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Delighting In Your Child – Part 3 – Being Emotionally Available

Being emotionally available to our children is necessary, just being physically present is not enough and even very young children will spot the difference, as adults do. For example, imagine how different it feels to talk to your partner who is really ‘with’ you compared with when they are listening – while watching TV! As parents we can be doing all the ‘right’ things but may allow ourselves to become too busy to really ‘be with’ our children. Can parents do this all the time? Of course not, but if we can really be with our children more often than not, and at times when they really need us, that is good enough. A secure attachment doesn’t mean always getting it right, but it does mean repairing the relationship when necessary. A great practice is from your child’s earliest days, talking out loud about feelings (your child’s and your own) will begin to help your child to eventually label feelings and realize that they can be shared. As your child gets older, s/he will realize that intense feelings can be named (mad, sad, glad, and afraid) and discussed with another, thus ending a need to act them out.

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Sometimes a child will let their parents know what they need in a direct way, for example raising their arms to be picked up; at other times they may be less direct, such as coming in close to their parent when they want a cuddle. However, if a child has learned that their parent is uncomfortable meeting some of their needs they may behave in a misleading or contradictory way, for example, appearing as if they want to play when they actually need comfort. It can be helpful to consider what lies behind our children’s approaches to us.

For example, asking for help with a task like putting on their socks may be more about seeking emotional support than actually requiring our help. Recognizing this helps parents to respond more effectively to their child’s needs.

Circle of Security also helps parents understand what they bring to their relationship with their child, and how subjective their perceptions of their child can be. Parent’s own upbringing influences the areas which they struggle with and reflecting on their responses is vital. Certain needs of their child can activate painful feelings for the parent. For example, a parent may feel abandoned when their child is moving away from them, and may therefore encourage their child to be overly reliant on them (usually unconsciously). The child may then act like they need comfort a lot of the time.

None of us get it right all the time, and (thankfully!) it is not necessary to do so, but if we are trying to recognize and meet our child’s needs, both for attachment and exploration, they are off to a great start.

So I think, from my own experience as a mom, and from countless conversations with other moms, that the thing we most need to learn is this concept of delight. I think grandparents do this much more easily than we do, because they aren’t carrying any of the pressure of how this child turns out! The idea of delight is simple, yet so complicated as well.

Our delight must be:

  • Genuine
  • Warm
  • Caring
  • Respecting the child as a person of worth
  • Focused on the child’s way of being rather than way of doing
  • Accepting of the child’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Unconditional
  • Seeking to understand
  • Encouraging
  • Empathetic
  • Present
  • Express enjoyment of the child’s world
  • Trusting of the child to set their own direction
  • Follows the child
  • Believing the best in the child
  • Patient

Can you think of a time in your life when you had the experience of being “delighted in” by someone that was significant to you? Most of us can picture that experience clearly right now. Maybe it was a teacher who showed you love and compassion, a grandmother who you would run to and bury your head into her chest, a coach who encouraged you, a parent who really loved to watch you play… These are the snapshots that I call to mind as reminders to me of how to delight in my children. These people weren’t extraordinary. They were ordinary people who took the time to make me feel valued. This speaks to the depth of my heart, encouraging me, comforting me. I don’t have to be amazing, I just have to be willing. I have to remember this as I parent my kids.

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Be encouraged, you can do this. All you need to remember is this: At the heart of secure attachment is a child’s recognition that s/he has a parent who can be counted on to lovingly provide tenderness, comfort, firm guidance and protection during the inevitable difficulties of life. But more than that, is a parent who delights in their child for who they are. It’s that simple.

Delighting In Your Child – Part 2 – With Life Words

Delighting in our children begins as we learn to delight in their unique BENT. Let’s face it, some kids are harder to connect with than others. Some kids challenge us as parents to learn how to delight and encourage their unique bent. Every child is precious, but even good parents can become discouraged by frustrating aspects in their child’s makeup and personality. Add other complicating factors, including the hurried pace of life and learning differences, and even the best of parents can become overwhelmed. Even as a “good” parent, you may become discouraged if you don’t understand why your child behaves as he or she does.

For now, just know this: You’ve been given an exclusive opportunity: the chance to nurture a child who is like no other. So learn to choose the child you’ve been given. And learn to delight in them.

Life Words

One way to do this is through using Life Words: I have certain life phrases that I say to each one of my children regularly. I want them to hear and know how much they are enjoyed. Take your daughter/son and look them directly in the face and say:

  • I’m so glad God gave me you as a daughter/son.
  • You bring me so much Joy.
  • I really like reading to you.
  • It’s so fun to have tea parties with you.
  • I had fun with you today.
  • I love being your mom/dad.

What’s sweet is that since toddlers are mini parrots many times they end up saying the same things to you later. These Life Words are a way of communicating DELIGHT.

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Let’s look back at the chart to our bottom half of the circle. In Part 1, we looked at the Secure Base. In addition to that, children need a safe haven to return to. Children come to their parents and move away over and over again. As children get older they are likely to venture further from their secure base, and stay away longer, but still need to know that they are welcome to come back. Security of attachment requires a caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to her/his child’s needs. Your willingness to answer subtle requests for attention, comfort, holding, exploration, and discovery (with you nearby) will provide an increased sense of security for your child.

Our tasks:

  • Protect your child, when things are too overwhelming or even dangerous, draw them into you.
  • Comfort them – as you draw them in, provide comfort to them.
  • Hold your child – Babies and toddlers soak up affection and love through their skin. Holding your child not only provides pleasure and reassurance, it is essential in helping to soothe and organize difficult feelings.
  • Eye contact – Gaze into your baby’s eyes from the first day of life, and pay close attention to when your child wants to look back. At about six weeks, your child will regularly focus in on your eyes and read what they are “saying.” Lots of pleasurable eye contact will translate into a feeling of reassurance and connection for your baby that will spill over into childhood. Now just a captured glance across a room is enough for my 9 yr old to regain her sense of security. She doesn’t need to come back to me physically, she comes back to my safe haven emotionally by remembering that I am here, that I love her.
  • Delight in your child– here it is again. This idea is so profound, so significant to attachment that it is found on both sides of the circle. Your child need to feel welcomed back to you. If they “explored” just a few steps away, or they have been off and running for 30 minutes, when they return they need to experience your delight. Too often we have an annoyed response when our kids come back to us. Maybe we are in the middle of a chore, or a conversation, and their interruption is inconvenient, so we usher them away with a “Go back and play”, not realizing that they need to come into our safe haven in order to feel secure enough to play again. We need to learn to greet them with delight EVERY time. A smile, a hug, an encouraging word, allowing them to drink their fill of us before they go out again.
  • Another need is help to organize their feelings. Babies and children need support when they face feelings that are too intense to manage by themselves. This support is most effective when parents accept the child’s feelings and don’t try to get them to feel something different. Easier said than done!

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So embrace your child’s unique bent, work on using Life Words, create security of attachment and delight in your child today!

Delighting In Your Child – Part 1 – A Look at Attachment

The concept of “attachment” has found its way into much writing and talking about parenting, but what does it mean, and more importantly, how can parents help their child to develop a secure attachment? Attachment is the lasting emotional bond that a child forms with a specific person that provides safety, comfort, soothing, and pleasure. This mother-child attachment bond shapes an infant’s brain, profoundly influencing their self-esteem, their expectations of others, and their ability to attract and maintain successful adult relationships

Almost all children will develop an attachment but the nature of attachment varies, depending largely upon the care-giving style of their parents. Children who are securely attached are more likely to be resilient under stress, have better relationships, and enter school ready to learn.

The Attachment Bond Shapes an Infant’s Brain

For better or worse, the infant brain is profoundly influenced by the attachment bond—a baby’s first love relationship. Research has found that when the primary caretaker can manage personal stress, calm the infant, communicate through emotion, share joy, and forgive easily, the young child’s nervous system becomes “securely attached.” The strong foundation of a secure attachment bond enables the child to be self-confident, trusting, hopeful, and comfortable in the face of conflict. As an adult, he or she will be flexible, creative, hopeful, and optimistic.

Our secure attachment bond shapes our abilities to:

  • feel safe
  • develop meaningful connections with others
  • explore our world
  • deal with stress
  • balance emotions
  • experience comfort and security
  • make sense of our lives
  • create positive memories and expectations of relationships

As you read through that description, I am sure that every one of you thought to yourself, “YES, I want THAT, for my child”. But how do I know that my child’s attachment to me is SECURE?

Drawing on attachment research a group of American psychotherapists have developed a user-friendly graphic illustrating the different needs children have of their parents, named the Circle of Security (COS) (Cooper, Hoffman, Marvin & Powell, 1998). When a child can move safely through the circle, it is indicative of a secure attachment with their parents. In this graphic the hands represent the parent, and the circle represents the child moving away to explore and coming back when necessary.

circle-of-security

To develop a secure attachment, children require their parents to fulfill two key roles. Firstly (on the top half of the circle) the parent’s role is to be a secure base from which the child can move away and explore their world. Secondly, children need a safe haven to return to.

The Secure Base

Exploration: For a baby this may be subtle, looking away from mom as something catches their interest, for a toddler with new-found mobility, it may be more obvious! Our toddlers and preschoolers are always out exploring something! This is an important role as it is through exploration that a child’s learning occurs.

The important thing about exploration is that children are more likely to explore when they feel safe and look to their parents for cues that it is OK. We have all seen that child that is hesitant to explore, that clings to mom, rather than venture out. In fact, that might be your child. You may make excuses to your friends about your child being “just shy” or “slow to warm up”, but you can sense your child’s anxiety about leaving you. This has more to do with the child’s relationship with you than it does anything else. If you can understand what your child needs from you to feel safe to explore, it can make this transition easier.

There are several distinct needs that a child has while exploring.

  • First, they need to know that you are watching over them. They need to know that you are managing their safety so that they can feel safe to explore. Think about the number of times your child turns back to you for a reassuring “you’re ok”, before continuing to explore.
  • Sometimes they need help, ideally just enough to do the task themselves, without the parent taking over. This is called scaffolding.
  • Third, Children need their parents to enjoy their adventures and achievements with them. These are the “You did it!” moments. Whether that be celebrating a first step or first time down the slide by themselves.

As parents, we understand these first three tasks fairly well: watch over them, help them, enjoy with them. That seems like basic stuff to many of us. But the child’s needs don’t stop there. And if this is all that you provide your child, you will raise a child who is focused on achievement, on pleasing others… a child with a fragile ego and poor attachments in their relationships. Why? Because you are missing an important piece. Because our job isn’t just to watch over, help when necessary and enjoy their accomplishments…

  • But perhaps most significantly they also need to know that their parents delight in them, just for being who they are (as distinct from what they do) and experiencing lots of genuine delight is likely to lead to a secure attachment.

So how do we delight in our child as they are exploring? By focusing on WHO they are more than on WHAT they do. It was so timely this week that a friend shared an article on Facebook that was titled something like “6 words that will change your child’s life”. In this article the author spoke about how in multiple interviews with major athletes of all kinds about the role their parents played in their success one theme emerged. The most profound statement that these parents made to their children wasn’t an encouraging, “Great shot”, nor was it a correcting, “Hey you just need to tighten up your swing”. No, the most profound statement:

“I LOVE to watch you play.”

There it is. No pressure, no expectations. Just enjoyment of the child themselves.

My kids are involved in a LOT of activities: soccer, swim team, dance team, taekwondo and on and on the list goes and grows. At the end of every practice that I take my children to, their question is the same, “Were you watching?” But the real question isn’t just “Did I see”, but did I Enjoy… did I DELIGHT? When we delight in them, we can stop watching their skill, and start noticing the joy on their faces, the strain as they work through a task, the pain of a miss… we can empathize with their feelings and stay intimately in tune with them. We worry less about performance, and focus more on the amazing gift that is our child.

Delight In Your Child

Babies are actually “hard-wired” to experience joy with their caregivers in the early months of life. Researchers are finding that mutual joy is the basis for increased brain growth. Our children need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they give us JOY. What Delight communicates: I love YOU, I like YOU. My love and my like are not dependent on what you do (or don’t do).

Sometimes, as parents, we struggle to delight in our children, especially when they are exploring, because we are too focused on performance expectations. Sometimes we sit comparing them to other children and wish that they would be more… outgoing, athletic, focused, articulate, or less…serious, assertive, artsy, emotional.

Part of the challenge of delighting in our child is to delight in your child as an individual.

Try it today!