Building a Strong Bond to Help Your Child Weather Storms

According to my daughter, the dumbest rule ever made for a board game is the one that only allows you to leave “home,” when you’re playing Trouble, by rolling a six. If none of your other pieces are in play and you don’t roll a six, your turn is over.

When my daughter was 3, she sat as patiently as you can expect any toddler to sit after she failed to roll a six during what turned out to the last game of Trouble we ever played. I remember the grin fading from her face, the frustration mounting in her little body and little puffs of steam seeming to float like newly awakened geysers out of both of her ears. Mom had rolled a six. I had rolled a six. And at last it was her turn to try again. She rolled … a two. When it was her turn again, bless her little heart, she looked at the dice and willed them to do what she wanted them to do and then watched helplessly as she rolled a four.

That was all she could take. Her little stubby fingers yanked the board off the floor. Our cat, a monstrously obese Maine Coon who sometimes seemed all but brain-dead, got the heck out of the room. My daughter, usually quite attentive to any time the cat indulged us by moving at all, instead ran to where she had thrown the board and threw it again. It careened off of the wall as I went to comfort her. My wife and I were doing our best not to laugh, but few things are funnier than an all-out and largely harmless 3-year-old tantrum.

If you ask my now 18-year-old daughter about this, she’ll honestly deny that any of it happened. She doesn’t remember the tantrum. She’s heard the story from us so many times – her little sister never tires of our telling it – that I’ll bet she can picture the whole thing even though she has no earthly recollection of the event.

But experts in child development know that she remembers. She doesn’t recall the event, but she recalls that she can weather intense frustration. She recalls that she can be patient despite adversity. Although most kids have only the foggiest of recollections of their early years, they show us that they “remember” the seminal events when they demonstrate some of their most important life skills. This is the result of early parent-child attachment.

Attachment theory is an idea first coined by British child psychiatrist John Bowlby. Roughly speaking, Bowlby was seeking to define the deep, enduring bond between a mother and her baby or toddler. This bond creates psychological security no matter what curveballs life throws. When Bowlby and others talk about secure attachment, they’re referring to the capacity for a very young human to learn through comfort, imitation and modeling that he or she can succeed. In contrast, insecure attachment is associated with a lack of resiliency and an overall poor frustration tolerance. And dads, don’t worry. Researchers today are quick to point out that attachment need not be limited to the mother. Attachment forms between the baby or toddler and the primary and secondary caregivers. To tweak an important cliché, it takes a village to foster secure attachment.

This is true now more than ever. As life in the United States has gotten more expensive, it has become more and more difficult for parents to spend time with their young children. We remain one of the few modern nations without readily available services that allow secure attachment to form. Other countries have high quality and highly subsidized day cares, longer parental leaves and more overall support. We don’t have those services, which seems ironic given the vast wealth of our great nation and the downstream costs that this lack of foresight creates. When compared to children who enjoy healthy attachment, infants and toddlers who don’t have the opportunity to form early and secure bonds with their parents suffer greater rates of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders, more academic and social difficulties during their formative years, and even challenging medical conditions such as high blood pressure that persist well into adulthood.

The chances are that most parents intuitively know what it takes to foster secure attachment. It takes time. It takes undistracted, focused and in-the-moment time. And it doesn’t take a lot of time. You don’t need to be 100 percent present 100 percent of the time. But you have to be ready to attend to your child when he or she needs you, and you need to be committed to at least half an hour or more of uninterrupted daily interaction whether it seems that your child needs you or not.

As I prepare to watch my daughter leave for college, I find myself stunned that the time flew so quickly. On paper, 18 years seems like a long time. In the life of a parent, it’s the blink of an eye. I sometimes feel sad that she doesn’t recall seminal moments like that tantrum she suffered when she couldn’t roll a six in Trouble. But then I watch her navigate more meaningful frustrations and setbacks and I realize that she does, sort of, remember. She remembers those early memories through her resiliency and perseverance. That’s the gift of attachment, and it's a gift for parent and child alike.

Still, I’d be shocked if she ever plays another game of Trouble.

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