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How strong bonds with children can help them become resilient adults

Mental health · Nov 12, 2021

Today, most people no longer assume that families all look the same, and that’s a good thing. Many families are no longer embracing traditional gender norms in parenting, making conscious decisions to do things differently than what they experienced growing up.

Regardless of a family’s configuration, a child’s caregivers play a critical role in helping that child build a “psychological immune system,” as Jennifer Raymond, a child and youth psychologist with TELUS Health Care Centres, calls it. And no matter who is playing what role, a child learns how to manage his or her emotions through the various influences they’ve had in the home.

What is a psychological immune system?

Raymond is a registered psychologist who has worked with children, youth, families and adults for over 20 years. She explains that the connections parents or caregivers form with children during their first five years are crucial. A lot occurs during that time, from developing self-esteem, a strong sense of self, and what she calls a “psychological immune system.”

A psychological immune system refers to the cognitive functions that kick in when a person is faced with a stressful or negative situation, whether the person is aware of them or not.

When it comes to children, Raymond explains that establishing a strong psychological immune system during childhood is an important developmental milestone. It gives a child the tools to manage and regulate their emotions throughout their life, and it helps them stay resilient through stress and adversity as they move into adolescence and throughout adulthood. Psychologists like Raymond can provide advice for building a psychological immune system. Creating a strong attachment is a one way to start.

The importance of building secure attachment with children

Attachment refers to a meaningful bond between two people, in which the other serves as a source of comfort and security. In a parent-child relationship, attachment theory explains how this relationship will influence the child’s future development. Raymond says that while many parents are aware of the need to love and provide physical care for their children, sometimes they may be unaware of the importance of attachment.

“Having a secure attachment with at least one caregiver allows a child to learn to emotionally regulate and to feel all their feelings safely,” Raymond says. “This means that a parent manages their response to their child’s emotional distress by tuning into what their child needs in the moment, rather than what the parent believes the child needs. This attunement sets the stage for the child to navigate life with a strong sense of self and resilience.”

According to Raymond, research also demonstrates that secure attachment is a protective factor against future mental health issues. Insecure attachment, particularly something called disorganized attachment, is correlated with future mental health challenges.

Any parent or caregiver, regardless of gender or family set up, can fulfil this role for a child. Raymond says the most important thing is for parents to really get to know their child and their child’s needs. Their role as caregiver is to be a source of security and stability when the child experiences emotional distress.

“Children start out experiencing themselves as an extension of their parents,” Raymond says. “When a toddler takes a tumble, they often look first to the parent or caregiver before reacting themselves. A sensitive and warm response from a parent allows the child to feel the surprise of falling and then allows them to re-regulate and get on with the business of playing. A dismissing or highly anxious response from a parent sends a very different message, and can create a template for interpersonal interaction that can cause future challenges for that child both with themselves and in intimate relationships.”

A single incident won’t dictate one’s attachment style with their child. Instead, it’s what happens over time, and the patterns that are created as a result, that matter. A mental health professional who specializes in children’s behaviour may be able to help parents learn how to build a secure attachment with their child.

Dissecting traditional gender norms

We know that men are capable of being the nurturer when it comes to looking after children, and many women are taking on roles in the family that differ from what they may have experienced with their own mothers.

Yet, despite our much less rigid gender norms nowadays, young boys are still often discouraged from participating in activities traditionally associated with girls – whether at home, school, or at play. Boys may be discouraged from playing with dolls as children, or from taking their first jobs as babysitters as young adults. While this is not always the case, it’s important that we see these activities as ones where any child can learn to nurture and care for another.

“We place high expectations on dads to be equals in the home,” Raymond notes. “We expect them to be confident and nurturing, even if that is completely different to how they were raised. We all need to look at what we expect and our own attitudes towards our boys, and how our biases are contributing to them developing or not developing different skills such as nurturing.”

What does strong attachment look like?

Raymond shared a recent experience: “My father and I walked down the street in the early evening before Halloween, behind a dad and his toddler son in a dinosaur costume. The two walked hand in hand, slowly, conversing in baby talk while the little one toddled slowly along. The dad was so emotionally attuned to his son, walking at his slow pace, leaning down and engaging with him. I could see that they were both getting what they needed in that interaction – and that’s going to make a difference to that child.”

When to seek support

“Kids often let us know how they’re doing through their behaviour,” Raymond says. “When things are challenging with a child, it doesn’t always mean that something is wrong. We tend to normalize parenting as the hardest job, and it’s often exhausting. But we don’t give enough air to the fact that it can be fun. If you’re constantly exhausted by it, maybe something could be better. Kids let us know if they need support by acting out, not sleeping, not eating. They may lack the words to explain how they feel and need the adults to tune in and help them to figure things out.”

With so much focus on physical check-ups during childhood, emotional health and wellness can sometimes fall to the backburner. If you’re interested in learning more about attachment or exploring some of the challenging interactions you’re experiencing with a child, TELUS Health Care Centres offer comprehensive child and youth psychology and counselling services.

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Authored by:
Mental Health team
TELUS Health Care Centres

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