You may think Valentine's Day is for lovers, but I say it is for kids! I didn't really know how darn much love I had in me until I had kids – and I've always been a lover, not a fighter. Turns out that big-love bond between us and our little sweeties is the foundation of emotional intelligence.
When we pay close attention and respond to the emotional cues expressed by our children, they learn to regulate their emotions better. Researchers talk about the emotional bond between parents and other significant caregivers as "attachments." Parent-child attachments come in three dominant styles: avoidant, anxious, and secure. I don't need to tell you that the bond we want to form with our children is the secure one. Loads of research has documented the vast benefits of a secure attachment. "Securely attached" kids are:
- More confident in their explorations of the world, and better able to deal with challenging circumstances
- More achievement-oriented, independent, and persistent problem solvers
- More willing to ask for help and to seek comfort when frustrated
- Better liked by their teachers—maybe because they require less guidance and discipline
- Less likely to be bullied, and to be bullies themselves
- Better behaved and less impulsive at school.
One reason that secure attachments are so influential is that they are the foundation for their future relationships. Speaking of Valentine's Day, did you know that people's attachment styles in childhood tend to typify their romantic relationships in adulthood? Kids with secure attachments to their parents and other caregivers are also better liked by their peers and they tend to have more friends. Strong attachment relationships build emotional literacy, which in turn facilitates their forming positive, supportive relationships with teachers, friends, and others in their community.
Securely attached children have a better sense of themselves, better memories, more positive feelings about friendship, and a more developed sense of morality. Establishing a secure connection has its benefits when it comes to discipline, too: toddlers who are securely attached are more compliant when their parents ask them to do something, and their parent's disciplinary techniques are more likely to be effective.
So how do we raise a securely attached child? At its simplest, how responsive we are as parents and caregivers determines how secure our children are. We can:
- Be sensitive to our children's needs and warm in our interactions with them. What do our children need given the circumstances? This is a matter of being present and paying attention. We can demonstrate empathy and convey warmth in acknowledging their needs: "I can see that you are feeling very tired and need a nap. I get grouchy when I'm tired, too. Let's go home and lay down."
- Be responsive and consistent. Knowing what our children need is one thing; fulfilling that need is quite another. When our kids are infants, responding to their needs is usually fairly straightforward (if tiring). We change their diapers, feed them, help them get to sleep. But as kids get older, their needs become more complex. Make no mistake: being responsive to kids' needs does not mean giving them whatever they want. Sometimes when our children want a later curfew what they need is a more regular routine or firmer discipline. Parental responsiveness predicts greater sociability, self-discipline, positive behaviors towards others, and self-esteem in children. Consistency matters, too: attachment guru John Bowlby calls it the law of continuity: "the more stable and predictable the regime, the more secure a child's attachment tends to be; the more discontinuous and unpredictable…the more anxious."
- Be available and accessible to our children, both emotionally and physically. We may spend a lot of time with our children, but if we aren't emotionally available—we are preoccupied with our Blackberry or lost in our own worries—it doesn't count for much. The same is true when our intentions are good but we aren't around enough: our deep desire to connect with our children isn't good for much if our kids don't have enough time to actually do that connecting in reality.
- Encourage multiple attachments. While infants and toddlers who are securely attached to their mothers or their daytime caregivers are more mature and positive in their interactions with others, children who have secure attachments with both at least mothers and their caregivers are the most emotionally literate of all (attachment to fathers wasn't tested in this study). Other research shows that kids profit the most from three secure relationships: one with a mother, father, and a daytime caregiver.
- Recognize the importance of sibling and peer attachments. Research also indicates the importance that siblings and friends play for children's security—even children as young as 15 months. For example, when infants and toddlers are transferred to new daycare settings—requiring them to establish new attachments with caregivers—they do better when they are transferred with close friends than if they are transferred alone. Similarly, siblings can be very important attachment figures by providing closeness, comfort, and security.
Do you think it is possible to love your children too much? Clearly a lack of love, attention, and sensitivity is damaging for kids, but are today's super-attentive parents causing more problems than they are solving? Please weigh in for a future posting about this.
© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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What a wonderful post Christine, and perfectly timed for Valentines Day! I had the most connected loving conversation with my 10 year old son the other evening. He asked if he could have a private conversation with me about asking a girl in his class to the Valentine Dance at school. It was such a moving conversation for me. I shared stories with him about when I was his age, and feeling the same nervousness he is feeling. We laughed together and he felt so much better afterward, and he thanked me for helping him feel more at ease. I was truly honored he came to me to talk, and I let him know that. It was a conversation that neither of us will forget.
Patrick mcMillan | 6:30 pm, February 5, 2009 | Link
In response to your question about super-attentive parents, I am not convinced that the super-attentiveness is motivated by “too much love” or by love at all. I think there are a lot of other factors at play, from a kind of hyper-competitiveness to (sometimes) a desire to relive one’s own youth vicariously through one’s children. I don’t think it’s possible to love your children too much, not if it’s love as you described it above. Being responsive to your children’s needs means also being responsive to their need to do things for themselves, even when it means they will fail (and learn from it), among other things–and I don’t think the super-attentive parents are being responsive in those ways. Instead, they tend to superimpose their own needs and desires onto their children (e.g., their own fears of failure) instead of letting their children be as individuals with distinct personalities and so forth.
For myself, my parents were not of the super-attentive variety, but they were not very attentive to who I was as a person, to my own distinct personality and tended to believe that I should or could respond to situations the same way they did. I have come to think that this is one of the most common “mistakes” parents make, in part because it’s one of the easiest ones to make. I’m trying to be conscious of that with my own children and avoid treating them like mini-me’s. That requires a special kind of attentiveness, but it also requires giving them the space to figure out who they are and to learn on their own.
Julie | 1:04 am, April 27, 2009 | Link