Attachment: The Balancing Act

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted swift lifestyle changes for folks across the globe. Drastic social and quarantine measures have triggered fears and concerns about the foreseeable future. For caregivers, this has translated to increased time at home facing new challenges with their children. Mental health has become a secondary priority which can disrupt attachment patterns between parents and children of all age and developmental spectrums.

Caregiver characteristics that promote or hinder a safe and trusting relationship with their infants are the basis of attachment theory and have been correlated with later psychological functioning. Attachment can bear significant weight on self-perception and personal beliefs, and primary caregiver dynamics often mirror relationships with friends and romantic partners across the lifespan. Stemming from the womb, infants ingest, process, and interpret surrounding sensory inputs, including caregiver emotional states. Thus, greater exposure to parents experiencing anxious or traumatic distress during the quarantine period can trigger maladaptive mental health symptoms and family functioning.

Below are some pointers to foster a healthy home environment promoting secure attachment with your child while prioritizing self-care and emotional well-being.

  • Space

As the saying goes, everything in moderation, and this includes attending to your child. Engage in favorable outlets just for you to promote relaxation and mental healing. This will model and encourage your child to accomplish individual tasks and respect personal space. Benefits include enhanced autonomy, self-confidence, and agency to problem-solve. Take the breather!

  • Stability

It’s impossible to entirely mimic your child’s school structure, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t borrow some tactics and strategies. Healthy attachment is promoted by stable and safe parenting, and predictability throughout your child’s day can help reinforce that. Try to identify and jot down times for eating, sleeping, and playing. If developmentally appropriate, include your child in creating the daily plan to value their choices while establishing a consistent routine.

  • Praise

It’s important to remember that the pandemic has disrupted life as we knew it- provide patience and grace while your child projects their worries and fears. They too are navigating this new territory. Praise them for rolling with the punches, instill gratitude, and lend a shoulder for them to cry on when they miss their friends. This is the time to build them up while creating space for vulnerability. Critical parenting can contribute towards poorer psychological functioning. Highlight your child’s strengths while attempting to minimize negative language when they misbehave.

These deliberate practices will reap many rewards including enhanced ability to practice self-forgiveness, healthy emotional expressiveness, and self-soothing strategies with an intrinsic awareness that you are a reliable source of support. It’s okay for your child to not be okay, so long as they know that you will always be the lighthouse leading their way to safe terrain.

Dr. Bahar Rahnama obtained her Doctor of Clinical Psychology degree at the APA-accredited California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, Los Angeles (CSPP-LA). Dr. Rahnama completed coursework and field-based training in congruence with her graduate specializations across family, child, and couple dynamics. Through both research and clinical practice, Dr. Rahnama’s interest encompasses the correlation between enactment of cultural norms and parent-child attachment styles. Her examination and focus on these factors have led to a multitude of clinical opportunities and advancements including her UC-Davis certification in Parent Child-Interaction Therapy (PCIT), an evidence-based model that meticulously targets disruptive behaviors in children between the ages of two and seven while enhancing a positive and healing bond between caregiver and child.

Pandemic Parenting Tips

Pandemic, coronavirus, COVID-19. Regardless of what you choose to call it, this globally-impacting disease translates to one universal fact—these are challenging and unprecedented times for all. In the midst of a new normal, mental health is sacrificed while many scramble to establish structure in their daily lives. In other words, life doesn’t simply stop, even when it may feel like we’re in a perpetual state of limbo. With survival mode as our shield of armor, we learn to shift and adapt.

Now picture this: school is closed for the remainder of the academic year, and parents suddenly have to tackle new roles including teacher, tutor, therapist, mediator, and friend—just more skills to add to your repertoire as a parent. Children are ripped from their routine, and in turn, may be manifesting these sudden changes in the form of anxiety, depression, and developmental regression. You may find that your fiercely independent six-year-old is now begging you to let her sleep in your bed. Your sweet and shy four-year-old is kicking and screaming with every ounce of his being. Your Tic-Toking teen has officially locked herself in her room and is refusing to engage with the rest of her family. Here’s where the good news kicks in—you are not alone, and this is not your fault—nor your children’s.

Below are some tips and tricks to tackle common behavioral and emotional concerns that parents are facing today, and more importantly to start welcoming mental health back to the forefront of your mind.

1.     Gut over guilt: Parental guilt is inherent, and especially now can be at an all-time high. It’s understandable to feel upset that your child was robbed of the joys and benefits of school, yet your desire to fill the void and promote happiness may be hindering them. By needing to fulfill their every demand, wish, and desire, you are strengthening your child’s capacity to eventually push back against structure and defy your requests. Follow your parental gut, the one suppressed underneath the guilt, and follow accordingly when something isn’t sitting right. It’s okay to delete that extra toy out of your Amazon cart, or to have difficult conversations with your child, even if it may upset them.

2.     Establish structure: This is both to your benefit and theirs. Create a makeshift school or daycare, one where rules are written and verbalized. Sit down with your child and identify at least three rules or tasks to be followed daily. Including your children in this activity places the accountability in their court. Children thrive off structure, even when they crave chaos and spontaneity. Find a happy medium and attempt to create a weekly schedule to check off homework, meals, and playtime.

3.     Negative attention = attention: Highlight positive behaviors you are desiring more of, and practice selective ignoring when the negative behaviors are not posing a safety threat. This applies to children across all ages. Ignoring your child does not make you neglectful, so long as you are boosting their confidence and recognizing them for their polite manners, problem-solving skills, and following the rules. Replace words that are trigger points for children including “don’t” or “stop” with positive statements that promote the behaviors you are wanting to see in them (e.g. please use your inside voice; please keep your hands to yourself).

4.     Set consequences: This one is tough. Every family has a different tactic and strategy when it comes to discipline. However, removing desirable objects and activities from your child of any age when they are breaking important rules or acting defiantly is an effective measure to establish greater harmony at home. Sit down with your child and identify three consequences that can be enforced in a single day if a house rule is broken. These may include losing electronic privileges such as the television or cellphone for four hours after refusing to complete homework, or losing coloring time for 20 minutes after screaming at a sibling. Setting concrete consequences removes the power struggle and heated arguments by simply identifying and sticking to the structure. Selective ignoring will be a key player if your child attempts to refute.

5.     Spend quality time with your family:  You’re probably wondering why that would be a suggestion when you are with your loved ones more than ever, but there is a difference between physical presence and emotional connection. Go for walks as a unit, play board games, spend a few minutes each day letting your child pick the activity to build their confidence and assurance that their opinions matter, and remind every family member that you love and appreciate them. These are trying times, but your family will get through this as a team, one day at a time. Remember to prioritize your mental health—your silent, but efficient, captain chartering new territory in the right direction.

Dr. Bahar Rahnama obtained her Doctor of Clinical Psychology degree at the APA-accredited California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, Los Angeles (CSPP-LA). Dr. Rahnama completed coursework and field-based training in congruence with her graduate specializations across family, child, and couple dynamics. Through both research and clinical practice, Dr. Rahnama’s interest encompasses the correlation between enactment of cultural norms and parent-child attachment styles. Her examination and focus on these factors have led to a multitude of clinical opportunities and advancements including her UC-Davis certification in Parent Child-Interaction Therapy (PCIT), an evidence-based model that meticulously targets disruptive behaviors in children between the ages of two and seven while enhancing a positive and healing bond between caregiver and child.

Mindful Eating in Children

Children can be over- or under-sensitive to many things, including eating, so we must remember that eating is more than just chewing and swallowing food. It is a sensory experience. Eating includes:

  • The External Environment: What is happening around me?

    • The smell of food, people around and the room

    • The lighting of the room

    • The visual presentation of the food

    • The voices of people and noises in the room or outside on the street

    • The feel of the utensils against the lips, hands and tongue

    • The feel of the chair and table against the skin

  • The Internal Environment: What is happening inside my body?

    • The flavor of the food

    • The texture of the food on the hands, on the lips, in the mouth, or on the skin

    • The feeling of being hungry, full or uncomfortable due to pain, reflux or constipation

The lists above may remind you of things to think about when being mindful while you eat. Some children innately are much more mindful of what they are eating than adults. This can result in a strong reaction to new foods, but mindfulness can help work through this. Another unfortunate extreme occurs when children are not at all aware of what is going on when they eat. Innate senses can sort of be drowned out over time by distractions and less than ideal mealtime routines. I work with families on a daily basis to help parents understand what a child may be experiencing when they eat and how to promote a healthy food environment that encourages a nutritious and varied diet. This often includes mindful eating.

All aspects of mindful eating promote satisfaction with food and eating and a healthy approach to food choices, preparation and consumption. Below are ways to be mindful as a family:

  1. Promote family meals. This is not always easy, but having at least one family meal a day can improve a child’s understanding of food.

  2. Cook together! When children participate in preparing the meal, we are allowing them opportunities to interact with foods that do not include the pressure of eating the food. Let them wash the veggies, shake the dressing, use a kid-friendly knife to chop the food. If a child feels more comfortable and safe around a food, they are more likely to eat it.

  3. Explore taste together. Talk about the food you are eating. Tell your child what it feels like, tastes like, smells like, etc. This is a difficult concept for kids at first so having an adult act as an example for fully experiencing a food can help. Start with a food your child loves and encourage him/her to come up with 5 words to describe it.

  4. Slow down! Allow your child to see a new food first, then touch it or smell it. It is important to offer a child a new food and allow them to mindfully interact with it however they feel comfortable. Give them time to work their way up to tasting it. If it is not a new food, encourage your child to take a bite and set the spoon/fork down between bites. There should be no hurry so you want your child to chew their food well.

  5. Decrease mealtime distractions. Technological devices are distracting for anybody, but especially a kid. It can completely remove them from the experience of eating and prevent them from learning to understand their body’s needs.

  6. Grow your own food. This may not be realistic for everyone, but even something as simple as buying a basil plant can help your child understand the process of where food comes from. Natural wholesome foods are more interesting to a child when they watered it themselves and watched it grow every day. It is also a fun project to take on as a family!

One of the main benefits of mindful eating for children is that it can help equip them with the ability to listen to their body, know when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied. Infants are typically born with this ability. They cry when they are hungry. They stop nursing when they are full. Mindful eating can nurture this natural ability and can help children re-learn these feelings and re-establish a healthy relationship with food. Try it in a no-pressure, positive way. And don’t be surprised if your child begins to show more interest in new foods! 

Jonae Perez is currently a clinical dietitian at Professional Child Development Associates providing nutrition counseling for children with special health care needs. She completed her Master of Public Health and nutrition training at the University of Washington, Seattle. She has a background in exercise science and is passionate about adult and pediatric wellness. 

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