During uncertain times, especially where routines and norms have been changed, it is easy to become overwhelmed and overreact out of fear and uncertainty. The additional changes experienced in typical child development can add extra strain to families. So it is helpful to know what is normal, and what it not, especially at crucial milestones, like pre-school. Attachment is a word that is sometimes used to describe “clinginess”, but it is actually a psychology term that describes the parent-child bond, when children can rely on parental support, and predicts future adult relationships. Life can affect this bond, from postnatal depression and poverty, to house moves and relationship breakdowns; but these effects can always be restored.

What is attachment? Where did it come from?

Child psychologist, Mary Ainsworth found that the reaction of a child as young as 18 months could identify one of 4 states of relationship when left briefly with a stranger. 70% of children cried for the parent and could be consoled, which was a normal, healthy response. However, 30% either cried and pushed the parent away, couldn’t be consoled by the parent, or didn’t respond at all. This 30% indicated that parents needed support. Although children’s behaviours may make us uncomfortable, they actually demonstrate that they are becoming confident, well-adjusted, independent, happy, healthy people through our early investment of love, affection, and trust.

So, what behaviours should I encourage?

 

1. A secure child wanders off and comes back

Most parents/caregivers understandably become anxious when children run out of sight. This is partly due to the increased awareness of child abductions and partly due to the heavy responsibility of caring for another. We easily overreact when we misunderstand and are fearful. Research actually shows that children have no fear initially because they believe that they are physically attached to their parents well after birth, and that tantrum behaviour is the child’s increasing realisation of physical separation to their parent. Nothing bad happens when we are there, and because it feels like we are always there, nothing bad will happen. As parents, we cannot prepare children for the realisation that we are separate, but we can make it safer.

How to meet this need safely:
As responsible adults, we accept that children cannot be left to wander because of the dangers we recognise. Parks and play centres allow for supervised wandering often limited by age. Visiting friends and family allows children to explore different environments safely. Organised activities/classes often encourage exploration by providing activities and a safe, observation space for parents/carers.

2. A secure child cries when hurt or upset, and expects attention and compassion

Research shows that children inherently know the difference between right and wrong. When we understand that children believe that they are constantly attached to and protected by their parent, then when they are hurt or upset, it is a new and unexpected experience that feels wrong. During their early years, we can either confirm this sense of justice (“yes, you have hurt your knee and it is sore”), giving them confidence in their judgement. Or we can deny it (“it’s nothing, stop crying or I’ll give you a reason to cry”), making them question their ability to assess a situation and resort to dishonesty.

How to meet this need safely:
By responding to cries from the beginning, we validate our child’s perception – “yes, there is something wrong”. We also learn to recognise how much comfort they need. Many tantrums can be avoided by a quick cuddle during early niggling, and reassurance that it will get better, like it did before. Confirming that our child has understood the situation correctly also reassures them that the problem can be fixed: whether a physical or emotional injury. Even cuddles and kisses from us are recognised medically for being most effective in managing illness and injury. Children learn to manage pain and upset by watching and imitating our response: anger, or willingness to ask for help. Modelling a better way, that physical and emotional hurt is temporary, is a valuable life lesson.

3. A secure child shares achievements and expects acknowledgement

We know the “throw it down for you to pick up” and “watch me jump off the same rock” games that go on forever. This repetition can be an invitation to play, but it can also a sign of feeling attached to us, so they expect that we share their enjoyment of improving their skills. We also know that ignoring and reprimanding behaviour gradually leads to children devaluing activities, because we do not value their activity.

How to meet this need safely:
Supporting our child’s interests often comes down to understanding how they think and interpret the world, and children naturally want to share their achievements with us. Dangerous activities are opportunities for building trust: explain the danger, provide alternatives. Annoying activities are opportunities for developing independence, concentration and persistence: so make it a self-correcting activity, e.g. tie a string or elastic to the toy that they throw so that they can fetch it themselves; find a clear wall where they can throw and catch. Activities for attention are resolved by touch, and rocking is particularly effective for happy, sad, clingy or giddy children because of the benefits, including closeness, support and comfort.

4. A secure child is automatically trusting and speaks uncensored

Children often express what they see or repeat what they hear as an achievement of understanding. This skill is essential for building interpersonal interaction, finding patterns and problem-solving, but can lead to embarrassing situations or misunderstandings.

How to meet this need safely:
Generally speaking, when we accept that naughty behaviour does not mean a naughty child, we allow the child the opportunity to make better choices in behaviour next time. When we punish unintentional misbehaviour, punishment devalues truth and leads to dishonest behaviour. A better way is to develop empathy by explaining how others’ feel; essential skills for planning and co-operative activities. Asking, “is it true?” and “is it helpful?” can also help children understand what is worth repeating and who to trust, knowing that they should always feel comfortable in telling us anything.

5. A secure child wants to do things for themselves

Children instinctively know that one day they will need to manage independently, so they try to take on jobs, like dressing, washing, eating and tidying up. While the time loss can be frustrating, planning extra minutes when they are smaller will save hours of arguments when they are older and still expect help.

How to meet this need safely:
Introducing compromise shows children that accepting help gets more done quicker – an invaluable skill for teamwork and co-operative activities – but beware false compromise: children quickly recognise manipulation when it is always us who wins and they who lose. Choices are also useful: “you choose your clothes and I’ll dress you today.” In every situation, explanation is the better way because it shares the knowledge, shares the power.

Raising a child can be scary when the patterns that they see and imitate as children are patterns that they will use (or oppose) as adults. Investing time during childhood provides children with the skills to survive without us at some point. Children know that they will need to do what we do, so they constantly watch our reactions and strategies. Without explaining ourselves, they will use their own limited and possible inaccurate understanding. As adults, we often find easier and better ways to do things. Be reassured that you actually are doing a good job, and that often your gut instincts are the perfect responses for your child. In this way, raising another human being, we are able to show our children a better way.

 

About the author

Frances Turnbull

Musician, researcher and author, Frances Turnbull, is a self-taught guitarist who has played contemporary and community music from the age of 12. She delivers music sessions to the early years and KS1. Trained in the music education techniques of Kodály (specialist singing), Dalcroze (specialist movement) and Orff (specialist percussion instruments), she has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (Open University) and a Master’s degree in Education (University of Cambridge). She runs a local community choir, the Bolton Warblers, and delivers the Sound Sense initiative aiming for “A choir in every care home” within local care and residential homes, supporting health and wellbeing through her community interest company.

She has represented the early years music community at the House of Commons, advocating for recognition for early years music educators, and her table of progressive music skills for under 7s features in her curriculum books.

Frances is the author of “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“ “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“, published by Routledge, August 2017.

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