Updated date:

Parenting Guidance for Creating Secure Children

A pediatric Physical Therapist for over 21 years with children birth through school age and passion for sensory processing and attachment.

parenting-guidance-for-creating-secure-children

"It's not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It's our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless."

— L.R. Knost

Begin where you are

It is never productive to sit in regret or wallow in what ifs. The best thing you can do, especially as a parent, is to begin where you are. It is never too late to create a healthier and more fulfilling relationship between parent and child, at any age. Upon the birth of a baby, there is so much potential. A motivation to right the wrongs from one's childhood or an opportunity to carry on the positive traditions and beliefs of what was deemed to be done right from the generations that had come before. The good intentions of parents is to assist their child in becoming independent, happy, and successful adults. But, how does one do that? Babies do not come with manuals, so generally the template that parents work off of are what they have learned from their upbringing and what was modeled for them by well meaning parents, extended family members, or the community at large. What if, what parents believed to be true, was not all that there was in facilitating good child rearing towards a successful adult. What if, there was more than simply making sure there was food on the table, a body in the baseball stands, and the next big ticket item for a birthday gift? What if, there was more than just stopping a child's tears or a pep talk that pushed the child through to seeing the proverbial glass as half full? It is when we see beyond the primary physical needs of a child that the real sculpting of a genuinely happy, healthy, and successful adult begins to take shape.

What is a primary need in the development of a child?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which of the following is NOT essential in raising secure children?
    • Healthy and nutritious meals
    • The latest piece of technology
    • Giving your child your full attention when they ask you a question
    • Bending down to your child when they are little to speak with them

Answer Key

  1. The latest piece of technology

Interpreting Your Score

If you got 0 correct answers: Read the article to become an attuned caregiver!

If you got 1 correct answer: You are an attuned caregiver!

SECURE parenting

The goal of "successful" parenting is to witness your child as an adult, as having a fulfilling occupation which would foster an independent means of income and possible financial growth, healthy functional, and interdependent relationships with others at work or in their personal life, and a healthy means of coping with varying levels of stress through resilience, optimism, and determination. The way to do this is by creating a secure attachment with your child, beginning at birth, or even en utero. A secure attachment is defined as an emotional connection between infant and caregiver. It is formed over time through consistent, attuned, and responsive caregiving of the child. This means that the child's physical, as well as emotional needs are met, in a relatively consistent and timely manner, with sensitive responding to meeting that need, as conveyed by the child's words/vocalizations, facial expressions, or states of emotion. It is not about being a perfect parent, as there is no such thing. It is about being a good enough parent. It is about, generally meeting their needs within a window that might need to allow for frustration by the child and eventual parental repair, as noted in the following example. A child asks their parent for a drink, but that parent is right in the middle of putting the laundry in the washer or in the middle of an important conversation. The child can benefit from a short delay to having their request answered, as it teaches them patience, flexibility, and healthy boundaries, that someone else in the scenario has needs at that moment, as well. Consistently dropping everything to run to the refrigerator to get the child a drink could lead to narcissistic tendencies and completely ignoring the child's request for a drink could be considered neglectful, which has its own repercussions, throughout the lifespan. It is about creating a window of manageable dysregulation within the child to experience an opportunity for resilience, where the child may feel slight impatience or irritation, but the parent acknowledges the child's need and accommodates their own needs, simultaneously. The opportunity for repair comes when the parent acknowledges their thirst through a verbal response, validates their request as important, and explains that they will get them what they want, as soon as they finish what they are doing. There will be times when the parent can respond to their request, immediately, and it may be appropriate to do so, but if a delay is inevitable, keeping the lines of communication open between parent and child and explaining why they are doing what they are doing, facilitates that the child is seen by the parent, the child feels safe as the need will eventually be met, and an explanation can soothe the emotional upset that the child may be feeling. This all leads to the child, ultimately feeling secure. Daniel J. Siegel, MD has many books on the concept of children feeling safe, seen, soothed, and secure.

Daniel J. Siegel, MD

  • Dr. Dan Siegel - Home
    Official website of Dr. Dan Siegel. Includes speaking events, audio and video highlights, course information and news. Dr. Siegel is an internationally recognized educator, practicing child psychiatrist and author of several books, including Mindsigh

Great example of SECURE parenting: child feels safe, seen, soothed, and thus secure

How to parent using the word SECURE

There are specific tools or skill sets that parents can teach and model to their children in the journey to facilitate a secure attachment bond, which will ultimately provide their child with confidence and security into adulthood. The word SECURE can be remembered as an acronym for the components required in creating a secure attachment bond between caregiver and child.


SECURE

  • S Showing up
  • E Empathy
  • C Coping strategies / Consistency
  • U (YOU) as the parent modeling the behavior you want to see in your child
  • R Resilience / Optimism
  • E Emotional intelligence
parenting-guidance-for-creating-secure-children

Showing Up

The first letter, S, represents that a caregiver needs to show up and be present for their child during both happy and sad times. It is not just about being present, physically, but also emotionally. The caregiver needs to be attuned to what is going on with the child - reading body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, state of mind, and listening to the communication exchange that may be taking place. It is about identifying the emotion and reflecting it back to the child. Daniel Siegel states that you need to name it to tame it. Meltdowns can be averted and little personalities can be validated and developed by naming the emotion that the child is experiencing in the moment. A caregiver can verbalize and mirror back a facial expression or vocalization that an infant makes. Caregivers act as mirrors to the child's inner world. Without this initial mirroring, the child does not learn for themselves what they are feeling on the inside. Mirroring can assist a child in discovering that they exist and are important as they are seen by the caregiver. Not doing this, can potentially contribute to a character disturbance later in life, if the child is not mirrored and validated for their experience and emotions in early childhood. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is one specific mental disorder that has been affected by a lack of mirroring and/or validation of the child's inner emotional world.

Empathy

The letter E in the acronym SECURE, refers to the trait of empathy. Empathy is a trait that is taught. It is not something innately ingrained in the developing child. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word empathy means "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner." According to psychologists, there are 3 types of empathy; emotional, cognitive, and compassionate. Cognitive Empathy is knowing how someone else feels or what they might be thinking. It tends to remove the deep emotional component. It can be seen as superficial empathy. For example, if it is hot out, you may think that someone else may be thirsty and so you offer them a drink. Emotional Empathy is when someone feels along with the other person involved. You activate your mirror neurons which are stimulated and developed when a caregiver acts as the reflection to the child's inner experience. This type of empathy is beneficial in interpersonal relationships. Compassionate Empathy involves not only feeling what the other person is emotionally experiencing, but we are spontaneously motivated or inspired to assist that person, if needed. It coalesces the intellect, emotions, and inspired action.

We know the benefits of creating empathetic adults and how it positively affects our society at large, but those devoid of empathy wreak havoc in interpersonal relationships. In early childhood, if a child did not experience empathy in their development, through modeling of their family members or being on the receiving end of an empathetic attuned response from a caregiver, preferably emotional and/or compassionate empathy, they may develop into entitled toxic adults, at best or personality disordered individuals, at worst. The cluster B personality disorders of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Histrionic, or Anti-social personality disorders tend to utilize psychological projection as a relational tool, which is the opposite of empathy. Psychological projection is a defense mechanism in which undesirable qualities in an individual are not acknowledged and/or owned, and thus the undesirable qualities are attributed to someone else. This way, the individual projecting, does not have to take accountability or ownership of them and their subsequent feelings in their body, and the person being projected upon, is wrongfully judged and condemned for these heinous attributes by the other person. Projection throws unwanted emotions onto others and empathy takes on the emotions of others. Mirroring and validation of a child's inner world of emotions is a critical component to creating a securely attached individual. As researcher, Brene Brown, has pointed out, empathy is the antidote to shame and many adults are swimming in shame. This causes a lack of vulnerability and authentic communication.

The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, Compassionate

Coping strategies / Consistent responding

The letter, C, in the acronym SECURE can mean 2 very important components to creating a secure attachment in your child. The first means teaching your child healthy and effective coping strategies when the child becomes upset and needs to come back to an emotionally stable state. For example, if your child becomes upset and seeks you out for comfort, you could hold them, hug them, adjust your tone of voice, give them eye contact, and use words they can understand to help them explain how they may be feeling. Do NOT discount how they are feeling. You might want to avoid telling them to be big and not to be a cry baby, tell them that you will give them a piece of candy or toy to shut off their emotions and distract them without processing their emotions, or telling them that what they experienced is not something to be upset about. No matter how good your intentions are to take them from a dysregulated emotional state to a happier state, the fact that their experience at the time and their subsequent emotional reaction should not be occurring, can be invalidating. As parents, we want to teach them how to trust their feelings and their instincts, so by validating what they feel and mirroring back what may be going on inside of them, we are setting them up to trust what they are feeling. We are also teaching them to feel their feelings, honor them, and not push them down for them to resurface at a later time. This stuffing of emotions is akin to placing a band aid over a wound. It is also like trying to submerge multiple beach balls under the water by holding them down to hide them. Eventually, you will tire from trying to keep them down and they will inevitably rise to the surface to be dealt with in a volcanic eruption. I question, if the "midlife crisis" is not just this culmination of surfacing emotions, that were suppressed throughout life and now demand attention to be processed and released. They could no longer be quieted with maladaptive compensations. Emotions need to be named and acknowledged, respected and validated for the message that they have to tell us, and ultimately processed to allow for them to pass through the body and be healed. Anger is just telling us that someone or something is violating our boundaries and we need to take action. When we are children, however, it is not considered respectful or polite to show anger at our parents or friends, despite the perceived transgression that may have occurred. By tuning out our perceived "negative" emotions, we essentially dull or turn off ALL emotions, including the joyful and fulfilling ones. You cannot appreciate the light if there was not the dark. All emotions are valuable. It is in how we respond to emotions that we are feeling, creates a healthy mindset and fulfilling life. We do not want to be led by our emotions and react to their presence. Reacting incorporates impulsivity and that is not the skill that we want our child to use, personally or inter-personally. We want them to respond using their whole brain. If we REACT, we generally use the emotional brain which turns our rational thinking brain offline when making decisions. We impulsively act out. Naming the emotion, observing how it makes us feel, and taking a moment for a deep breath, turns the rational thinking brain back online and offers us the opportunity to make an emotionally mature decision or response. We have to help coach our children through this process. That is the goal; creating emotionally mature adults using their whole brain. It is also important to know that infants require their caregivers to act as the external, emotional regulator for them, initially. When they get upset, they need their caregiver to help them calm back to baseline, especially prior to one year of age. That's why one may consider that you cannot spoil a child by picking them up when they cry or they need to be held prior to falling asleep. Some children require movement, or vestibular stimulation to settle and allow their brain wave to cycle towards sleep, and eventually fall asleep. Some children may need a little extra help in this department, and one does not need to feel judged that they are not a good parent if they cannot just place their child in a crib and allow them to self soothe to sleep. Some children simply need this external facilitation and it is ok. How many children are left sobbing in their cribs to the point of vomiting. These children cannot calm themselves down, so they cry to the point of over stimulation and they pass out from exhaustion. We see what happens when coping strategies are unhealthy or maladaptive in adolescence and adulthood. This is where substance abuse can come into play as a poor choice in coping strategy. If the child was given a stable and secure base during childhood, they may resort to healthier coping strategies like journaling, open communication with a trusted source, or exercise. They would not try to avoid their feelings and cope with stress through drugs, alcohol, excessive shopping, or violence.


The other C is consistency. Responding consistently, or relatively consistently, provides the child with a sense of order and expectation of the world that it is safe and it will meet its needs. Chaos or inconsistency is stressful to the child. It looks to find order and patterns in the world to gain mental and emotional stability. Consistency is comforting to the child's nervous system. The child's nervous system calms with rhythms, which is a form of consistency through a pattern or repetition. For example, rocking soothes a crying child. Rocking in a calm, slow, and rhythmic manner soothes a dysregulated system, where as erratic bouncing in a rough manner can be upsetting and increase arousal levels. Infants have been known to calm while exposed to vibration in a bouncer seat or a swing. Again, to repeat this very important concept that children do not need perfect parenting, just good enough parenting. Good enough parenting is responding within a reasonable amount of time, in a consistent manner, and repairing with the child when necessary. Parental mistakes allow the "resilience muscles" for the baby to develop and get stronger. They can learn to expand their window of tolerance to stress when the parent is briefly detained from getting their bottle to feed them or when the child wants to have a toy another child is playing with and they have to learn to wait their turn. Neglectful parenting can cause significant damage to the attachment bond. Inconsistent responding by the parent, as seen in alcoholic parents, can also be damaging to the developing child and attachment bond. Damage to the attachment bond is also called relational trauma. There is damage to the integrity of the attachment bond. The child learns to be distrustful of the world around them, of the people in their lives, and of themselves. Consistent, sensitive responding to a child's needs from early on helps set the child up for future self confidence in themselves and others. Healthy dependence creates healthy independence, but it has to be on the timeline of the child. As attuned and sensitive parents, we need to read our children's cues and respond accordingly without judgment or personal agenda of imposing how we think they should respond to events.

parenting-guidance-for-creating-secure-children

U (You)

Here is the biggest piece of advice when child rearing. Children will watch and model what you DO, not what you TELL them to do. So, if you want your kids to be grateful, you need to behave gratefully to them, as well as to others in their presence and when they are not around so it becomes second nature. Your children are always watching what you do and what you say to others. They learn from modeling your behavior. Think about how they learn to develop language. They are listening to you and watching your mouth movements. Little infants will imitate you sticking out your tongue or doing raspberries. Your older children will repeat what they hear you say when you think that they are not watching. How many parents swore that they would curb their language around their children, but somehow when we think that they are not watching, they throw out the F bomb in an appropriate context or they mimic gestures from their caregivers when they are talking back and want to make a point. Our children are watching our facial expressions, our tones, and they watch how we interact with other people. I will repeat, it is not about being perfect parents, it is about doing the best that you can with what you have and always striving to be better than you were yesterday. Children teach us as much as we teach them. They inspire us to be a better version of ourselves. This is not pressure, this is an opportunity to evolve as an individual. The old adage, Do as say, not as I do, does not fly and nor should it. It gives us a chance to show them that your word matters and hypocrisy has no place in parenting. Empathy overlaps here because as a parent you need to understand what the child might be experiencing when you go to discipline or take advantage of a teachable moment. I saw a great quote that really brings this concept of YOU as a role model for the behavior that you want to teach your child. "Your child will follow your example, not your advice." So, it is of the utmost importance that you become the traits that you want to teach your children. How can you tell your child to stop yelling, if you are yelling at them to stop yelling? How can you tell your kids to say please and thank you when someone gives them something, when you do not do this yourself when you ask them to do something and they do it. Instead of telling them to be polite and respectful, show them respect and be polite to them.

Jen Garner tells Ellen that she teaches her kids gratitude by BEING grateful (start at 2:20)

Resilience / Optimism

How many times have I heard that "children are resilient" when they are experiencing a difficult life event. “Babies are not born resilient, they are born malleable.” - Allan Schore. If children are so resilient, why do so many adults need therapy? I think, the premise that adults choose to use that false statement, that children are so resilient, is more for them. It may help to take some of the pressure off, that whatever the life event is that the child is going through in the current moment, will have to be dealt with and processed, at a later date when they are adults and more of an active participant in their emotional health and recovery. If we can begin to teach infants resiliency, early on, they will develop that trait like a muscle with practice within manageable circumstances, over time, with the support and guidance of a reliable and caring adult helping to scaffold the experience and resulting stress. As adults, we are their external emotional regulators. We help to bring calm to their overexcited state. We can also help motivate them if their arousal is low. Over time, with practice, and with a gradual lessening of involvement, we help teach the child how to soothe themselves or how to increase their attention and focus with minimal intrusion. Sometimes, parents are too quick to stop a child from crying because they themselves cannot tolerate the negative emotions, whether in themselves or someone else. Instead of helping to process the emotion in the child, the uncomfortable parent looks to squelch the emotion being witnessed. This is an example of how we grow with our children and how they teach us as much as we teach them. Through our discomfort of helping them cope with an uncomfortable situation or circumstance through their negative emotion, we can ask ourselves why it is so important for us not to appreciate and acknowledge that our children have these emotions to communicate what is going on inside them. Maybe emotions were not tolerated in the parent's childhood and so it is uncomfortable to see their expression in their child. It is about being there WITH, as well as FOR, our children. It is about helping them process the emotions and allowing them to pass through the body. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., he speaks about how pain and trauma are trapped in the body until it is released. We want to create a window with a healthy range of tolerance for dealing with stress. If the child gets stressed and overwhelmed over minor transgressions, they will not know how to cope with addressing the stressor and coming back into equilibrium. They may grow to learn to use coping strategies that numb their discomfort and give them a false sense of feeling balanced. A wide threshold of resiliency can lend to determination and optimism and ultimate overcoming of traumatic life events or simply cumulative daily stressors. This leads us to another trait that is important in the skill set of the developing child: optimism. The Father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, wrote a book called, The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, that changed my life. In wanting to help my children become optimistic, learning the material and concepts in this book, helped transform my outlook on life and I became the optimism that I wanted to teach my children. With the words, "Proven Program to Safeguard Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience" in the title, I am always amazed that this book is not mandated reading or a curriculum in schools.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

The 2nd E in the acronym, SECURE, stands for emotional intelligence. It is so important to teach our children about their emotional life. To name what and how they are feeling, to validate that their feelings matter, and to teach them ways to express their emotions in a healthy and adaptive manner is essential to creating securely attached children that gradually develop into securely attached adults . There has been so much pressure to cultivate the IQ of children, but studies are showing how the EQ, emotional intelligence, is significantly and positively impactful on the development of a child in the classroom, on the playground, at home, and in life. There are ways to help teach children about their emotions beginning in infancy. In infancy, mirroring children's emotions through facial expressions and labeling the emotion that they are seemingly expressing is a beginning. As they develop and mature, you can read books to them on emotions, encourage them to label facial expressions in books, discuss how characters in stories or people in real life may be feeling in situations, and as mentioned before, you can help label the emotions that they are experiencing in any given moment. The trait of empathy overlaps in this process. By encouraging them to label emotions and discussing how others may feel, you are strengthening your empathy and you are helping them develop their empathetic skills, from Cognitive empathy to Emotional empathy and hopefully through to Compassionate empathy. There are charts out there that have visual keys with labeling emotions, such as utilizing the characters from the Disney movie, Inside Out. Each character is represented by an emotion and a color: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. The movie, beautifully illustrates how ALL emotions are critical to a healthy and balanced life in a way that is easy for the child to understand. When the child experiences an emotion, you could help them choose which character they feel like most, at that time. If they feel fear, sadness, or anger, you could ask them ways that they could come back to feeling less fear, anger, or sadness, versus having them try to jump right tow joy. Maybe recommendations to come down from those emotions could be find a trusted adult to hug, listen to their favorite music, or encourage them to draw pictures or journal, depending on the age and level of thinking. Being creative helps the child to express their emotions, get the emotion out of their bodies and minds and onto paper to make it easier to share or simply to keep privately and process effectively. Babies are primarily developing the right side of the brain for the first few years, which is facilitated through play and social emotional interactions. After this period, the left side of the brain begins to come online and that side focuses on learning and language. Initially, the right side of the brain uses facial expressions, tone of voice, and touch to stimulate neuronal connections. So, when you are feeding the baby, gaze into their eyes and speak with them, perform infant massage such as can be taught by instructors from the Loving Touch Foundation, and respond to your infant's needs in a timely manner. Infants require stimulation and inclusion in family life. They do understand what is going on around them, in the way of feelings and social connection. This becomes the strong foundation for the left side to continue the maturational development of the brain and begin to use higher levels of thinking and language. Enhancing the right side of the brain will eventually improve a child's creativity level. The goal of developing each side of the brain will be to connect the emotional brain with the thinking brain, so that the thinking brain can control impulsivity and will enhance academic functions, and the emotional brain can allow for greater problem solving and creativity, but they need to be working harmoniously together.

Using the movie, Inside Out, to teach children about emotions

parenting-guidance-for-creating-secure-children

The importance of EQ

This is only the beginning

In conclusion of this article, I hope that it can be conveyed how important creating a secure attachment bond with your child is, at any age. My intention was to offer an easy and comprehensive tool on how to move towards creating security in the attachment bond. Children want to feel that they are seen and appreciated by their caregivers and their family as a whole. This secure attachment bond is the gift that keeps on giving, down through the generations. Securely attached children are more likely to grow up into securely attached adults who enter into more securely attached relationships who then become securely attached parents, and so on and so forth. The converse is also true, that insecurity, dysfunction, and maladaptive behaviors can also be passed along, up the family tree. Science and research back this up. This information is never too early to learn. Why wait until there are actually children to utilize this information? Why not teach individuals prior to children being present? Why not encourage individuals to clean up patterns of thought and behaviors prior to the added complexity of children, so that they will be that much farther along in creating securely attached children? I believe that there is an increase in physical and mental illnesses that can be traced back to the health of the early attachment bond, such as personality disorders, (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline), mental illness, (anxiety, depression, CPTSD, childhood trauma, substance abuse), learning disabilities, (ADHD, decreased focus and attention), and physical ailments, (cardiovascular disease, asthma). You may find the work and passion of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and her mission to educate society on ACES, Adverse Childhood Experiences, to be significant in your endeavor to create a healthy and long lasting secure attachment bond with your children. When we know better, we do better, and we can always start, right where we are. May the symbolism of the sunflower be a visual reminder on the importance of the early attachment bond, as the sunflower instinctively follows the trajectory of the sun for its nourishment and vitality, just as children instinctively follow the parent or caregiver for its physical and emotional nourishment. It takes a village, may we come together as a community to support each other when supporting our children.

Nadine Burke Harris and ACES