Fostering secure attachment in children

One of the greatest worries for parents whose child is beginning school is the separation – will their child be crying at the classroom door or clutching their legs in a desperate attempt to have them stay? Or will they be tearing through the gate without a backward glance? This week, Penny Gibson, who is a child and family therapeutic specialist with Capacity Consulting and Coaching, and also part of the KPS community, provides some insight into how to promote healthy ‘attachment’ in primary-school-aged children

circle-of-securityAttachment is the affectional bond between a child and their caregiver and it cultivates from birth, when a baby uses signals to activate their caregiver to care tor them and meet their needs. Being attached to others is a matter of safety and certainty in a world full of perceived threats and dangers.

Attachment styles have been examined and classified using an experiment entitled ‘The Strange Situation’, whereby children’s behaviours of exploration and comfort seeking were studied under varying conditions of stress. The child would be separated from their caregiver and left alone in a room with a stranger and when the caregiver returned, the child’s reaction was observed. A child with secure attachment will seek the comfort of their caregiver, receive an appropriate response and return to play. At the other end of the spectrum, a child who seeks their caregiver for comfort straightaway but does not settle quickly and expresses no desire to return to play shows insecure attachment.

The determining factor for how attachment styles manifest is all about the caregiver response. The crucial part of fostering ‘secure attachment’ (the ideal) is that the caregiver response is prompt, reliable, consistent and restores safety. A child with secure attachment will comfortably explore the world, build independence and understand themselves in relation to other people.

The important question for many parents, then, will be: how can I ensure that my child has secure attachment?

There’s no doubt it can be tricky to balance the promotion of your child’s independence with being protective. As such, parents are encouraged to become well acquainted with their child’s cues – it is an ongoing process of listening attentively, noticing subtleties, and observing patterns in your interactions.

For primary school aged children, the parent very much remains the primary attachment figure but other adults, teachers, peers and coaches begin to emerge as offering security and comfort for their exploration. At this age, attachment behaviours include the use of language as signals, rather than relying on the use of non-verbal or behavioural cues alone. Although still requiring the secure base of their parents and other key adults, children aged 10-12 will start to play further away from teachers and build strength in their peers as attachment figures. As such, it’s important for parents to foster opportunities for their child to connect with friends during this formative time.

Things to try at home:

  • Encourage your child’s exploration in a new environment or challenging activity;
  • If your child expresses a need for assistance, avoid being dismissive and instead try to acknowledge their discomfort, remind them of your presence and encourage them to persist;
  • When they seek out your comfort, help them to organise their emotions and give them an emotional boost;
  • Delight in their experiences, both by watching them at play and when they share learning and new insights with you;
  • Spend time tolerating your child’s negative emotions without becoming impatient;
  • Enjoy adventuring alongside your child and use play as a chance to develop your bond in a safe way; and
  • Demonstrate understanding through your language, eye contact, body language and tone of voice.

Ultimately, the caregiver is the mirror to the child – the child looks upon the caregiver as they look upon themselves. Parents must develop their own reflective capacity so that they can think about and understand their child’s emotional needs, as well as their own emotional states.

The Circle of Security International, the leading authority on enhancing attachment security between parents and children, maintains that there is no such thing as “perfect parenting” – it’s important to acknowledge that cues will be missed. Caregivers cannot be attuned to the needs of their children at every given moment so be sure to show self-compassion – building awareness and using your adult wisdom is a great place to start.

If you would like to know more about Capacity Consulting and Coaching or attend their upcoming Learning Forum entitled ‘Stronger Connections, Thriving Kids’ on Wednesday 20th July, please click through to

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