Why parent-child attachment is like working with clay in a freezer

Mama OT extends a warm welcome to its very first guest writer, Connor McClenahan. Connor is a graduate student in clinical psychology and is also a new dad! His recent experiences as both a student and new parent have taught him all about attachment — how important and rewarding it is, how difficult it can be to facilitate in real life, and how to go about developing attachment between parent and child. Take it away, Connor!

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This February I became a father to my first son, Aidan. He’s beautiful, and it is such a joy to see him grow every day.

In my first steps as a parent, I have been boggled by the wealth of information available to parents. Everyone is telling you what to do to make sure you don’t screw up your kids. From all this endless info, I got the impression that my major concern as a parent was to make sure he (1) sleeps through the night, (2) doesn’t cry, and (3) gets his shots. These things are great, and can contribute a lot to your sanity. However, shouldn’t parenting be about something else besides making your child less inconvenient?

Allow yourself to imagine this with me:

Twenty years have passed. Your child is now an adult. He or she has a mind, talents, friends, romance, and dreams. Twenty years from now, I am willing to bet you will not care whether he was toilet trained at 2 years versus 3 years old, whether she had a vibrating high chair, or whether _____________________ (fill in whatever thing you are now worrying about). Twenty years from now, when he is going off to college, or whatever he does, you will be concerned with other things. What would those things be for you?

Think about it. For me, I hope Aidan and I have a good relationship, he chooses a quality spouse, he knows how to be a good friend, he works hard at what he cares about and what’s right, and he is confident of who he is. I’m guessing your hopes are along the same lines.

What if you knew the quality of your relationship with your child now – right NOW – will determine the quality of her relationships for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to do that well? Wouldn’t that change what you care about now?


Flickr photo credit: Karen Sheets de Gracia

Countless research studies have affirmed this very truth.

By five years old, a child has already formed his blueprint for what relationships are and how they work.

That’s it. It’s in stone. From then on, all of his future relationships will be based on that blueprint.

Crazy, right?

Here’s the thing: the human brain is ever solidifying. Parenting is like trying to make a vase out of a ball of clay…while in a freezer. Time is short. The clock starts ticking the moment your child is born, and those very first moves in the first years (moments of attention, delight, meeting their needs) are the most important in forming that vase. But let’s say you don’t “form that clay” through your loving attention within the first few years. It will get harder and colder until she’s a teenager and you’re threatening to kill her pet rabbit so she’ll take out the trash.

This relational phenomenon is what psychologists call “attachment”. Attachment is arguably the most important task of parenting. They say the BEST way to form good attachment (We all listening here? Remember, 20 years from now?) is to be completely available for your child on his terms. What that means is that you are to be tuned-in, like a radio, to his needs when he needs them (which is why psychologists call this “attunement”).

So, practically speaking, this means when your child wants to play – play. When she doesn’t want to play – don’t. When she wants to feed – feed her. When she wants to sleep – let her sleep. Be available on her terms. And be okay with her being and expressing herself however she is. Don’t make her smile when she’s crying, don’t make her play because you want to play. She’s the baby – her “state” should determine your “state”.

Doing this well will build the foundation for your child’s self-understanding and the quality of his future relationships.

Sounds simple, right?

No. Why?

Because if we’re really honest with ourselves, this idea is outrageous and difficult.

And why is that?

Our minds, too, are like clay — clay that has already hardened whether we received love or not. At that period when we were still soft, our imperfect parents did not mold us. They did not know how to attach to us well, to show us that our thoughts, feelings, and self are good, wonderful, and worth delighting in and joining. This happened to all of us, and we then had to fill the holes in our own parents’ hearts…at the cost of being loved as we are. Now, we are left hard and imperfect, yet still in need of the love we did not receive at that critical time. The easiest place to get that love is from our own children, who will do anything (at the cost of their selves) to get our love and attention.

I had an experience recently when this was made real for me. Upon returning home after a long day these were the words that came out of my mouth: “Hey Aidan! Did you miss me? Do you remember your Daddy?” Woah. Those were not the words of a parent, but those of a child needing attunement. I asked HIM to attune to me instead of ME attuning to him. If I had attuned to him, I could have said, “Hey Aidan! I missed you so much! I remember you – you’re my beautiful son!” I would have placed him rightly as the receiver of love. This interaction has made me ask myself often: “Am I being the parent or the child?”

It’s hard work to do this. It takes sacrifice. It might mean taking a big step and going through your own therapy to fill up some of those holes from your childhood. Or it might simply mean turning off the TV or getting off the computer (or phone or iPad or whatever technology serves as a barrier to your relationships) to be more available for your child. Wouldn’t you rather make that sacrifice than ask your child to sacrifice his future self and relationships?

It’s worth it.

So, with every moment you have with your child, show her how to be in relationship, to be connected and intimate with someone.

Seize the opportunity to work with the warm clay – to shape a young child who can fully love and be loved because of your attunement to him. You’ll thank yourself later!

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 Q: I work during the day – I can’t imagine being constantly available for my child, as much as I’d like to. What can I do?
The first thing you need to do is realize what you are sacrificing by working. There is no substitute for attachment with your child. Your child doesn’t understand your intention to be available – only your actions. Also, no one else can do it for you. Sure, giving them to another adult during the day who is able to provide attention will be much better for the child than your inattention. However, that bond with you is the foundation of your future relationship. By attending to other things, you are teaching your child that relationships are not important. Not the message you want to send, right? But you are. Why? For what gain?

Q: Are you saying I should devote all of my time to being with my child?
A: No. It is unrealistic to assume you can spend your entire day with no other agenda besides being with your child. However, it does mean being available when you are with your child and she wants to engage with you. Besides, your child doesn’t want to play with you all the time. She needs her own time, just like you do. When she wants to look at the ceiling and drool all over herself (what a life!), do what you need to do on your own, too. When she wants to play, engage with her and have fun! Remember that attuning to your child means being aware of her needs, including the need for her own time.

Be sure to come back tomorrow, when Connor shares tips for helping you develop the ability to attune and attach with your child!

{Update: Read part two HERE.}

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Connor McClenahan is a graduate student in clinical psychology at Fuller School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA. He lives in Montrose with his wife, Sherianne, and his 3-month-old son, Aidan. His favorite occupations include cycling, spending time outdoors, and helping with his wife’s awesome youth group.

For more information on attachment parenting, please visit http://attachmentparenting.org.

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Mama OT In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with MamaOT.com is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!

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6 thoughts on “Why parent-child attachment is like working with clay in a freezer

  1. Connor,

    This is such a good post! You take, what I’m assuming, a complicated psychological topic and make it easily digestible and understandable. I love the idea of being available to your child on their terms, not necessarily your own. What a high, but important calling for parents!

  2. Great article. I remember so vividly the daily attempts of attunement to my son’s needs, cues, moods. One book I liked on the topic was The Happiest Baby on the Block. I believe the author talks about mirroring back to the child the emotion he is expressing instead of what we sometimes do, especially when a kid is crying: “you’re okay!” Just that shift of being ok acknowledging your kid’s actual moods/needs instead of trying to make them happy or fix a situation, or get them to stop crying – that shift was huge for me. I’m looking forward to the follow-up article. So glad you’re psychological training is informing your parenting!

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  5. Thank you for acknowledging both the importance of attachment and how hard it is to ‘be the parent’ when parenting can bring to light so many of our own unmet needs. I believe that parenting is my crash course in enlightenment – or at least in growing into the adult I’d truly like to be. Thanks for being another advocate for parents and children, mindfulness and attachment!

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