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.

Fuel Your Mind

Did you know that your brain uses 20% of your body’s oxygen calories despite being only 2% of your body’s weight? (1) Whether you are awake or asleep, your brain is constantly demanding nutrients and energy to function. And where do we get these nutrients you say? Yes, from food!

Researchers have known for a very long time that what you eat has the potential to affect your mood, cognition, awareness, and overall mental health, yet it is rarely mentioned when mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, arise. This may be because nutrient depletion is difficult to recognize. Scientists have proposed that an individual in good health may be depleted of nutrients for a substantial amount of time, months to years, before signs and symptoms begin to occur (2), however, long term depletion can lead to permanent damage. So how do we support our mental health and fuel our brains long term? Through wellness!

These simple steps can get you started on the road towards a healthy mind:

1.     Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. Despite contradicting evidence, it is recommended that adults get 7-8 hours of sleep each night (3). Your body is working all day and your brain never stops. Your brain needs sleep!

2.     Increase fruit and vegetable intake. Fresh foods are packed with antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals that help your body prevent damage to your brain caused by stress. They also help your brain make chemicals needed to feel joy and euphoria, like norepinephrine and serotonin.  

3.     Get your daily dose of healthy fats. The cells in your brain are all surrounded by layers of fat, also known as lipids. In fact, 10-12% of your brain is made of lipids. (4) Eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids can support brain health. (5), (6) Avocados, walnuts, olive oil, and wild fish are some of the best sources of healthy fats and fat soluble vitamins that are also important in keeping the brain healthy.

4.     Spend time in the sunlight. Fifteen minutes a day can go a long way as it will help your body make vitamin D. (7) Although not fully understood, vitamin D acts on areas of the brain that are linked to mental health conditions, like depression and Alzheimer’s Disease. (7) This is one vitamin that is not naturally in many foods, so if you are a person that should avoid exposure to sunlight (or live in northern parts of the world (8)), you should consider supplementation and look for foods fortified with vitamin D, like milk, yogurt and juices.

5.     Increase physical activity. It helps get your blood pumping and brings necessary oxygen to your brain. The more you do, the more efficient your body is at using oxygen.

6.     Drink water! Your brain is 77-78% water. (4) Hydration is key to keeping your neurons firing quickly and efficiently throughout the day.

7.     Eat foods rich in vitamin B12 and iron. Vitamin B12 helps build strong neurons and promotes your ability to reason and problem solve (9) and iron is needed to bring oxygen to all your living cells. (10) Animal proteins, such as chicken and beef, are great sources of these nutrients. Other good sources include eggs, spinach, tofu, and beans.

8.     Limit alcohol and caffeine. Research has shown that alcohol can contribute to depression, memory loss and anxiety. (11) Caffeine can worsen anxiety, agitation and sleep disorders. (12) Many people crave these things, but the body does not need them! 

Stay tuned for more on nutrition and your health!

Jonae Perez, MPH, RD
Registered Dietitian

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. 

REFERENCES

1.     Clark DD & Sokoloff L (1999). Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects, eds. Siegel GJ, Agranoff BW, Albers RW, Fisher SK & Uhler MD. Lippincott, Philadelphia, pp. 637–670.

2.     Leyse-Wallace R (2013). Nutrition and Mental Health. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

3.     National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Department of Health and Human Services (2012, Feb 22). How much sleep is enough? Retrieved from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/howmuch

4.     McIlwain H & Bachelard HS (1985). Biochemistry and the Central Nervous System, Edinburgh: Churchill Livingston.

5.     McNamara RK & Strawn JR (2013). Role of long chain omega 3 fatty acids in psychiatric practice. PharmaNutrition; 1(2): 41-49.

6.     Freeman MP, et al. (2006). Omega 3 fatty acids: evidence basis for treatment and future of research psychiatry. Clin Psychiatry; 67(12): 1954-1967.

7.     Vitamin D Council (2013). Does vitamin D play a role in your health condition? Retrieved from http://www.vitamindcouncil.org/health-conditions/

8.     Huotari A & Herzig KH (2008). Vitamin D and living in northern latitudes – an endemic risk area for vitamin D deficiency. Int J of Circumpolar Health; 67(2-3): 164-178.

9.     Louwman MWJ, van Dusseldorp M, Fons JR, et al. (2000). Signs of impaired function on adolescents with marginal cobalmin status. Amer J Clin Nutr; 72(3): 762-769.

10.  Linus Pauling Institute (2015). Iron. Retrieved from http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/minerals/iron/

11.  American Psychological Association (2015). Understanding alcohol use disorders & their treatment. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/alcohol-disorders.aspx

12.  Winston AP, Hardwick E & Jaberi N (2005). Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment; 11(6): 432-439.

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