When the average Joe and Jane Parent identify the most important ingredients in raising healthy kids, they’ll mention “love” at the top of the list every time. When you ask child psychologists this same question, they instead use the term “secure attachment.”
Since even abusive parents state that they love their children, forgive me for discussing the research on secure attachment instead of the nature of love. Still, love is what most people feel for their children. It is also the emotion that activates the magic juju of secure attachment.
A child develops secure attachment when the parent or caregiver is reliable, responsive and attuned. As a result, the child learns that the world is a stable place, safe to explore as he develops more and more of a capacity to do so. Initially, he explores with his eyes, mouth and hands, all of which help him learn and engage his loving family members. Later, he launches from home with his security tucked inside of him, literally and metaphorically.
The securely attached child stores her security in her brain in the form of neural connections, which have been established through the delicate dance of responsive parenting over time. This security ends up predicting all manner of strengths that contribute to success later in life.
Neuroscientists study the “neurobiology” of attachment and how brain growth in the baby literally depends on the positive relationship between the caregiver and the infant. A favorite phrase in the field to describe how experience builds brain connections is: “The neurons that fire together, wire together.”
I use this phrase every day as a clinical psychologist when I encourage parents to turn off electronics and instead enjoy their children directly with games, conversations and interactive activities. Do you want your child to establish reward circuits for empathy and communication or for video games and constant entertainment?
Attunement is a sacred word in the secure attachment field. An attuned parent “tunes into” the signals of the child and attends to the child’s needs. When the sensitive mom or dad coos, touches, soothes, revs up (or down) and nurtures the baby according to her needs and comfort zones, boom! — a symphony is born. Not only are neurons growing and syncing up, they are establishing a neural network that associates mom and dad with a sense of security.
By adolescence, attunement gets really complicated. Attunement signifies sensitivity to your kids’ cues and needs, but it does not mean caving to their every need or desire. Parents have to make judgment calls about what is truly in the best interest of the child.
Let’s say your 14-year-old son begs you to leave him alone and puts a “keep out” sign on his door. Your teen will accuse you of being intrusive and irritating if you drum up reasons to converse when he wants to get his homework done, connect with his friends online and zone out with soothing or blasting music. Good for you if you give him some privacy.
But in another “keep out” situation, attunement might mean wandering into his room and offering a back rub. Even though he said he wanted to be left alone, you detect a problem. And if you are really an ace at attunement, while rubbing those shoulders, you will know to listen and not offer homilies and advice (unless you have the rare teen who likes that sort of thing).
Research has documented that secure attachment with a primary caregiver predicts better social, emotional and academic functioning throughout adolescence and into adulthood.
Teens with secure histories have more initiative, self-control and better abilities to make and keep friends than those with histories of anxious and insecure attachment. What’s more, secure attachment is associated with an ability to form trusting romantic relationships in adulthood, greater resilience to stress and lower levels of mental illness.
As sublime as all of this sounds for parents who feel pretty good about the first few years of their parenting life, it can be scary for those who remember hard times, high stress or turmoil during those years. In the same way that you may have heard “genes are not destiny,” neither is early life. The brain’s plasticity allows people to have positive social experiences that activate positive emotions and neural growth during their adolescence and throughout life.
Temperament is also a tricky issue for attachment experts. Kids with high-energy, aggressive and disruptive tendencies are harder to parent than the easygoing ones. Children who are anxious, reactive or avoidant are also more challenging.
A lot of the teens out there who are lacking in self-esteem, self-confidence and a sense of security are probably those that had some genetic or social challenges from the get-go. Building security in kids with challenging temperaments takes parental patience, persistence and the wisdom to know that some kids are just harder to parent than others.
A parent’s goal should be to transmit the message that the teen is loved, appreciated and has the support of his parent, no matter what. When parents are anxious about their teen’s school performance, surly behavior and risk taking, it is often hard to convey love and acceptance. But it is the most important gift you can give.
Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D., is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and the author of several books on parenting tweens and teens, including Getting to Calm.