Attachment is Not the Elimination of Difficult Emotions


Do not doubt your own basic goodness.  In spite of all confusion and fear, you are born with a heart that knows what is just, loving, and beautiful.”  — Jack Kornfield


Here in the San Francisco bay area we have fantastic parents, many of whom are all about “attachment parenting.” This is really good news for their children and our culture at large. But some parents hold a view that attachment parenting means that their children should never cry, experience difficult emotions, or ever suffer a mis-attunement. Here are a few of the factors that may contribute to this belief:

  • A misunderstanding of the attachment research
  • Difficulties in one’s own past with mis-attunements and the resulting difficulties in staying regulated when “negative” emotions arise in our children
  • The failure to recognize that maturation actually depends on not always getting our way and being able to fully feel our disappointment and sadness in the face of these losses
  • The fear that crying signifies trauma and trauma leaves life-long imprints in the child’s developing mind and brain
  • Social pressures from others who believe that crying is traumatic
  • The desire to be “the best attachment parents ever!”

My experience of infants and children is that they are incredibly resilient.
Attachment research has shown that even in securely attached dyads (mother-infant pairs) there is a mis-attunement every 18 seconds on average. That is about three mis-attunements every minute, and this is in the most secure of the four attachment types. This suggests that infants and children are incredibly resilient and this should give us all a reason to relax. Let’s look a little more closely to understand how our infants are experiencing all of this.

Firstly, your child mostly experiences love and responsiveness from you.
The ratio of attunements to misattunements is very high in secure dyads. Allowing for the few seconds it likely will take a parent to recognize the infant’s signaling of the mis-attunement, this means that 80-90% of the time the infant experiences what we call attuned and contingent communication in a securely attached dyad (probably even higher in the attachment parenting community).This leads to the development of an internal working model in the mind of the child that says “Mommy knows what I feel and responds to my needs the vast majority of the time.” The result is feelings of safety rooted in a calm nervous system as the infants baseline state, and from this secure foundation development can unfold easefully.

Secondly, misattunements are an opportunity for our children to learn about interactive repair. It is important for children to experience the breaking of connection and then the subsequent repair of the connection to the parent. Outside of the home, these ruptures of relationship will most likely occur with much greater frequency. This “rupture and repair” experience gives the child another internal working model that can be added to the first:

“When the connection between mommy and I is broken, it is later followed by a re-connection with mommy. It is not the end of the world when we break connection. This is weatherable.”

From these types of experience our children begin to develop the capacity for self-regulation.

Being able to self-regulate is very empowering and is the basis for the capacity of resilience.

Difficulties in life are inevitable and it is best to practice dealing with these difficulties in the home environment first where love and understanding abound. These “rupture and repair” cycles gives our children opportunities to stretch their “window of tolerance” and call on inner resources to develop this key aspect of emotional intelligence. With time, practice, and lot’s of support, our children will develop their muscle of resilience.


Now let’s parse this out a little further. In the above examples, I am trying to ease any anxiety we may have about not being perfectly attuned 24/7 with our children. We are only human after all, and in the middle of a very challenging ordeal. (Let’s call it like it is: we are going through a prolonged initiation.) At other times our children may be upset with us because we say “no” and deny them something that they want. This can cause an emotional upset (or a small cyclone depending on the child, proximity to bed time, blood glucose levels, and a number of other relevant factors). Here, we must distinguish between what the childwants and what the child needs. These are tough decisions some times, and yet we must simply do our best to use our mindsight and feel the child deeply. When we are clear that the boundary — the limit, the “no” — is in their best interest (or sometimes just in the best interest of the whole family at large) we must communicate this in a confident and embodied way. Additionally, and of utmost importance, we must try to also embody an equal force of unconditional love for their being. There must be a simultaneous “yes” to their being even as we say “no” to their attempt to get their way, their struggle against a necessary limit, or their avoidance of sinking into the reality at hand.

These are “lessons in futility,” as Gordon Neufeld calls them. If our children do not experience limits, if they do not come up against the realities of life and find their sense of disappointment, sadness, and sometimes tears, they will remain in repetitive cycles of frustration and aggression and lose out on deeper opportunities for transformation and fulfillment. When we help our children to accept that they can not always have what they want and hold them compassionately in their frustration and disappointment, we are setting the stage for a deeper maturation to occur. This is the way we help them hold on to their vulnerable heart from which the deeper rivers of love, compassion, joy, and creativity will flow across their life-span.

Without our firm yet loving guidance, children will put all their frustrated energy into trying to change others, themselves, and the world. This will invariably lead to acts of aggression and thwart the maturation process that would ultimately lead them to their mixed feelings and ability to temper their more impulsive desires. The long-term result of periodically holding a child firmly but lovingly in a healthy boundary is a human being who remains connected to their instinctual core, but who also has developed their own capacity to consider how their actions will impact others, their relationships, and what effect the actions will likely have on their long-term goals.

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

Martin Luther King Jr.


Take Home: Our parental responsibility is not to prevent all tears, but rather to help our children experience disappointment, sadness, and loss fully and help them develop the capacity of self-regulation when difficult emotions arise. Self-regulation may be the most important skill when it comes to life-long learning and maturation, and will make most discipline problems obsolete.

What this requires above all else is a widening of our own capacity for self-regulation and the creation of a relational field that says:

“I am the momma-bear here. I will take responsibility for reading your cues, for deciphering what is a true need and what is a want, and for helping you towards a truly fulfilling life. Most important of all, I will never put you out of my heart my love; especially when you need me.”

Try: The next time your infant or child is crying and your partner is there with you, let him/her move to attend to the baby or child while you do this brief practice. Sense into your own body and see how the crying is affecting you. What sensations are you experiencing right now? Are you hot or cold? Are you breathing? Is your chest tight or relaxed? What about your belly? Is the energy high in your body? Down in your gut? Can you feel your legs? What is the sensation in your skin? What is the emotional tone that best describes your inner state: anxious, frustrated, angry, or numb?

Just notice how your body is reacting to your infant’s/child’s discomfort without any judgment. Do this self-observation whenever you can to increase your capacity for self-awareness which will help increase your capacity for self-regulation over time. If the sensations are particularly intense try the grounding down or getting spacious practices found under somatic practiceson the Essential Parenting website. The ability to regulate our own emotional reactions is required if we are going to help our infants and children develop their own capacity for self-regulation.

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