The Real Deal
Your 5-year-old is pulling on your arm to get your attention and in the process you drop a plate of food you were carrying to the table. Startled by the crash and frustrated by the mess, you react by yelling at your child, “Look what you made me do!” In a few moments you have calmed down and before cleaning the mess off of the floor you lift your gaze to notice the tears in your child’s eyes. Instead of beating yourself up for losing it, you turn to your child and say, “I scared you when I yelled, didn’t I?” Your child nods. You continue, “You wanted my attention, pulled on my arm, and then I dropped the plate. When that happened I felt scared too.” Your child chimes in, “and then you got mad!” You take a deep breath and admit, “Yes, I got mad and I’m sorry I scared you” Surprisingly, your child smiles. This acknowledgment was satisfying. You offer, “I needed you to wait until I could give you my full attention.” This time your child says, “I’m sorry I didn’t wait.” Together you clean up the food. “Now, what was it you wanted to tell me?”
Parenting forces us to relinquish our desire for perfection. As parents we are asked to confront our “knee-jerk” reactions and unwanted feelings of insecurity or anger. Often, the more we try to uphold an ideal the harder we fall. Seeking perfection we can become rigid and inflexible or self-sacrificing and resentful.
Attachment parenting suggests that raising healthy, secure children is associated with practices such as natural childbirth, baby-wearing, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding. However, what happens if your milk dries up, you need medical interventions during childbirth, you long to return to work, or you can’t sleep in the same room as your child? Parents can feel as though they are failing when their own needs for sleep, self-care, or work are at odds with the principles they’ve been told are necessary to raise healthy children. The truth is you can raise happy, healthy children whether you co-sleep, allow your child to cry to sleep and self-soothe, breast-feed, bottle feed, had a c-section, gave birth at home, adopted your child, go back to work, stay-at-home, have a hot-temper, or are even-keeled.
“Children who are securely attached feel safe, confident, and connected. We do not need to be perfect parents to achieve this goal. A healthy approach to attachment parenting involves flexibly adapting to the changing needs of your child and staying committed to discovering the balance that works for your unique family.”
Dr. Arielle Schwartz
The Original Dance
We are all born with a natural rhythm that oscillates between our desire for closeness with others and our need for independence. In infants, this dance is expressed in cycles of excitement, relaxed alertness, drowsiness, and sleep. Dr. Edward Tronick studied video-taped interactions between caregivers and infants. He describes an exchange of facial expressions and body movements; a dance of connection and disconnection:
An infant coos, a mother smiles, her child’s arms reach, she responds accordingly, and together they burst with excitement! Then her child offers a subtle but important re-organizing cue by looking away. In response the mother becomes quiet for a moment, she tunes into herself. All in a matter of seconds the stage is reset for another round of play.
Attachment parenting emphasizes connection and consistency. Yes, children need to be able to predict how and when they will receive your attention and time. Infants and young children need to know that if they are hurt or in distress that you will be there to nurture them. And, at times, all healthy relationships require an ability to disengage. Sometimes we override our child’s need to disconnect because of our own discomfort with separateness or a desire to feel needed.
What are your rhythms of connection-disconnection? What is the tempo of your child? At times you might feel out of sync. This is natural. Learning how to be in relationship always involves trial, error, and patience.
Rupture and Repair
Attachment is not simply associated with a sensitive, attuned caregiver but Dr. Tronick reveals that our children actually benefit from our parenting mistakes so long as we are able to repair our misattunements. Successful repair teaches children to be less afraid of conflicts because challenges have the capacity to lead us into deeper connection. When we are willing to be honest about our emotional experience we not only acknowledge but also validate the impact we are having on others. However, children know when adults behaviors, words, and emotions do not match. Therefore, offering empathy or an apology that is inauthentic will be more confusing than healing.
When my daughter was 6 years old we had one of those tag-a-long bicycles that allowed her to ride with me behind my bike. On one occasion I did not connect our bikes correctly and as we were going down a hill her bike detached and sharply fell onto the concrete. She was bleeding, bruised, and frightened. I felt terrible. She repeated the words, “you didn’t attach us right!” I started to defend, “It was an accident” but I heard her words and felt the deeper truth. “Yes, you are right,” I said, “I didn’t attach us right.” I was rushed as we got ready for our ride in the first place, I didn’t pay close attention. This moment became an opportunity to acknowledge other times that she wanted to be held and I pushed her away because I was busy, tired, or distracted. I felt how taking responsibility for my actions had the power to mend the hurts. Without guilt, shame, or regret I stepped into connection; I make mistakes and owe it to you, my daughter, to tell the truth.
Having read about the benefits of co-sleeping you have been sharing the family bed for 3 years. As a result you and your husband continue to wake up during the night because your child is a “mover”. You are arguing more frequently, have no time for intimacy, and are at odds with how to proceed. He feels angry, resentful, and critical. You feel exhausted. You are constantly choosing between your child and your relationship. You feel like a failure.
Attachment parenting can go too far. Here are some of the signs:
- You are doing your best to parent your child the “right” way but are sacrificing yourself in the process. You have stopped going to the gym and have no time just for you.
- You are feeling increasingly angry, sad, insufficient, or depressed.
- You are sleeping in the family bed but no one is getting a good night’s sleep.
- Your connection with your partner suffers as you focus on your child.
Attachment parenting is based upon attachment science which recognizes infants’ needs for proximity and the benefits of skin to skin touch, eye contact, and consistency. However, as children grow and their needs for independence develop. Older babies need to explore and move their bodies on their floor to discover how they move through space. Toddlers need to be able to take initiative, explore the world, and make mistakes. Children cannot become self-reliant if you do everything for them. Older children benefit from sleeping through the night on their own. Though children’s emotions are important, they should not run the household. Fostering secure, confident children requires responding appropriately to your child’s evolving developmental needs.
Stepping into parenthood is likely to be your greatest satisfaction and your biggest challenge. As parents, we want the best for our children but we are bombarded with mixed messages about what promotes healthy development. When thinking of attachment parenting you might picture a parent who is calm, collected, and able to provide nurturance at any moment. In our imagination we may envision mothers flowing through their day wearing their child, breastfeeding on demand, and simultaneously keeping up with household demands or continuing in the workplace as a supermom who can pump on the run, manage work and social calendars, and coolly allow her child cry it out. The reality is very different. Life happens. And it isn’t always pretty. It is easy to get caught up in comparison, either putting ourselves or other mothers down.
Is it possible to accept that there is not one “right” way to raise a child? This requires befriending our insecurities, admitting our faults, and trusting that we can navigate through the imperfections of our parenting. To stay flexible as parents we must first notice if we are over-attached to our method of child-rearing. As a result we can become rigid with ourselves and our children. Listen for the “shoulds” in your parenting, counter them with inquiry, and adapt as needed to suit your unique family.
When to seek professional help?
Feeling stuck in repeated experiences of disconnection, resentment, negativity, or anger with children or partners is a sign that you may benefit from professional support. One of my goals as a psychologist and writer is to de-stigmatize psychotherapy. It can be humbling and painful to ask for help, for fear of being judged or perceived as a bad parent. However, getting support is part of a balanced approach to attachment parenting. It strengthens your ability to be honest, flexible, and willing to explore what works best for your unique family–stepping outside stereotypes and into reality.
- Hidden Transgenerational Legacies in Parenting
- Tips for Handling Your Childs Emotional Meltdowns
- 5 Best Gifts for Children
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook or sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all my posts.