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Dr. Daniel Siegel: How attachment helps children thrive

The kind of attachment a parent forms with his or her child has a profound impact on the development of the child's brain and helps shape emotional, social and mental functioning, according to Dr. Daniel Siegel, a medical expert who has dedicated his career to studying the connections between human relationships and neurophysiology.

Siegel, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Foundation for Psychocultural Research at the UCLA School of Medicine, shared his views during the Zero to Three 19th Annual Training Institute in Sacramento last month. In his lecture, "The Interpersonal Neurobiology of Attachment: Helping Parents Make Sense of Relationships," Siegel's key message was that the quality of a person's relationships and mental well-being depends heavily on his or her early attachments with parents or caregivers.

Siegel will also speak at the kick-off lecture for ParentMap's Pathways lecture series, addressing the topic of Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding can Help You Raise Children who Thrive. The lecture will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24 at the Intiman Theater in Seattle.

Communication patterns form the basis of early parent-child attachments, Siegel explains. In a process called "contingent communication," a parent perceives the signals of his or her child, processes them and responds to them in a timely fashion. This sensitive form of caregiving makes the child feel safe and understood, and secure that his needs will be met.

Secure parent-child attachments result in a process called neural integration, Siegel says. In a person who has formed healthy attachments, the right hemisphere of the brain -- which specializes in autobiographical information, the sending and perceiving of non-verbal signals, and the ability to feel empathy -- works with the left hemisphere, which is responsible for logical thinking. "When these components come together -- when you have integration of the brain -- you achieve the most flexible, adaptable, energizing, stable mental state," Siegel says.

On the flip side, research has shown that a child who is raised by an emotionally barren or inaccessible caretaker may avoid attachments, leading to later uncertainties in life and anxiety in social situations. If the child is reared in an abusive environment, the child may grow up unable to form healthy social attachments and regulate his emotions.

The bottom line? "When kids have secure attachments, they do well in life," Siegel says. "When they don't, their cognitive social development is compromised. So we need to do whatever is necessary to promote secure attachments."

The good news, he says, is that the brain's structure can actually be altered by new experiences. After spending more than a decade conducting "adult attachment interviews," in which he analyzed adults and how their early attachments later affected their relationships with their own children, he identified five processes parents can use to build more positive attachments with their kids. They are:

  • Collaborative communication, the sharing of non-verbal signals such as eye contact, facial expressions and tone of voice.
  • Reflective dialogue, talking with their children about thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, sensations, attitudes, beliefs and intentions, all of which help kids develop compassion.
  • Repair, reaching out to a child and apologizing after a misconnection.
  • Emotional communication, accepting and sharing both the child's positive and negative emotional states and helping the child regulate his emotions.
  • Coherent narrative, delving into one's past to better understand oneself and one's children.

The fifth process, coherent narrative, is particularly important, Siegel says. Research shows that successful parents have gained insights into how their own childhoods -- and relationships with their own parents -- influenced their development as an adult and a parent. Adults who have "made sense of their lives" tend to raise kids who are securely attached to them.

On the negative side, parents who don't remember much of their childhoods or say their childhood has had no impact on them, usually have children with less secure attachments. Parents with "leftover issues," or emotional themes that intrude on the present, may also have children who are not as well attached.

Through therapy and personal reflection, Siegel says, parents can gain the tools necessary to become better caregivers. By becoming more aware of how the past has shaped their current and future relationships with their kids, they can help their children grow into psychologically and emotionally healthy adults.

"Science has shown that it is not what happened to you in the past that matters most in determining how you raise your children," said Siegel. "Instead, it is how you have come to make sense of your early life experiences that is the most robust predictor of how your children will become attached to you."

Maryann LoRusso is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and mother who writes about a wide range of topics, including parenting, health, travel and fashion. She is the mother of a 2-year-old daughter.

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