How to Build and Maintain Healthy Attachment in Childhood
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How to Build and Maintain Healthy Attachment in Childhood: An Interview with Sara Cole, a Parent Coach

If you’re dealing with a bossy kid who argues, negotiates, and/or flat out refuses to cooperate or a worried, nervous child who fusses about almost everything, use your wonderful adult prefrontal cortex to create rhythm, routine, and structure. Then orient your child to the day and generously guide them through it.
Attachment is hierarchical – parents are meant to provide, kids are meant to depend. When we get in the lead in a warm and generous way, most kids naturally fall along behind us like little ducklings.

A mother and son
“Attachment is hierarchical – parents are meant to provide, kids are meant to depend” – Sara Cole/ Photo: Unsplash

“Use your wonderful adult prefrontal cortex to create rhythm, routine, and structure” – haha this is funny and would love for you to expand on this more!

Proactive parenting is executive functioning at its finest! Hello prefrontal cortex!

As parents, we can “see the future” and predict, based on past experiences, what is going to be hard or go poorly. From there we can plan in advance weekly and daily rhythms and routines that allow kids to rest in the comfort of knowing what is going to happen.

Parents often tell me how confused they are because their child seems to be so good for their teachers but argumentative and chaotic at home. School has SO much structure. There is a time and a way that they do everything all day long. Once kids get into the groove of their new teacher’s routine, they rarely question it. Instead it offers them a sense of comfort and control about the day.

We can offer our kids more safety and comfort at home by using those same concepts. Safety and comfort tell our kids we are reliable, trustworthy, and will take care of them. All kids feel inclined to cooperate with and follow the lead of someone they feel they can depend upon.

A father helping a kid walk
“All kids feel inclined to cooperate with and follow the lead of someone they feel they can depend upon.” – Sara Cole/ Photo: Unsplash

If getting Charlotte out the door to school on time is a daily struggle, I help parents figure out where the tricky spots are. From there we create a morning (and perhaps night before) routine that puts more easy and comforting moments in and gives little Charlotte an extra boost sliding over the hard parts.

For one mom this looked like setting her own alarm clock 20 minutes earlier so she could get herself together with a nice cup of coffee and her book before waking her child up in the morning. Then we designed a daily routine that they drew pictures for and put on the wall. Since her little one had a very busy brain and was highly distractible, we came up with a general storyline. Mom could use various invented characters to keep kiddo moving forward, plus several silly, goofy strategies for when the child’s brain took a left turn and the whole routine went off the rails.

When I’m working with parents who have bossy, argumentative kids or super sensitive, anxious ones, we figure out what provokes the bossiness or the anxiety. Then we plan to get ahead of those moments.

If Noah always gets super bossy when friends come over for a playdate, we brainstorm what will set that child up for success. Things like defining a few, simply rules for playdates, determining a predictable structure for what will happen when friends are over (outside playtime, then snack, then choose an indoor activity, then getting ready for good-byes, then a specific after playdate calming/connecting activity with a parent). With that in hand, I have parents prep their kids by telling them in advance about the new playdate rules and structure and then having them rehearse and practice before friends come over.

2. In terms of attachment: what do the majority of the parents miss and what do the majority of the kids want or need? Probably some different ways they express this need as well

Honestly what the majority of parents miss is that they’re doing better than they think they are. Human development is super noisy and messy. Often when I work with parents, I get to point out all the ways that their kids’ off-putting behaviors have strong signals of deep attachments and the indications that their kids feel safe enough to stretch, experiment, and grow knowing their parents will be there for them no matter what.

What most kids need, but don’t want, is an even balance of joyful loving connection AND firm, warm boundaries.

We parents on the West Coast tend to be really great with the joyful connection, parents on the East Coast and in the South tend to be fabulous at the firm, warm boundaries. I have a silly fantasy that parents in Kansas hold the golden key to both!

In my experience, folks know which part they are good at and which part needs attention. It is having the courage to trust that offering that other side of the parenting teeter-totter is really going to help grow their kid to a healthy adulthood, and then getting the support to learn how that is the challenge for most parents.

3. You said: “little kids have little power which can be frustrating”- please expand!

The world is so big. Our kids’ imaginations, hopes, wishes, and wants are equally enormous. Their small bodies and young minds can’t begin to do most of what they watch. We adults manage easily, never mind what their fantasy worlds offer them. Plus despite their best efforts, the world bends to their will far less often than they think it ought to.

So little kids, especially toddlers and preschoolers, have a lot of frustration in their lives. Frustration has to come out, and its release is often an explosion of big feelings and physical behaviors – demanding, yelling, hitting, kicking, throwing, biting.

I remember the first time my daughter had a tantrum. At exactly 18 months old, she threw herself down on the kitchen floor flailing her arms and legs yelling and crying. It was so cute!

But after the 5th tantrum of the day, or out in public, or when the frozen waffles are all gone and you’re not willing to run to the store at 6am to get more, we as parents can easily feel frustrated by all the emotionality and demands.

The trick then is to validate and soothe ourselves – or find an appropriate outlet for our own frustration – so that we don’t devolve emotionally into another 3 year old having a tantrum.

4. What can be done instead of timeouts? Practical advice, step by step that could be tried by the majority of parents in the majority of the cases.

Hahaha! This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? I spend months working with parents to help them find their answers to this question.

I wish there was a cut and dried answer to this or an easy check-list I could offer. However, it’s complex. Parents use timeouts for a variety of reasons, and different kids respond to various techniques differently. When thinking about what to do instead of timeouts, we need to think about that child in particular and that parent in particular.

For the child, parents and I talk through their early childhood (kids with difficult beginnings – things like adoption and medical issues – have extra sensitivities that we need to take into account). We talk about how sensitive, intense, neurodiverse, and intelligent the child is.

For the parent, we talk about their own beliefs about parenting and children. We talk about their own sensitivities and intensity, and their own temper.

From there I offer tools and techniques that I think will apply, and we brainstorm what sounds appealing and doable to that parent. Then they take those things home and try them. We meet again to talk about what worked and didn’t, and adjust and refine until the parent ends up with an approach that works for them and their child. It’s a dance, and it takes time to learn.

What I really want parents to ask themselves in a moment where discipline in needed is, “How can I offer my child safety, comfort, warmth, value, and joy (the foundations of the sensory experience of feeling loved, according to Holly van Gulden) WHILE letting them know that their behaviors are not okay?”

That said, here are a few ideas.

1. Instead of a Time-Out, Try a Time-In

Misbehaviors usually result from overstimulation or upset. Take the child aside WITH you, validate their big feelings, and offer them comfort. You can even make it a tradition for the whole family.

2. Take a Break From the Situation

Maybe you need to draw them aside with you to do something connecting like read a book or spend a few minutes outside. Maybe it’s time to leave the grocery store and find a way to shop without kids for a few months until their brains can catch up to the skills needed to manage the grocery store.

3. Be a Broken Record

Instead of isolating the child for not cooperating, assume they need a few minutes to find their cooperating parts. “It’s time to give Emma the truck now, honey,” in a warm firm voice repeatedly until little Liam complies. You may need to add in some validations, “Yes, I know you love the truck. Taking turns can feel so hard. And I know you can do it. It’s time to give Emma the truck now, honey.”

4. Put the Toy or Item That Is Causing Issues in a Time-Out Instead of the Child

We had a music keyboard that both my little ones loved to use. They’d get so excited they’d start pounding on it or pushing and shoving each other to have sole access to it. The keyboard took a LOT of time-outs for a while. I’d put it away for an hour so both kids could calm down and shift their attention to other things. “Uh-oh, looks like the keyboard needs to take a break.” 

Before it came back out, we’d talk about the keyboard rules and how we behave with the keyboard. They’d get to try again. If there was still fighting, I’d let them try once more, otherwise I’d declare it not a good keyboard day and put it away.

5. Use Play

Instead of engaging in a power struggle with the child, turn what needs to be done into a game. My kids hated toothbrushing until toothbrushing became about searching out Kung Fu Panda’s Fantastic Five in their teeth. We spent many a day hurrying to meet our imaginary mice friends in the car. Little friends loved the exciting adventure of putting toys away at our house before the toy monster ate them  (that’d be me on my hands and knees gnashing my teeth and moaning about how hungry I was).

6. Teach the Lesson Later

Sometimes I find parents are putting their child in a timeout to think about what went wrong. It’s a great instinct – kids need to reflect on what didn’t work and what they could do differently in order to learn. However, in the heat of the moment I promise you that all that child is thinking is “my parent is a poo-poo head” and nothing is being learned. 

Instead, wait until everyone has cooled off and come back to it. Waiting a few hours or even a few days and then revisiting the situation to coach your child through how they could handle it differently next time. Many parents worry they’ll forget to bring the situation up later, so I encourage them to make a note on their calendar. Also, if it is a behavior issue worth bringing up and you forget to address it, it will definitely come up again! There will be many opportunities to teach and coach your kiddos!

7. Use “Downtime”

Sometimes kids DO need a little bit on their own to cool off and shift gears. Rather than using it as a punishment, frame it as a basic need like a nap or lunch. For some children (especially as they get into grade school ages) they may appreciate being alone in their room. For younger ones, they will likely need a calming activity at a dedicated place near you, say looking at books on the couch while you read in the chair nearby.

8. Timeouts Are Great for Parents Who Are About to Lose Their Cool

It is absolutely okay to say, “I can feel my getting upset parts getting really big. I need to take a break for 5 minutes.” 

We are meant to be the safe harbor to our kids’ hearts, so we want to make sure our relationship with our kids is shame and blame free. As a parent, taking a break to calm down and regain perspective is a powerful attachment protector and great modeling. 

Make sure that break is productive, though, not just a few minutes scrolling on your phone or agitating about how annoying your kid is. Find healthy, non-scary ways to blow off the steam. My personal favorites are screaming into a pillow and going on a very stomp-y walk. Then take a few moments to fill that energy void with some calming – like mediation, breathing techniques, singing, or reading something affirming and inspiring.

This is one of those techniques that often requires some brainstorming. For some kids, having mom or dad take a break when feelings are high is super alarming, so at the moment the parent needs some space is when the child will most need to be close.

A mother and a son
“We are meant to be the safe harbor to our kids’ hearts” – Sara Cole/ Photo: Unsplash

5. Many parents have untreated or even unrecognized mental blockers that have deep roots in THEIR childhood. These may be affecting him/her in adulthood as well as their kids and family.

Can you tell about how prevalent such problems in adults are and what are the best ways to recognize and overcome them?

Boy oh boy do I know this one personally! I remember one day in particular spending a lot of time hiding out in the bathroom desperately reading Dr. Daniel Siegel’s “Parenting from the Inside Out” looking for answers for how to parent differently while my preschoolers ran amok in the rest of the house.

First we’re all human, and in my experience being human is pretty hard. By the time we reach parenting age, we’ve had a lot of hurt and heartache along the way. Unexamined and unhealed, those moments are likely to explode out of us when up against the frustrations of parenting or cause us to collapse in the face of the enormity of it all.

Secondly, humans were never meant to parent in isolation. The way our society is set up with each single family meant to be a whole unit is unnatural. Throughout time we’ve always been part of a small intimate group like a tribe or a clan. In that shared experience, there was always another adult to step in and take a kid when a parent was maxed out, an auntie or uncle to turn to for advice, and plenty of shared labor for home and food related activities.

When my kids were little, maybe 15 years ago, I ran the Seattle Chapter of Attachment Parenting International. Embarrassed, scared, and ashamed of how much I as the group leader was struggling with my own temper around my little ones, I worked up the courage to offer a special conversation one Saturday morning called “Dealing with Parental Anger.” I was sure no-one else would show up, everyone else in the group seemed to be so calm and easy with their kids. To my surprise the 4 other parents who arrived were the ones I admired the most, the ones that seemed the most conscientious and intentional about their parenting. Those 4 people became my closest friends and most reliable support system.

I share that story often because I think we all – especially now with social media – need the reminder that every parent struggles in one way or another.

Parents, if they let themselves, have powerful indicators of unresolved issues or non-helpful beliefs about themselves or their kids.

First of all, that “ick” feeling in their gut. I often hear parents say a situation didn’t feel good or wasn’t right or rubbed them wrong. Or they will offer that they felt awful or guilty. If we can take a moment to notice that feeling of “ick,” we can think about what is behind it. Those awful feelings become powerful clues to what old issues or beliefs that need to change. For most folks, journaling turns out to be super helpful in looking behind the scenes to see what is going on deep inside themselves.

The second powerful indicator is our own children’s faces. We know we’re headed in the right direction when our child beams at us or cuddles into our arms. We know we’re headed in the right direction when there is fear in their eyes, when deep hurt flashes across their face, or when they can no longer meet gazes with us.

There are so many ways to start to overcome these issues as we start to notice them. I really like Siegel’s “Parenting from the Inside Out.” Sometimes working with a good therapist is the most effective way through. Being connected with a group of other intentional relationship-focused parents who are open to genuine conversations about what works and what is hard can be super powerful.

I’m not sure how to say this without it sounding like a gratuitous plug for myself, and this is the whole reason I became a parent coach. Helping parents become the parents they want to be and that their kids need is my contribution to making the world a better, more peaceful place for us all.

About Sara Cole

A self-declared attachment geek, Sara Cole has been passionate about attachment and development since before the birth of her first child in 2000.

As an adoptive parent herself, Sara helps parents create more cooperation and ease in their homes, while growing deeper, stronger relationships with their kids. Over the long-term, this builds the foundations and skills for maturity that their kids need to grow to a healthy, (mostly) happy, independent adulthood.

Over her 20 years supporting families, she has trained with The Neufeld Institute, Holly van Gulden, and Siegel’s Mindsight Institute to name a few. At home Sara uses her skills to laugh and connect deeply with her husband, two young adults, 5 ducks, one small scruffy dog, and a betta fish named Eleanor.

Sara Cole, portrait
Sara Cole, Parent Coach
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