Getting the Delicate Parent-Child Attachment Dance Back in Step

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by Enrico Gnaulati, Ph.D.

Parents often intuitively get it when I explain how a kid’s disruptive behavior can signal a need for more predictable contact and involvement. They may intuitively get it because these types of parent-child attachment dynamics are actually innate. They are hard-wired in parents’ and kids’ brains. We have the late-British psychologist Sir John Bowlby to thank for this idea. He wrote widely on how young children are experts at behaving in ways that entice, if not force, parents to be physically and emotionally present during moments of need. It is part of their evolutionary biology. Think about it this way. In the ancestral environments in which humans lived for millennia the survival of young kids depended greatly on their success at alerting caregivers to stay physically close by. Young kids were prime targets for predators.  They were also completely helpless in the face of hostile attacks by enemies and sudden, dangerous climate events. Behaviors that enticed and forced parents to stay close by were of great survival value. Too little effectiveness in making parents pay attention and come running was nerve racking. The better a young kid was at signaling a parent to stay close by, the greater his or her chances of being protected when the inevitable danger struck. Bowlby called this effective “proximity seeking.”

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Some proximity-seeking behaviors that kids’ brains are hard-wired to perform are cute and charming. The “social smile” occurring around the first month or two of life that is universal among infants is one such example. Parents witnessing their infant’s first smile are filled with awe and love. The infant’s smile is nature’s way of making parents bond with their infant. Bonding simply means strongly desiring to be with and around one’s lovable baby.

Other proximity-seeking behaviors that kids’ brains are hard-wired to perform can be mildly frustrating for parents. Take “stranger anxiety.” At around six months, and lingering throughout the first year of life, infants become frightened by unfamiliar people. They show a primal distrust of them. They stare at them warily. They can violently resist being left with them. This can be embarrassing for parents, especially if the stranger is a grandmother who is essentially unknown to the kid because of her infrequent visits. Nonetheless, it is supremely normal for kids to express such stranger anxiety. Nature has equipped the kid to communicate that at this age primary caregivers are the only ones to really trust. The only ones who are truly intent on keeping him or her safe.

“Pit-stop” type proximity-seeking behavior by toddlers can also flummox parents. It’s as if the toddler has an emotional radar system in place, needing to know mom’s whereabouts at all times. As long as he or she knows mom’s location the toddler can crawl or walk off into the living room to climb around on the couch with glee. Surges of anxiety can be dealt with by checking in, or pit-stopping, with mom. A gentle back rub, or kiss on the forehead by mom can fill the toddler’s emotional tank. Then it’s off mom’s lap and back to explore in the living room. Older toddlers don’t need bodily pit-stops so much. A shared glance with mom from across the room is enough to reassure them. Confidently expecting mom to be there to check in with physically and emotionally is what lessens the kid’s anxiety over exploring his or her surroundings. It is what releases the kid’s adventuresome spirit.

As kids age and mature they still need a certain amount of control over the coming and going, and emotional there-ness of parents. Global distress reactions, like crying, whimpering, irritation, anger, and resentment can be a kid’s brain-inspired way of communicating to parents  they are preoccupied, or absent, too much of the time. Or, that separations and reunions are too sudden, random, and emotionally troubling. Or, that the kid has too little say over when and for how long contact occurs with parents. Under these circumstances global distress reactions like these can be very normal. They are nature’s way of inviting and demanding corrections to the quality of attachment in a kid’s relationship with parents. If we are poised to medicalize them and treat them exclusively as evidence of a behavioral disorder, we miss nature’s call.

Enrico Gnaulati Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Pasadena, California. His work has been featured on Al Jazeera America, KPCC Los Angeles, The Atlantic, andSalon. He is the author of Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder