on” to you. When you see and understand their behavior through this lens, you will be in a much better position to help them in feeling connected. This will help free you up from having to always be physically with them, and simultaneously support them in individuating in a healthy way.
Next week I will describe some practical ways you can pro-actively use this knowledge to help deepen the connection between you and your children and help them individuate into their full potential.
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