Juliet Neil-Hall discusses the importance of attachment and meeting the emotional needs of young children and their parents

According to attachment theory our first relationship with our carers acts as a lifelong template, molding and shaping our capacity to enter into, and maintain, successful subsequent relationships with family, friends and partners. It is believed that these early and powerful experiences with the people who first looked after us will shape our long-term emotional wellbeing. Advances in neuroscience and the development of early brain scanning have shown that feelings, empathy and emotional understanding are hard-wired into our brains through our early relationship experiences in the first years of life. Levels of key chemicals (serotonin and cortisol) that promote social and emotional development, mood regulation and self-control are released through interaction with early care-givers. The infant and young child’s brain is then hard-wired with conceptual ideas and understanding about emotions and relationships based on these interactions. This means that pathways in the brain are actually formed or not formed according to our attachment and relationship with first care-givers both in the home and in any care-giving setting.

Attachment signals

As children grow, indeed for all their lives, they adapt to attachment signals and behaviors (see table, above right) in an age-appropriate way to make emotional connection to others in order to:

  • behave in a socially appealing manner
  • approach, seek out and keep near to significant others for reassurance when fearful or anxious
  • send out distress signals designed to invite attention or concern
  • set out from, and then come home to, loved ones.

Attachment styles

Research has shown that whether our emotional needs are met or responded to in the first years of life can have a long-term effect into adulthood. This is described as having a secure or insecure attachment. In addition it has been found that attachment ‘styles’ can often be passed on from one generation to the next. In instances of insecure attachment it is only through appropriate intervention that the cycle can be broken to introduce more positive relational attitudes within families.

Secure attachment

A secure attachment develops when there is a healthy reciprocal relationship between child and carer. Social interaction is characterized by fun and playfulness and the child’s need for comfort when anxious or distressed is met quickly and effectively. The child feels able to explore the world at his/her own pace knowing that the parent or carer is a secure base to return to.

When they become adults, securely attached children are able to enter into reciprocal relationships and have an expectation that their needs will be met and that they will be able to meet the needs of others. They have the capacity to show emotional connection through empathy or ‘mind mindedness’, are able to talk about their feelings, and are familiar with a wide emotional repertoire in both themselves and others. Securely attached children have internalized in early childhood the key elements of positive relationship building. This gives them lifelong protection from stress and emotional anxiety and a greater chance of coping with, and surviving, traumatic life events.

Avoidant attachment

Avoidant attachment develops when parents or carers actively discourage signs of either affection or distress, believing that emotions are to be suppressed and feelings should be unexpressed. This means that it is difficult for the child to access a feeling of being loved and nurtured and he or she has to develop alternative coping mechanisms to survive emotionally. Children in this situation can become withdrawn emotionally and learn to internalize painful and difficult feelings.

As adults, avoidant children find it difficult to connect with the emotional repertoire of others and find talking about their feelings a source of anxiety and distress. They find it hard to maintain relationships and mistrust intimacy.

Ambivalent attachment

Children experience ambivalent attachment when they are never quite sure whether their carers will meet their need for reassurance or comfort. The parent may sometimes respond to distress and anxiety or may sometimes ignore it. There is a lack of predictability in the behavior of the carer that makes the child feel ‘all over the place’. The child often feels distressed but has no confidence that his or her distress will be heard. This form of attachment is particularly prevalent in families where there are mental health problems or issues with alcohol or substance misuse.

Ambivalent attachment in children is often perpetuated by producing adults who are prone to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. They also find it difficult to recover from traumatic life events and respond badly to stress and challenge.

Disorganized attachment

Disorganized attachment occurs when children send out attachment signals but these are not received or responded to appropriately by the parent or carer. Sometimes the parent appears unaware of the child’s needs. This attachment style can occur when the parent has many unresolved emotional issues from his or her own past or has no emotional resources to draw on due to mental health problems or a traumatic life event occurring during the first years of the child’s life. Alternatively, and much more seriously, disorganized attachment can occur when the parent is a threat to the child through abusive behaviors.

Children with disorganized attachment often fail to thrive and may have developmental delay. Young children will inevitably show signs of emotional and behavioral difficulties from an early age by demonstrating aggressive, disruptive or withdrawn behaviors both at home and in the early years environment. Disorganized attachment in infancy has been linked by both longitudinal and retrospective studies to a number of mental health problems and personality disorders. In addition, disorganized attachment is a risk factor that hugely increases a child’s vulnerability to other harmful influences or events. In adulthood there is an increased susceptibility to relationship breakdown, substance misuse, self-destructive and self-harming behaviors, eating disorders, suicide, offending behavior and aggressive, violent and controlling behaviors.

The role of the early years practitioner

As early years practitioners we need to be aware that all children have complex emotional needs that have to be met in a number of different ways. When children’s relationship needs are met they feel secure, happy and confident. Equally, when their emotional needs fail to be met children can feel insecure, unhappy and lacking in confidence. An extreme lack of emotional sustenance can have repercussions in all areas of development – social and emotional, cognitive and even in physical growth and wellbeing.

Ideally, children will have most of their emotional needs met by their family at home, allowing them to grow up feeling secure and emotionally stable. Consistent failure to meet these needs at home can produce negative and challenging behaviors and have an effect on long-term outcomes through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. There is a responsibility placed on the early years practitioner to help to supplement children’s needs within the early years setting and, perhaps even more importantly, to support parents to meet their child’s needs in a primary way at home. It is sometimes difficult for parents to nurture their children emotionally if they have very few emotional resources themselves. By seeking opportunities to meet the emotional needs of parents we can also enhance their ability to meet their own children’s emotional needs.

Key emotional needs

There are 10 key emotional needs that all human beings have a need for:

  1. Attention
  2. Acceptance
  3. Appreciation
  4. Encouragement
  5. Affection
  6. Respect
  7. Support
  8. Comfort
  9. Approval
  10. Security

Successful attachment depends on the infant or young child sending out programmed ‘signals’ and the parent or carer responding to these in such a way that the child feels contained and held, loved, nurtured and safe.

Attention needs are met by taking a focused interest in thoughts, feelings and activities. Listening and spending time together on a one-to-one basis with either a child or a parent can build a sense of value and importance.

It is often difficult in the busy day to find time to give parents this attention and nurture. However, by finding time to focus on their needs we also help to fill their emotional tank to enable them to meet the attention needs of their children. Often we talk about people being ‘attention seeking’. It is sometimes more fruitful to think of them as simply trying to meet an emotional need – when it is met they will stop exhibiting attention seeking behaviors. It is easy to forget children or parents who are undemanding when it comes to seeking attention. They too have needs which should be met.

Acceptance needs are met through accepting people for just who they are at any given moment in time without judgement. Children need to know that they are accepted even when they exhibit challenging or difficult behavior and that there is always forgiveness and a new beginning. Acceptance means not comparing one child with another in whatever area. It means allowing the child their own individuality and uniqueness so they grow in their sense of self.

Families need to be accepted whatever their socio-economic status, education, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity or faith. Setting staff can create an atmosphere of welcome and acceptance that allows parents to be honest and vulnerable and seek support without fear of judgement.

Appreciation is shown by giving positive celebratory feedback on big and small things. Telling children what it is they have done well and why you are proud of them means their sense of purpose is enhanced. Achievements should be celebrated in whatever area. A lovely smile or a kind act are as worthy of appreciation as tidying up the toys. Some children like public acclamations of success; others prefer the quiet word of appreciation – just like adults!

Parents can be appreciated for contributing in whatever way to their children’s learning and wellbeing whether this in the setting or at home.

Encouragement involves ‘cheerleading’ through motivating and empowering from the sidelines thereby giving children a sense of your strong belief in their abilities to meet the challenges of learning, playing and growing. Stretch them a little bit further than they thought they could go. Encourage them when the going gets tough and resolve falters.

Equally, we can give parents encouragement in carrying out the complex and difficult task of raising and looking after their children. We can point out to them the positives and the joy and laughter their children can bring them when sometimes life appears to be particularly challenging.

Affection involves using the power of physical touch to communicate our care and support. Although we obviously need to keep within appropriate boundaries it is vitally important to reach out to children with a simple pat on the hand or touch on the arm.

Affection is a stronger language than the spoken word and communicates in a way that a sentences or phrase can never do.

Respect for young children means seeing them within the context of their whole life experiences both at home and in the setting and giving them the dignity that comes from growing in independence and self.

Respect for parents means holding people in esteem and understanding that they have their own beliefs, opinions and value systems which are worthy of being heard, even if they are not the same as ours. We need to take time to listen and to hear and be ready to negotiate and compromise when there may be a clash or misunderstanding.

Support is necessary when children are finding life challenging in whatever way, whether it is socially, emotionally or in tackling their learning – they need to feel help is just there ready to be asked for. Children need to know that we will put ourselves out and be prepared to go that extra mile sometimes too. This gives a sense of working and growing alongside others in the knowledge that they are not alone.

In order to support children we need to support their parents in a holistic and pro-active way. This might mean signposting them to appropriate agencies to find the help they need or just giving time to listen to their troubles and concerns and offering sound strategies if advice is asked for.

Comfort is needed when children are sad, upset or distressed. They need to know that their feelings will be acknowledged and heard. Hurt needs to be soothed through empathetic listening or appropriate physical touch. A time to recover gives dignity and space. Everyone needs comfort sometimes – both adults and children.

Approval is received by giving regular verbal feedback, treats and rewards for positive behavior, actions and activities. Speaking highly of children in their presence and to others allows them to feel proud of themselves and builds self-concept, internalizing a sense of worth. Approval should be about ‘who children are’ as well as what they do.

Parents gain from being given feedback and approval for the way they are parenting. Parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual and sometimes a bit of approval builds self-confidence that we are going about it the right way.

Security is crucial to allow children to feel held and contained safely. Clear expectations and boundaries that are systematically carried through in a fair way provide the foundation of security.

Children also gain security through experiencing a consistency of routines and from seeing adults work in a harmonious and integrated way. They also need to know when there will be changes in routines, or when experiences will be coming to an end so that a pathway through these can be negotiated in a seamless way. Equally we need to have clear professional boundaries with parents and be reliable and trustworthy in doing what we say we will do.

In summary

In order to support the emotional wellbeing of children it is necessary to think through different and complimentary ways in which we can meet the 10 top emotional needs effectively. We also need to make sure that we are looking after ourselves and we are meeting our own emotional needs through the input of family, friends and colleagues. It is only when we have this ‘input’ that we can provide the necessary ‘output’. This is why working with parents can have such an important positive effect on empowering and enable them to invest in their children’s emotional needs.

Sources of information

  • Ainsworth, M, and Bowlby, J (1991) ‘An Ethological Approach to Personality Development’, American Psychologist 46, 331-341
  • Brazelton, TB, and Sparrow, JD, Touchpoints Three to Six: Your child’s Emotional & Behavioral Development, Perseus Publishing, 2000
  • Buchanan, A, and Hudson, B, Promoting Children’s Emotional Well-being: Messages from Research, Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Goldberg, S, Attachment and Development: An Integrative Approach Hodder Arnold, 2000

Juliet Neill Hall works an independent consultant to education and multi-agency organizations on behavior management and working with parents

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