Making Tricky Transitions Easier with Attachment Strategies

attachment strategies boy at fence
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“Making Tricky Transitions Easier with Attachment Strategies” is a guest post from Dr Rachell Kingsbury – Guidance Counsellor (Clin. Psych & Clin. Neuropsych MAPS) and mum of two boys. 

Attachment Strategies for a Calmer Goodbye

Childhood is filled with transitions. Some transitions are common (like entering Day Care, Kindy or moving house), other transitions are inevitable (e.g., starting school), and some may be unfortunate (such as separations or losing someone important).  Irrespective of the type of transition, your child will experience some form of change during their early lifespan that may give rise to normal apprehension, stress, butterflies, worry or anxiety.  However, change can equally present a great opportunity for learning, and helping our little ones feel secure as they transition from one place to the next (be that environmentally or emotionally) can also encourage their longer-term resilience.

attachment strategies boy at fence

What can parents do to help?

The easiest and most effective method of supporting your child through a tricky transition is by you applying attachment strategies. By using that beautiful, natural and unique attachment between child and primary carer, we can help soothe transition jitters and help our children feel more confident and secure in whatever change they are facing.

What are attachment strategies?

Attachment Theory was introduced by the research of John Bowlby (1958), who explored the importance of the physical and emotional connection between babies and their primary caregiver/s, with importance on the lifelong impact of healthy, early attachment.  In latter years, Attachment Parenting developed out of this foundation research with varying interpretations on postnatal care.  More recently, attachment theory has been integrated into parenting programs such as Circle of Security.

On a basic, naturalistic level, attachment simply refers to the foundation relationship between you and your child that they will carry with them for a lifetime.  Even when you are not visible to your child, their sense of connectedness to you remains critical to their emotion wellbeing, sense of security, and resilience.  Often the trickiest of transitions for your child involves you not being available, so how then can we help our children cope with change, in the absence of our physical presence?

attachment strategies sad boy

Five Attachment Strategies That WORK

COMFORTERS

One of the first tricky transitions a baby will make is learning to sleep without mum after nine months of being rocked to sleep by the rhythm of your movement and the beat of your heart (full disclosure: they will learn to do this eventually!).  In the proliferation of baby product merchandise (think: cute bunnies, silken blankies, bamboo muslins, etc.) I think we have lost the original definition and purpose of the security blanket: a transitional object that provides comfort in the absence of the mother-child bond.  Be it that they are now commercialised to be impossibly cute, I am a strong advocate for a well-developed relationship between baby and comforter to initially help them learn to self-settle to sleep, and later to self-sooth in day care environments.  To facilitate a comforter as an attachment tool, it is commonly recommended for the primary carer to place the item under their shirt for a day (such that baby associates the comforter with your scent) or tickle your baby’s face or palm gently with the comforter while feeding (to pair the association between comforter and nurturance).

BOOKS

There are a number of fantastic books that reinforce carer-child attachment:

  • ‘The Kissing Hand for Chester Raccoon’ by Audrey Penn
  • ‘The Invisible String’ by Patrice Karst
  • ‘Owl Babies’ by Martin Waddell
  • ‘You Have My Heart’ by Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher
  • ‘Hush, Little Possum: An Australian Lullaby’ by P Crumble and Wendy Bink
  • ‘I Love You All Day Long’ by Francesca Rusackas
  • ‘When I Miss You’ by Cornelia Spelman
  • ‘Kiss Kiss’ by Margaret Wild

While reading these books (and others) are a great way to explore feelings and provide comfort in preparation for tricky transitions, we need to be mindful that no child has a sufficiently mature theory of mind to take prose and relate it to themselves.  Therefore, when you read, make sure you enact or symbolise the story to help your child create a connection.  Hence, irrespective of what other parent’s think my day job might be, at the bequest of my sons I often complete day care drop off with garish lipstick, to make that Kissing Hand last!  Try touching your child’s belly button when reading the invisible string and tracing an invisible line to yours, and re-enact this at the transition.  And (trust me on this) no matter how much your voice approximates a strangled cat: sing the Lullaby book: it encodes on your child’s limbic (emotional brain) system in a more powerful way via song.

TOKENS

Small, cheap representations of your love that can be carried by your child throughout the day can symbolise your connection.  Examples could be wristbands, inexpensive bracelets, small items in pockets or bags (e.g., a small shell you collected on the beach together), soap stones, etc.  Sensory Necklaces may be helpful in transition anxiety accrues to your child chewing their sleeves, etc.  You will need to check with your school to ensure that these tokens are acceptable.  Again, create an attachment narrative with the token.  For example: “this wristband is a symbol of my love for you. Every time you look at your wristband I want you to remember how important you are to me.”   Little written notes (“I’m thinking of you”) hidden in lunch boxes, once your child is of reading age, can serve as cute reminders.

BELONGING

A sense of belonging (to any group) has been earmarked as a resiliency factor, and reminders of people that are important to your child can help fill their emotional cup in your absence.  This is why many Kindergartens and Prep rooms have ‘Family Trees’ or ‘my family’ books as part of their curriculum.  You can also put small photos of family, pets, loved ones, carers, etc., in key rings to attach to your child’s bag, belt or pocket when they are away from you.  During separations, continuing to have photographs of mum and dad and past family times visible in both care homes can be helpful.

USE YOUR WORDS

Above all, I think that parents can create their children’s emotional worlds with their words.  This was key for me during my own separation, where my sons started sleeping away, which was as much a tricky transition for me as it was for them.  So every second Friday I would ask:

“Where will you be this weekend?” [“Dadda’s”]

“Yes, but where will you really be?” [“In your heart, Mumma”]

“That’s right. No matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, for now and forever, you will be in my heart.  And any time you think of me, know that I will be thinking of you and loving you.

Years on, they now giggle and protest, but I can see them glow, because that parent-child attachment is strong and has contributed to their resilience and ability to cope away from home.

Similarly, saying things like: “I’ll check on you” as part of your Goodnight-routine, or “I’ll be thinking of you” at drop off, or “Picking you up this afternoon is going to be the best part of my day” – are simple attachment words that can help your child feel supported, loved and secure as they move in and out of their tricky transitions.

Do you have any attachment strategies you can suggest?

These are some attachment-based strategies, but I would love to hear how other carers help make their child feel secure during transition?

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