By Lelia Schott
In our very first moments on earth, we seek connection. We spend our entire lives seeking or avoiding it depending on whether it feels safe or threatening. An important prerequisite for an emotionally healthy home is how safe each family member feels to rest in relationship with one another and grow into their most resourceful self.
Our first and most intimate relationships create a blueprint. We are hardwired for connection so we will keep longing for it. We need to be connected to ourselves and others we trust. Without connection, without fulfilling attachment and true authenticity, we seek unhealthy substitutes and coping mechanisms. Without a connection to ourselves (authenticity) and others (attachment), we cannot thrive.
Dr. Gabor Mate describes attachment as “invited to exist” and authenticity as “invited to be ourselves.” He goes on to say, “Attachment is to be us and authenticity is to be you.” Dr. Mate explains that when people are faced with the choice of either attachment or authenticity in their relationships, most will go for attachment first, seeking approval and recognition from others.
To explain what happens when children are forced to choose between two vital emotional and relational needs, attachment and authenticity, I like to use the terms coined by Dr. Bonnie Harris, “harmony kids” and “integrity kids.” If forced to choose, harmony kids will push down their feelings and needs to stay in attachment whereas integrity children cannot betray their authenticity for the sake of attachment.
Harmony children are at greater risk of becoming people-pleasers, anxious and codependent when they habitually give up their needs and push down their feelings for the sake of others. Integrity children are at risk of being ego-centric, avoidant, and detached if they don’t have safe spaces to learn how to feel vulnerable feelings.
When a parent habitually removes affection or acceptance from a child as a means of coercing compliance, the child is forced into codependency or rebellion. The child has to work for attachment and forfeit authenticity, or fight for authenticity and forfeit attachment. We don’t want our children to have to choose between love, belonging, and harmony (attachment) and self-love, self-acceptance, and integrity (authenticity).
3 Ways To Meet Your Child's Needs For Attachment And Authenticity
Unfortunately, removing love and acceptance is a popular behavior modification technique used by loving parents. We want our children to rest in our love, trust us, and love and trust themselves. Punishment and conditional acceptance always breaks trust. Here are a few ways you can meet both of these important needs for your children.
Children learn how to calm down with a calm adult, until maturity. The more often a child experiences a nurturing presence in times of distress, the more easily they grow to nurture themselves and others.
Take deep slow breaths. Soften your face and relax your shoulders. Remind yourself that you are safe and that these moments are opportunities to build trust individually and relationally. Help create some calm and confidence in their body and surroundings by creating it in you.
Ask your child what they need. Your loving care will be soothing and strengthening. Example: “Would you like a hug, some food, movement, water, or warmth before you continue your homework? We could make some tea and put on some calm music. Let's find a pillow for your back and fix the lighting in your room.”
Preventative practices help our nervous systems cope with stress. By engaging your child in or modeling practices that are good for the nervous system when we are calm, they are more likely to choose them when they are struggling. Some examples are meditation, breathing, journaling, reading, singing, humming, walking, swimming, painting, stretching, jumping, or dancing around. You will have your own.
2. Connection through Compassion
Instead of using shame to coerce a child into compliance, use empathy to connect a child into communicating, which will fulfill the needs for compassion and ultimately, cooperation. Example: “I hear you saying that you are overwhelmed with your homework at the moment. Would you like to say more?”
Hear what your child says and use nonverbal empathy by actively listening and caring. If you do choose to say something, let it be something that validates their experience without causing alarm. “That makes sense.” Or “I understand why you feel that way.”
3. Curiosity for Collaboration
What does your child need to feel safer in their body, and braver in their heart and head? We all feel more like collaborating when we feel cared for and included in the solution-seeking. It helps to recognize all behavior as communication. Underneath the behavior is unheard feelings, unmet needs, and undeveloped skills. We can listen to their feelings to help ease the overwhelm, help meet their physical or emotional needs to create more energy within, and model the skills that empower them.