How to Raise Kids with Secure Attachment Styles
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated: October 1, 2020
Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, is a psychotherapist who works primarily with parents and families. She’s also a mother to three teenage boys. And what she knows from both research and experience is that you don’t have to be a perfect parent to raise happy, secure kids: “There are lots of moments in relationships and as a parent where I might not necessarily know exactly what to do or say,” Bryson says. “It’s just about emotionally showing up for our kids when they need us.”
Bryson works with a behavioral and psychological concept called attachment theory, which describes how the bonds we make with our caregivers when we’re young help determine who we become as adults. Using attachment theory as a guide, Bryson helps parents better communicate and connect with their children. She finds that being a good—but not perfect—parent comes down to one question: Most of the time, are you making sure your kids feel safe, seen, and soothed?
For more from Bryson and her coauthor Dan Siegel on raising kids with secure attachment styles, check out their book The Power of Showing Up. Bryson’s newest book, The Bottom Line for Baby, which addresses sixty common questions on babyhood (pacifiers! allergies! circumcision!), is also out now.
A Q&A with Tina Payne Bryson, PhD
Attachment styles—in research, we call them attachment patterns or attachment approaches—describe the way we form relationships with others based on how we were cared for as children. Psychologists have been studying attachment theory for the past fifty years.
If you have a caregiver who provides secure attachment to you, you learn from repeated experiences that they’ve got your back. If you have a need, they’re going to show up for you and help take care of you. You don’t have to spend your attentional resources being hypervigilant and scanning your environment all the time, wondering if you’re safe or if your needs will be met. You can spend your attentional resources on being curious and learning new things and moving toward independence because you feel safe enough to do that. Your parents were not perfect, but they were mostly predictable and showed up for you when you were having a hard time or needed them most.
When we have a parent who attends to the thoughts and feelings behind their child’s behavior, it allows the brain to practice regulating emotions, handling adversity with resilience, and having better insight and empathy for other people. The brain gets practice paying attention and giving attention to those things.
Think about secure attachment style as a secure base and a launching pad. With secure attachment, you can go out and become independent. These repeated—note, not perfect—experiences of someone providing secure attachment for you allow your prefrontal cortex to get more reps, if you will, being able to be curious and explorative.
One of the forms of insecure attachment is called avoidant-dismissive attachment. That’s when a parent avoids a lot of emotional connection. You grow up in an emotional desert—no one really pays attention to the thoughts and feelings behind your behavior.
Typically, in this type of relationship, the focus is on surface-level things, avoiding deeper connection or vulnerability. Kids are told to not be so sensitive or that if they’re going to cry, they should go cry in their rooms. Or the parent might say some version of “I don’t want to hear about it.” That message gets internalized, and even by twelve months, babies whose parents who avoid emotional connection or dismiss the child’s needs learn not to ask for help from their parents when they’re upset. Children with this pattern of attachment know not to ask to be soothed.
From a neuroplasticity point of view, we know that the brain develops what it gets practice doing. So if you have a parent who never really gives any attention or talks to you about your thoughts or feelings or wishes or your internal landscape, you may not have developed optimal neural circuitry for seeing your own mind or the minds of others, and you may dismiss your own feelings and avoid the feelings of others.
In anxious attachment, the child feels anxious about whether or not their caregiver is reliable and predictable. The parent sometimes sees and responds to the child’s needs and other times doesn’t. Sometimes in this pattern, the parent is tangled up in their own needs and preoccupied with their own ambivalence about being accepted or loved consistently. Their intermittent connection with their child is confusing to the child, leaving the child uncertain that their parent will be there for them in ways that are helpful. Particularly when the child is in distress or upset, they aren’t sure whether the parent will show up for them or not. Children with this pattern of attachment can be clingy and have more difficulty being soothed by their parent.
That’s different from the avoidant-dismissive attachment, which is more like the child knows their parent is not going to help them. It’s also different from a pattern where there’s secure attachment and the parent makes mistakes: The idea is that in secure attachment, the parent is normally tuned in, but when there are ruptures or conflict, the parent repairs. Here, the parent may or may not show up, and they may or may not repair. It’s inconsistent and unpredictable, so the child is left never knowing what to expect, making it hard to settle and feel at ease relationally.
The most difficult pattern to grow up with is disorganized attachment. As mammals, we have a biological drive to go to our attachment figures when we are in distress. If you had a caregiver who was not only not a safe haven for you but instead was the source of your terror or your fear, you came to know that relationships are dangerous.
This type of repeated frightening interaction from the person who is supposed to keep you safe creates disorganization in terms of how the brain processes information and functions: You have the mammal circuit that says go to your attachment figure to be safe, but then you have another circuit that says get the hell away from what is dangerous. That has a huge negative impact on development, and it’s one of the best predictors we have for mental health challenges as an adult.
One of the best predictors for how we turn out is whether or not we had at least one person who showed up for us and provided us with secure attachment, so this is one of the most important things we can do as parents. And the four S’s are a way for us to say, “What does that look like? How do we provide secure attachment?”
The first S is safe. Safe is about two things: First, it’s about protecting children from harm. And second, it’s about not being the source of harm or fear. That’s more obviously relevant in cases of abuse or neglect, but it’s also relevant in more common, everyday ways. In many homes, you have parents who scream and yell or you have parents who are fighting—those kinds of things.
What the research shows is that we don’t have to be perfect, that we can even violate that sense of safety by yelling or being unpredictable in a given moment. But if that’s the case, it’s necessary that we repair that harm with our child. We calm ourselves down and then say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I got mad, and I didn’t handle that the way I should have. And that might have hurt your feelings. I’m so sorry.”
Then the child has an experience that’s saying, “Gosh, relationships can be messy, and they can have conflict, and it can feel bad sometimes. And we worked through it.” What this does is widen their window of tolerance for conflict in relationships.
The second S is seen. Seen is about looking more than with just our eyes. It’s about looking at the mind behind the behavior. This would be: My little guy is in the bathtub, and he doesn’t want to get out, and he’s screaming and yelling that bath time is not over. He’s having a fit. And him being seen is when I focus not just on the behavior and say, “Well it’s time to get out. You have to get out.” Instead it would be me looking at his internal landscape and being curious about what he’s experiencing.
I would say: “You’re feeling disappointed that bath time is over because you were having fun, and you don’t want it to end. Is that right?” What’s great about responding in that way is that his brain gets practice making a connection between what he’s feeling in his body and his emotions. He gets a chance to make sense of it.
When we’re not being seen, maybe your parent says, “Why are you being such a baby? Quit being so sensitive.” But let’s say this is about something the kid’s scared about or emotionally invested in. Then the kid’s like, “Well, I feel scared, but they’re telling me it’s not a big deal. And so how do I make sense of that? Maybe I am too sensitive.” They start learning to disconnect from their emotional experiences or not to trust themselves. And worse, they learn they’re alone with their big feelings because the parent isn’t going to help.
Another way we see this playing out right now is in what is called snowplow parenting. Sometimes, parents want their children to succeed so much—they’re so hyperfocused on achievement—that they push their kids to be things they’re not. One of the big questions that’s important to ask ourselves in any close relationship, whether that’s with your child or your significant other, is whether they could easily say, “Yes, I feel understood by you.” Or do they feel like you don’t get them at all?
Soothed is about comfort: When your child is falling apart, you show up by comforting them, being present with them, and helping them move back to a place that feels better. Sometimes it’s about giving a hug or rubbing their back or saying, “How can I help?” or “What do you need right now?” Other times, it’s just about being present, so that the child has the experience of something difficult going on—they’re having big feelings, or something difficult happened in their life, they’re mad about a boundary the parent has set, or they got left out, or somebody hurt my feelings, whatever it is—and they can walk through that experience with their parent supporting them.
This approach is not about rescuing people from dealing with difficult feelings or experiences. It’s about that person learning they can deal with something difficult. Some people, when we talk about safe, seen, and soothed, worry that we’re saying you should coddle your child or spoil them. But this is not about being permissive at all. Think back to the neurodevelopment and neuroplasticity piece here: This is about practicing difficult things with enough support so that a child develops resilience. They have an experience of how uncomfortable a big feeling was, but they made it through. That makes them strong. Not fragile.
When kids are falling apart—and this is true for adults, too—is when they most need connection. If a kid is at their worst—they’re terrified, or they’re having a tantrum—and I show up in the moment and say, “I’m right here with you, and I will help you,” then they have this experience that shows them they’re not in this alone. This is called co-regulation, where we help them get calm again. When we show up this way, their brain gets practice going from a dysregulated, falling-apart state back into a regulated, resilient state. When someone does that with you repeatedly, the brain gets a lot of practice in emotional intelligence and in regulating emotions, a hallmark of success and social, emotional, and mental health.
When we have repeated predictable experiences of feeling safe, seen, and soothed, the brain wires to have that fourth S: secure. And that doesn’t mean feeling secure about yourself in a self-esteem way, although that is an outcome. It means that a person’s brain has become wired to know and expect that if they have a need, someone’s going to show up for them. It also means that they have had enough experiences of that to know how to show up for themselves and to learn how to keep themselves safe, how to see and understand themselves, and how to soothe themselves.
They also learn to expect other people to show up for them and help as well. Meaning they’ll choose healthier friendships and romantic partners who will show up for them, and they also know how to show up for themselves and how to show up for their friends, romantic partners, and eventually their own children. The research is clear about this: People with secure attachment styles have much healthier relationships. They tend to be leaders who have positive social interactions throughout their elementary and middle school years and into high school. It is the foundation for resilience.
It’s much easier to think about how you keep your kids safe and soothed when they’re little. If your baby bumps their head, you pick them up and you go, “Oh, that hurt.” You hold them to comfort them. That’s usually fairly easy to do.
When kids get older, it’s harder to do that, especially if they’re pushing you away. But these attachment needs of being safe, seen, and soothed are important throughout our lives. The key is presence and availability: being present and tuning in to our children and what they need from us. They might need space, and we can respect that, but they should also still know that we’re here for them when they need us. They can storm off and ask to be left alone, and we can respectfully check in with them and say, “I can see you’re having a hard time. I’m here and I will listen if you want me to.” We shouldn’t be intrusive and insist that they share with us or make it more about our needs to connect. Just saying, “I’m here if you need me” goes a long way. And older kids, even teens, still need to be hugged and comforted. Adults still need it, too.
What’s been such an important guide for me, even in my own kids’ teenage years, is to avoid a big screaming fight when they do things that don’t keep themselves safe. Instead, I can have a conversation with them and say, “You didn’t keep yourself safe. Keeping you safe is my number one job, so I’m stepping in here. You’re going to have less freedom until you build that skill, and I’m going to help you build that skill.”
My kids might not like what’s happening. They may feel frustrated or feel that I’m being intrusive or too strict. But I remind them—and they fully know—that they are deeply, deeply loved and they are not by themselves in the world.
As kids grow up into teenagers, parents remain attachment figures, whether they’re good attachment figures or not so good attachment figures. But attachments also start expanding out beyond the immediate family: Kids start counting on their good friends to help them feel safe, seen, and soothed. This is a positive thing. When young people start being able to develop attachment relationships with peers, it helps them pave the way toward being able to do that with romantic partners and eventually become attachment figures for the next generation.
History is not destiny when it comes to attachment. The single best predictor for how well a parent is able to provide secure attachment to their children is not whether they had it with their own parents. It’s whether they have reflected on their attachment experiences growing up with their own caregivers and made sense of those experiences.
Parents can ask those questions: “Did my parents help me feel safe, seen, and soothed?” Or “Why did I not feel safer? Under what circumstances did I feel seen?”
In The Power of Showing Up, which I wrote with Dan Siegel, we talk about ways that parents can begin that sense-making process and ask those reflective questions. This reflective process keeps us from running from the past or being tangled in the past where it intrudes on us and keeps us from being the parent we want to be.
Following the 4 S’s is my north star. Lots of the time, as a parent, I’m not quite sure what to do or say, but this guides me because if I’m responding in a way that helps my kid feel safe, seen, and soothed, I know it’s the right thing to do. Even though it’s a simple idea, it’s not always easy to do this as parents. We need people who show up for us, too. We need a partner or a friend or a group of people who’ll show up for us and help us feel safe, seen, and soothed, so that we can have the capacity to do this important work in our relationships with our children.
Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, is a psychotherapist focused on child development and parenting. Bryson is the founder and executive director of the Center for Connection, a clinical psychotherapy practice, and the Play Strong Institute, a center devoted to the study, research, and practice of play therapy. She is the author of The Bottom Line for Baby and coauthor with Dan Siegel, MD, of The Power of Showing Up, The Yes Brain, and the New York Times bestsellers The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline.
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