20 May Safety and Attachment for Children During COVID-19
What a year it has been thus far. Between bushfires, floods, and COVID-19, it feels like this year has been an endless barrage of stress and change. Given how stressed we are as adults, it seems inevitable that lots of kids have been struggling to cope with the many changes in their lives, including closures of schools, isolation from friends, and suddenly being cooped up with their annoying sibling.
To a child, the last couple of months have been like a rollercoaster of change
You have to go to school! You have to learn from home! Now maybe you can go back to school but not full time and you still can’t play soccer! – which can be very distressing and confusing, and create a sense that the world is not safe. This anxiety can lead to both emotional concerns and behavioural challenges.
The attachment bond between parent and child can present an opportunity to support children to feel safe during this difficult and challenging time, improving not only the relationship between parents and children, but also often the child’s behaviour and emotion regulation.
What is attachment?
Attachment, simply put, is the bond between two individuals, in this case between parent and child. Attachment can be secure, such that both the parent and the child trust in the strength of the bond and feel comfortable leaving and coming back into it, or insecure, where the parent-child bond is disrupted in some way and the child may not be comfortable leaving or coming back in for comfort or protection.
Why is attachment important?
Children learn about relationships and the world through their attachment to their parents. Often, patterns of attachment occur that can influence a child’s relationship to their emotions and to others for the rest of their lives. Secure attachment has been associated with better performance in school, better friendships, greater physical health, and deeper relationships throughout their life.
If a child is in distress and their parent ignores them, they might learn that their emotions are not important and that they need to handle them on their own. If they are in distress and their parent punishes them, they might learn that their emotions are bad or scary and that they should hide them or try never to feel that way. If, however, they are in distress and their parent comforts them, they might learn that their emotions are OK and that their parents care about their feelings. This is a vast oversimplification of a very complex process, but the general pattern holds true.
We all have situations where we respond in a less helpful way and do something that we know is not most helpful in the long run – I’m sure there are parents reading this right now and worrying about the impact of some less helpful attachment interactions on their child.
Fortunately, when it comes to attachment, good enough is good enough
you do not need to aim for perfection to achieve secure attachment. As long as you are able to be there with your child and try to meet their needs as best you can, as well as manage your own emotions, even under the most challenging of life circumstances children can get the best outcomes. You do not need to get it right every time, just enough to establish the pattern.
How can attachment help during times of uncertainty?
Children need to feel safe in their environment to thrive. As we all know, this year has been scary and felt unsafe for a lot of people. We can use the strong bond and attachment that we build with our children to help move them towards feeling safe no matter what is going on outside, by providing a secure base for them to explore from, and a safe haven for them to return to, whether that is within the house or out in the big wide world.
To establish a secure connection, children need to be safe going out to explore as well as coming back in to connect. Their needs from their parents as they explore include watching over them, delighting in them, help them just enough to keep exploring, and enjoy their exploration with them. For some kids, this might be helping get the lid off a jar of pencils so they can get focused on the drawing and showing excitement and praise when they have completed the drawing; for others, it might look like watching them from the side of the playground and waving when they look over to you.
At the moment, with the world so uncertain, children more than ever need to feel comfortable coming back in to seek help from their parents.
When they come back in to their parents, they may need protection, comfort, or help organising their feelings. They need to feel that their parents can handle whatever they might bring to them. At the moment, this might look like a child crying over something small or lashing out physically or verbally, because they are worried about going back to school. What they need in that moment is not dismissal or punishment, but comfort and help organising their feelings. All behaviour is communication, and at the moment there is a lot more to communicate than usual, so dig underneath your child’s emotional or challenging behaviour to figure out what they are communicating and what they need from you.
The Bottom Line
The bond between parent and child is always a fundamental building block to that child’s development; it becomes more difficult to achieve and yet more essential during challenging times. Putting time aside to connect with and delight in your child, and trying to meet their needs, will ensure that no matter what curveball 2020 throws at us next, they will feel supported and secure. For more information regarding secure attachment, I highly recommend the book Raising a Secure Child by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell, as well as any resources around their parenting program Circle of Security.