By Shoshana Hayman, director of Life Center, The Israel Center for Attachment Parenting, www.lifecenter.org.il
“Children should be seen and not heard” was a common attitude in generations past. Today we are more aware of the importance of making room for children’s ideas, thoughts and feelings, but children and adolescents are not always inclined to share these things with us. Even the simplest question such as “how was your day” evokes an answer such as “Okay” or “It doesn’t matter,” thus bringing the conversation to a close before it even begins
What makes some children talk openly with their parents, while others seem closed, shy or hesitant to talk? Understanding the polarity of attachment energy gives us an answer. Just as any power in the universe has an opposing force, so, too, does attachment. Just as a magnet has a north and south pole, so, too, does attachment have two opposing poles. Attachment energy is not neutral, meaning that a child will either be drawn to someone he is attached to or repelled by someone he is not attached to.
This polarity is first seen in children usually by the middle of their first year of life, when they begin to shy away from certain people. Any adult such as a grandparent, aunt or caregiver can care for the baby, but by the age of approximately 6 months, the baby may protest when those same people approach him. The attachment brain is now preparing the child to develop deeper attachment, a greater capacity for relationship, and so closes the door to people who interfere with the attachment that is already taking root. This demonstration of protest develops into shyness, which is a positive sign to see in children. It will take the child’s brain about five more years to make sure he has a deep enough relationship with his parents so that he can optimally function in a world that is quite alarming and wounding.
These dynamics are so misunderstood that researchers in Japan recently claimed to identify signs of autism in babies 6 months old. The babies were seated in a high chair in front of a screen, while a woman on the screen tried to collect each baby’s attention with statements such as, “Hi Baby, what are you doing?” When the babies averted their eyes and focused on other objects, this was a sign to the researchers that the babies were avoiding human contact and were thus candidates for autism. Uninformed about how attachments develop in babies, the researchers mistakenly interpreted a natural, healthy response of the baby for a disorder. If the babies could talk, they might have said, “Sorry, I’m in the process of developing a deeper relationship with my mother, so my brain has closed the door now to strangers. However, if my mom decides you are her good friend and she trusts you, then maybe she will introduce me to you.”
When the relationship has a chance to grow deeply, the child entrusts his heart to his parents and wants to share that which is within his heart with them. He will make eye contact easily, seek their company, and is moved to share his ideas, thoughts, feelings and secrets. Today we find that children and adolescents talk more with their friends and on Facebook. There is no psychological intimacy in this; these are shallow relationships characterized by seeking to be like others and to be liked by others. They can remain stuck at this level, unless parents take responsibility for the relationship both with their young children and with their adolescents.
The epidemic problem we face in today’s fast-paced world is too much separation of children from their parents, and thinking that children need to separate from their parents so that they can become independent. Before the parent-child relationship has a chance to grow deeply, we are already separating children from their primary attachments. Thinking again of the magnet, this separation causes the energy to polarize, causing children and adolescents to orient towards the other side of the magnet—their eyes divert, they do not seek our company or our comfort, and they are not moved to share their lives and their secrets with us. This cannot be commanded or rationalized; it is simply a natural response of the brain.
If we want our children at any age to be open to us, it’s up to us. We must cultivate relationships and make it easy for our children at any age to give us their hearts. We must be like the gardener who prepares the soil so that the plants can take root, and flowers and fruit can spring forth. It’s our job to supply the conditions that make the growth of relationship possible, and then hope and pray that the roots will take hold and grow deep, so our children will be drawn to share with us what is within their hearts.