A healthy, strong and positive attachment means happier, calmer children who grow into adults who are better able to cope with life and make happy and healthy attachments with others. Through you they are learning about the joy of 'relationship', about how wonderful life can be when you connect deeply with another person, when your eyes meet in laughter, when you love freely and without constraint.
For some, attachment comes naturally from the moment of birth, but for others, the weaving of the threads can take longer, perhaps because of a traumatic labour, unsuccessful breastfeeding, difficult life circumstances, or even spectres from our own childhood that can suddenly rear up and haunt us when we become mothers and fathers ourselves. Still others miss the first days or even months or years of their child's life - perhaps in the case of severe illness or adoption.
No matter whether we feel our attachment to our children is vibrant and strong or struggling and weak, if it has come easily and naturally, or has been more hard won or complex - everyone can benefit from deepening the parent-child connection. In all relationships, there is always room for improvement, effort, maintenance and repairs. And the effort brings great rewards for all concerned. As John Lennon said, "Love is the answer, and you know that for sure."
The following are ten practical ways to connect or reconnect. It's up to you to decide which will be the most appealing, helpful or age-appropriate for you and your child.
In this activity, one person pretends to be the other's reflection in the mirror, copying as carefully as possible their movements. You might like to ask your child to be the 'reflection' first, so that they can get an idea of how the game works, in particular that slow, steady movements are best. (small children may struggle with this, but don't let that spoil the fun!) Try -
- setting the game to music
- keeping constant eye contact
- not making any eye contact
- just mirroring each others faces
Why? Connects, tunes you in to each other, recreates the early mirroring that takes place between parent and child.
Let your child pretend to be 'the baby'. They might want to dress up, or find old baby items such as bibs, blankets, dummies (even if they never used one!), or a favourite teddy. Try to remember the way you used to be towards them when they were tiny, and the things you used to do, for example singing lullabies or rocking them in your arms. If, for whatever reason, you missed your child's babyhood, try to imagine how you would have liked things to have been (and bear in mind that this exercise will be particularly powerful for you both). In all cases, be prepared that your child might want to show you their feelings about the loss of their babyhood through this play. Try -
- lots of loving eye contact
- peekaboo games
- silly faces and sounds
- swapping roles
Why? Playful, nurturing, regressive, may fill child's need for intense love and attention.
Gather together any slides, bands, combs and hairbrushes you have in the house, and 'pretend' to be hairdressers. Take time to do each other's hair, in front of a mirror, or not, as you prefer. Very soft 'baby' hairbrushes are perfect for this activity. Try -
- letting your child wet the brush - children love water play!
- 'getting your nails done too', perhaps with hand cream, or even polish if you are feeling brave!
Why? Sensory, fun, nurturing, attentive, bonding through grooming and touch.
You might have shared a bed with your child when they were smaller, but if you didn't, or don't any more, you might like to have a special night when you invite them to snuggle up in your bed with you. If you don't want to have your child sleeping in your bed on a regular basis, make sure you explain clearly that this is a one-off - a bit like going camping. Remember that offering love and nurture to your child in any situation does NOT create 'bad habits', in fact, quite the opposite; it teaches them how to love and nurture themselves, and to enjoy positive and trusting relationships as they grow to adulthood. Try -
- torches or safely used candles for story time
- a made up story instead of one from a book
- a special name for the experience, e.g. Snuggle Night, or Magical Dream Bed.
Why? Brings closeness, bonding, nurturing, makes child feel special.
Take time to have a special bath with your child, that is all about playfulness and fun (and not really about washing or getting clean!). Add their favourite toys and give yourself permission to forget your adult world and just be present for the experience. Try -
- Special bubbles, bath confetti, bath bombs or a new soap.
- Letting them wash your hair
- Writing words / drawing pictures on each other's backs and trying to guess what they say / are.
Why? Physical contact, sensory play, regression to early babyhood skin to skin contact, fun.
Even if you don't normally cook or bake, have a go with your child at making something simple that you both can enjoy. Put on your aprons and be prepared to get messy. Let yourselves both get carried away and don't worry too much about the finished product. Try -
- Making and decorating cupcakes with colours and sprinkles
- Baking bread - easier than you think! Sprinkle in some seeds too.
- Cheese sauce - lots of stirring needed!
- Play-dough - add food colour, glitter and a drop of essential oil for sensory play.
Why? Sensory play, creative, shared experience, learning together, food is nurture.
Create an 'Activity Rolodex' with your child. Take some blank postcards and ask your child to name all their favourite things that they love to do with you. Add some of your own and suggest ideas if you need to. Use images to accompany the words so that they are accessible to non-readers. Keep the cards in a special box to use as a resource - just pick one randomly whenever you are looking for something to do. Try -
- outdoors and indoor activities
- activities which are free e.g. skipping or dancing
- saying 'yes' to ALL your child's suggestions
Why? Gives the message,'I'm listening', learn about your child, bonding, fun, child centred.
Build a den, tent or snug corner in your living room or garden, depending on the weather, with the specific purpose of reading story books. Fill it with cushions, blankets, teddies and anything else that feels right or fun. Ask your child to gather together all of their favourite books and spend as much time as you can spare reading aloud together in your literary hideaway! Try -
- Taking in a special treat snack such a homemade popcorn or even chocolate!
- Reading a special book from your own childhood
- Talking about the stories and how they make you both feel
Why? Bonding, nurturing, fun, snuggly, intimate and special.
Build a Monument
Go outside, to your garden, park, or better still, your nearest woods or beach. Using only material that you find on the ground (i.e. no picking flowers or pulling bits off trees!), make a 'monument', or work of art together, that you both feel represents you and your relationship. Young children will usually take this quite literally and will enjoy making people or faces out of twigs and leaves. You might add in elements, large or subtle, to reflect your own experience and feelings. Above all, enjoy the shared experience of mutual creativity in the great outdoors. Try -
- Making a boundary around the monument to keep feelings and materials contained.
- Remind yourselves that all ideas are good ideas, and that you can't get this wrong.
Why? Creative, meaningful, memorable, shared experience, that shows you really care what they think and feel.
Join them in Their World
How wonderful does it make you feel when someone takes a genuine and specific interest in something that is meaningful to you? And yet often, when it comes to small children, if they become absorbed in an activity, we breathe a sigh of relief and leave them to it, glad to have a moment to ourselves. It's important that we do this, but it's also important that we connect with our children and take an interest in the things that matter to them. Try -
- Getting down on the floor and joining in the game
- Asking questions about a particular game, activity or hobby
- Watching their favourite film or program with them
Why? Gives a very strong message that you are interested in them and their world. Connection and love can be found in surprising places, even in front of CBeebies!
Do feel free, as usual, to add your own suggestions in the comments below.