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Deciphering Your Child's Attachment Style

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Updated on Jan 9, 2012

Have you ever wondered why your child is a brave explorer, or why he's shy and unresponsive? Attachment plays a huge part in kids' behavior around parents and other people. Deciphering your child's attachment style can help improve your relationship with your little one, and give you the tools to help her grow into a more secure person.

For a developing child there are two types of attachment—primary and secondary. Primary attachment involves your child's relationship between his parents or caregivers, while secondary attachment is the support system that forms with other caring adults in his life. Within these attachments are four styles that can carry into adulthood. How you parent—as well as your child's personality—can greatly impact his attachment style.

  • Securely attached. If your child is securely attached, she's happy to be around you—most of the time, anyway! She'll typically greet you actively when you come home from work, feel content to explore the environment when you're near and seek you out when she feels stressed or unsure.
  • Insecure resistant/ambivalent. A kid who gets anxious, seeks you out, but then struggles to get away is resistant/ambivalent. She might also hesitate to check out her surroundings, and can be frustrated with how you respond to her actions.
  • Insecure avoidant. Avoidant children do just that—steer clear of your presence, avoid engaging with you, and ignore questions you ask. If you don't get a reaction, or see few displays of emotion from your child, she's likely avoidant.
  • Insecure disorganized. Is your child's behavior completely unpredictable? If she doesn't cope easily, you can't seem to comfort her and calm her down or she seems confused around you or another caregiver, she could be insecure disorganized.

Living in a nurturing, supportive and consistent household helps create secure attachments, while trauma, neglect, illness and abuse are more likely to cause insecure attachment types. If your parenting style and her personality don't mesh well—say if your first and second kids have opposite personality types, and you handle one more easily than the other—an insecure attachment can develop.

If you suspect your child has an insecure attachment style, you can get help. It takes time and patience, according to Psychologist Joan Mancinelli Diakun, but you can repair a child's emotional damage. Daikun states that, "detecting an attachment issue early in development increases your chance of changing attachment styles." So even if your child has suffered through a traumatic experience—such as the loss of a loved one or abuse—you still have time to improve your attachment relationship.

You'll need a professional counselor or therapist to help you fully understand your child's attachment style, and how your parenting style matches up. Your therapist may recommend a method like Theraplay, which puts you and your child in structured play situations to enhance attachment. This particular method has four basic dimensions to help overcome attachment disorders, and using these every day can help you form a closer relationship with your child.

  • Structure. A predictable daily routine is essential to your child's development, helping her feel more secure and more deal with change. Stick to a schedule, and designate proper places to play or do homework, and help your kid keep her room organized. These will help calm fears of the unknown and chaos, fostering a more secure attachment style. This dimension works well for overactive, disorganized, resistant or overstimulated children.
  • Engagement. Plan fun group games and activities that promote interaction with your child, such as Monopoly or Sorry. Encourage your child to participate with you and her peers. All children need engagement, but these exercises can particularly benefit kids with insecure avoidant or withdrawn attachment styles.
  • Nurture. Hugging, kissing and affectionate environments help your child feel loved and valued. You can often improve your child's attachment just by turning up the dial on your "nurture meter." Nurturing activities promote a calm, predictable and safe environment to help kids relax. This technique is often targeted toward aggressive, overactive and pseudo-mature children.
  • Challenge. Challenging activities are fantastic for drawing out more timid or rigid children. Securely attached children are natural explorers, and often take risks—usually while we hold our breaths and cross our fingers for their safety! While jumping off the back of the couch isn't always the best idea, learning to take mild, age-appropriate risks—such as playing a new instrument, or joining a sports team—is part of growing up. This helps foster confidence and independence.

If you can't arrange for Theraplay sessions, borrow some of its principles for your kid. Observe and learn about her, listening and striking up conversations to better understand her behavior patterns. Even though her attachment style plays a large role in her actions, you can both work to change it and improve your relationship.

In addition, take advantage of resources. Bookstores and libraries have a host of information on childhood development, and you can find support groups or behavior experts in your area on the web. Most importantly, be patient with your child and yourself. Progress, for both of you, is sometimes slow, but persistence pays off in the end.

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