Accepting Vulnerability and Defusing Defensiveness
Attachment Mindset: Bearing the burden of each disciplinary moment for the child without expecting the child to feel personal responsibility. The focus is on helping the child sense nurturing, security, balance, and unconditional love.
Primary window of opportunity
Age 0-3: Nearly 24/7
Age 3-7: When a child seems out-of-balance or feels frightened
Age 7 +: When a child is encountering a vulnerable experience
What's NEW in this stage?
Parent is available to Child as often as possible
Parent soaks in and bears Child's emotions and behavior without resentment
Parent reconciles stressful situations for Child
Parent does NOT isolate or punish Child as a way to discipline, but rather stays mindfully present with Child
Primary Goal: Attachment
Forming a secure attachment with your child should be your TOP priority during the infant years because your infant’s brain craves physical and emotional closeness in order to accomplish optimal early development.
In these early years, the brain’s simplest survival circuits dominate, causing the child to focus the majority of behaviors around seeking physical homeostasis (balancing hunger, fatigue, over-stimulation, etc.). The 5 major senses slowly come “online” during the early weeks and months, which allows the brain to gain new information from the environment. Mirror neurons and exploratory circuits begin to propel the child’s learning, especially after the first year. The prefrontal cortex (PFC)--the brain area in charge of emotional regulation and wise choices--does not play a dominate role for many more years. Without a highly functioning PFC, your young child quite literally depends on your mature PFC to help him or her feel balanced and able to continue learning.
Sleeping through the night, potty training, good manners, etc. are convenient behaviors for children to learn in our society and in most cases are very worthy goals. However, they should all be secondary goals to attachment during the first 3 years. In other words, if teaching a certain skill begins to trump the parent-child attachment relationship, you are on the wrong track. If you see signs of declining attachment, which include feelings of resentment or prolonged defensiveness in parent and/or child, re-focus your attention on simply connecting with your child in a loving way and assisting your child with behavioral imbalances without any expectation that the secondary goals will be accomplished anytime soon.
Attachment will build more brain power than artificial rewards or forceful punishments that push secondary goals to the top of the priority list. Made-up rewards during this stage link positive emotions to things, instead of values and behaviors. Punishments, especially when based on fear, frustration or isolation, cause reactive instead of thoughtful behavior later in life. If you keep secondary goals under the umbrella of attachment, however, the child will gain trust in you and in the environment and will learn necessary skills in the child's own natural time.
Expecting consistent or mature behavior from a child, which are also common parenting ideas in our modern world, comes in later years on the Accountability Pyramid after the brain has learned trust (Attachment) and mirroring (Following). This is when the brain is much more ripe for true accountability that is not so connected to rewards and punishments.
You know you are accomplishing the goal of secure attachment when your child trusts you and therefore turns to you for sincere physical and emotional safety and comfort. If your infant or child instinctively clings to you, looks for your face in a room, or desires your attention often, these are positive signs of a growing attachment. When secure attachment occurs and continues, the parent/child relationship is prepared to Lead/Follow in the coming years.
Personal Development for Parent: Selfless Sacrifice
The practice of sacrificing personal space and time during a period when your child is nearly completely dependent on a caregiver will stretch any parent beyond previous capacity. While it is certainly difficult to prioritize a child among so many other demands, a parent who mindfully give selfless attention to his or her child will most certainly become a more instinctively empathetic and compassionate person than before. The parent's prefrontal cortex will increase in it's ability to be both wise and kind.
Disciplinary Method: Connect, Cradle, Console
To discipline during the attachment stage actually means to become the mature one who soaks in the chaos and seeks to simply connect with, cradle, and console any victims in an imbalanced situation. No strings attached.
During the first 3 years of your child's life, she will need an extreme dose of just feeling safe in your arms without any expectation that you're wishing she would grow up faster to not need you anymore. So hold, rock, and simply be with your child as often as circumstances permit.
If your child is acting immature or having a tantrum and you sense that the Attachment Mindset is most appropriate, discipline by being present with him. Lend him your sense of how to be mature under difficult circumstances. This time with your child when he is vulnerable to constant imbalance translates into a secure attachment.
If your child needs to be corrected or removed from a situation, physically go to her and bring her to you and hold her gently while talking calmly with her. If you can’t hold her gently because you're too angry or overwhelmed yourself, take a minute to meditate and re-engage your PFC in order to make the best decisions with her. Expect to struggle with this at first. It’s a new skill. But with practice (learn more about mindfulness during the attachment stage here), holding a child or being fully present with a child--even one that’s having a tantrum--can also be a very rewarding form of meditation.
Do not rely on made-up consequences like spanking or time-outs or withheld privileges to discipline. These do NOT engage the PFC, but often shut it down. Using natural logic to discipline only works IF your child feels securely attached (which is unlikely under age 3) AND has spent significant time following your example in the given issue and is therefore ready for an accountability moment. Do not rush this process. Instead, if your child is under 7 and is struggling, simply think and act upon thoughts that will increase your connection with your child. Take notes regarding certain immature behaviors that could benefit from a mature example and then ponder how to incorporate teaching moments into your bonding and play time with your child in the future.
Personal Note: When my child pushes my buttons, I notice how my body tries to defend itself. If my defensive walls go up, I know my PFC is not well-engaged and my child will sense my anxiety and instinctively begin to self-defend as well. So I have to work hard to break down my own walls so I can improve my ability to show honest empathy toward an innocent and immature child who simply needs help processing out-of-control energy. I work at resisting the temptation to judge my child as manipulative. I study child development and neuroscience to gain knowledge. This helps me remember that my child has a very immature brain with no guile and great potential. I’ve learned that children are scientifically not capable of manipulating the way most adults think they are--just like a newborn doesn’t have the neurological ability to walk yet. When I need to rejuvenate, I practice religion, meditation, yoga, etc. to gain empathy and the endurance to out-last my child's tantrums and misbehavior.
Benefit for Child: A Foundation of Trust
A child who gains a secure attachment to parents receives a life-long foundation of physical and emotional nourishment during a time of extreme vulnerability. Google the benefits of a secure attachment. It really does increase parent/child bonding , which is every child's dream. Plus it lays an important foundation for future brain development.