By Guest Blogger Lisa Peaty, LCSW
Can you recall how many times that you asked yourself these questions, while your crying infant was wailing in the background? Sleep deprived, perhaps with spit up on your shirt, and matted hair from the last 15 minute “rest” on the couch, you went through the mental calculations of the last feeding time and how long your infant had been awake as you bounced and rocked, shushed and soothed your dear little one who arrived in this world solely dependent on the caring adults in their life to provide for their needs.
Likely far from your awareness was the attachment cycle that was playing out between you both: your baby has a need, experiences distress, and communicates this by crying. You ask yourself “Wet? Hungry? Tired?” as you soothe, snuggle, and comfort your baby. While attending to your baby’s needs, he also learns to trust and feel secure in his relationship with his caregiver. This important cycle plays out endlessly throughout infancy, and serves as a basis for healthy brain development with “wiring” that will support trusting relationships, a higher self-esteem, better emotional regulation, improved coping under stress and greater emotional competence.
Although primary attachment patterns are established in the early years of life, this expression of need and desire for consistent and nurturing caregiver responsiveness is a dance that plays out repeatedly in the child/caregiver relationship through the duration of your child’s life. When your five year old falls down and skins his knee, he may desire comfort and reassurance. When your eight year old cannot put her socks on “just right” and is melting down before your eyes, she may be desiring connection and soothing. When your twelve year old freaks out because it is time to get off of the XBox but he needs just “FIVE more minutes,” he may be craving understanding and empathy. When you have a fight with your teen and she storms off to her room, she may want time to cool off but then desire nurturing.
As a child and family therapist, parents and children tell me about their desire for connection to one another. Parents often express being bewildered by their child’s big emotions whereas children frequently share desires of reconnection with their caregivers, particularly after an “upset” has occurred. It is in these spaces of misunderstanding that children and parents feel emotionally disconnected from one another. When a parent or caregiver is unable to empathize with their child and accurately read their emotional state or intensity, misattunement occurs and the pattern of the child expressing an unmet need, is met with a caregiver unable to provide reassurance and care. This results in communication that is either out of sync or mismatched. Over time, this pattern of “mismatch” can lead to a season of conflict between caregiver and child. Children frequently communicate their emotions through their behavior and it takes a curious and mindfully patient caregiver to “dig deeper” below the surface of their child’s behavior and understand the unmet need that may be driving it.
Parents and caregivers have busy lives. Juggling jobs, housework, extended family relationships, aging parents, children’s activities, and personal health is the equivalent of multiple full-time jobs. Exhaustion and distraction feels like the norm, many days, and misattunement with your child is likely. Even highly sensitive parents only “get it right” about 50% of the time as competing interests pull them away from “digging deeper” into their child’s behavior and emotions.
However, the hallmark of a sensitive caregiver is that misattunements are recognized, and that relational ruptures are managed and repaired. You yell at your child about their homework as you were answering a text from a colleague and fixing dinner. You and your teen got into a fight over her lack of follow through on her chores. You snapped at your child for their incessant questions while fighting traffic to take them to school. In all of these situations, you have an opportunity for repair: allowing a cool off time, and coming back to your kiddo, remembering them as that crying infant (wet? hungry? tired?), craving connection.
Acknowledging your part in the conflict and apologizing for your hurtful words and harsh tone creates opportunities for connection. Maybe this still looks like cuddling and snuggling, or maybe it has evolved into reading a book together, playing a video game or board game, or coloring together. Within these spaces of nurturing the caregiver/child relationship, a child can feel their sense of worth and belonging. And within this renewed connection, a child is able to believe that they are accepted, that their feelings are valued, and that trust is possible.
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