Parenting a Child With Attachment Issues

Any number of unforeseen circumstances may create a situation in which parent-child attachment is a challenge. In this article, parents can learn principles and strategies for encouraging attachment in a struggling child.

Attachment vs. Bonding

Parents often see attachment as their responsibility to develop in their child. However, it’s important to understand that it’s your responsibility to provide a safe nurturing environment for your child. But you can’t control his decision to attach to you. Attachment is different than bonding. Bonding is what you do toward your child and it happens automatically. On the contrary, attachment is what your child will conditionally do toward you if he assesses his environment to be safe and if you are consistent enough to be relied upon. Attachment is not an automatic response. Just because you bond with your child doesn’t guarantee he will attach to you. Parenting a child with attachment issues doesn’t require perfection but it does require understanding, persistence and patience.

Risk Factors

The following risk factors may influence a child’s ability to attach properly:

    • Stressful pregnancy
    • Difficult birth
    • Early hospitalization
    • Abuse
    • Neglect
    • Trauma

While these risk factors may be more common in adoptive children or children in the Foster Care system, some of them can occur even in healthy intact families.

The Signs of Attachment Disorders

Does your child avoid eye contact or refuse to be touched? Is she immature in her language and social skills? Does she comply with your wishes only when she wants something? These are just some behaviors typical of a disconnected child. 

 If you suspect that you may have a child with attachment issues, seek help from a qualified mental health professional. We prefer one trained in Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI). Studies show that without effective treatment, children with attachment disorder or complex trauma become more symptomatic over time. And those symptoms tend to affect the whole family. Therefore, family therapy is usually more effective than individual treatment. Choose a therapist who specializes in attachment issues and makes a point of working with parent and child together.

Therapeutic Parenting

We counsel parents to use a therapeutic parenting style instead of a traditional parenting style. Our recommendation is based on a couple of factors:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                First, a child with attachment issues has difficulty responding positively to traditional parenting methods. This is especially important to remember when your daughter behaves violently and irrationally or withdraws sullenly into a corner. The more you try to force her to change her behavior, the more frustrated you will become. That’s because her acting out is due to her brain being in a “reactive” mode. She is likely feeling afraid, angry or hurt. 

This is what Daniel Siegel, M.D. calls the “downstairs brain” versus the “upstairs brain”.Therapeutic parenting is geared toward identifying “reactive” patterns inside your child’s brain and how they influence behavior. Therefore, once you gain a good understanding of her brain functioning, you can address problematic issues at that level before dealing directly with her actions. Your aim is to help her transition to a “responsive” mode. She can make a conscious choice to engage in acceptable behavior.

Trust Based Relational Intervention

Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) was pioneered by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis. The therapeutic parenting process is a specific way to parent a child with attachment issues. It’s where you use your child’s behavior to clue you in about what’s going on in his brain. You address his brain’s needs in order to help him feel safe. Therefore, he doesn’t have to react in negative ways. In short, you’re parenting his reactive brain rather than simply confronting his behavior. Because of this, therapeutic parenting techniques take extra time, intentionality, persistence and patience. Dealing with your child’s tantrum may take 20 minutes or up to five hours. Depending on your child’s history, using therapeutic parenting to help a child with attachment issues will take between six months to two years of continual repetitive intervention.

Connect, Empower and Correct

When a child with attachment issues is misbehaving, a fundamental intervention process TBRI teaches is called Connect, Empower and Correct.

  1. Connect with your child in a light-hearted, silly or surprising way; “Whoa Nellie …” or “Oopsy, let’s try that again.” Get down on his eye level. Then, if he’ll let you, place a gentle hand on his shoulder. Talk in a calm up-beat voice. Your child learns best in a playful fun setting where he doesn’t feel threatened. Connecting helps him feel like you’re with him rather than against him. So, be sure you make the connection before proceeding. If a playful voice doesn’t get your child’s attention, you may need to be more direct. Say “Stop, you’re not being safe. How about we try that again, and this time use your kind voice.”
  2. Empower your child by giving him a choice between two acceptable options. He’ll feel trapped, scared and defensive if he has no choice or option. And when he’s scared, he’s unable to hear what you’re trying to teach him. Therefore, ask him “Would you like to wear your sneakers or your snow boots?” Options empower by giving him control in the situation. So, when he feels “in control,” he’ll likely feel safe and more likely to cooperate.
  3. Correct. Correcting your child’s behavior can only take place after he’s calmed down and feels safe. Consequently, he may need a “do-over.” Have your child give the appropriate action or use the desired language. If the first “do-over” attempt doesn’t garnish the desired outcome, practice persistence and patience and give him another “do-over.” You’re not looking for perfection, just acceptable and appropriate behavior—even if it’s barely acceptable.

2 Key Principles

  1. Errorless learning. It’s important that a child with attachment issues doesn’t have a chance to fail. Whatever choice he makes needs to be a “right” choice. This is critical in the first three months of the therapeutic parenting process. So, when your child asks for a cookie five minutes before dinner, say this. “Yes, here’s a cookie. Great job on using your words.” But don’t worry. You won’t always give your child a cookie five minutes before dinner. You’ll see the progression in principle number two.
  2. Increase the challenges gradually. Be sure your child is responding consistently to a behavior change (what’s known) and can successfully manage the choices you give him before introducing a new one (what’s unknown). This generally occurs four to six months into the therapeutic parenting process. Now, when your child asks for a cookie, you say this. “Yes! Do you want half your cookie now and half as soon as you finish dinner? Or, do you want to save the whole cookie for when you finish dinner?” Either way, he only gets one cookie and still has a choice in the matter. If he wants the whole cookie now, repeat the two options and wait for him to make his choice. After a month or so of this, you might say, “Sure! You can have a cookie when you finish your dinner.” By doing this, you’re stretching his patience level and still saying “yes” to his request for a cookie.

More Key Principles

  1. Make good use of “do-overs.” Have your child re-do his negative reaction with the appropriate behavior or words. Neuropathways in your child’s brain require lots of repetition to make a solid connection. It will likely take three to six times longer than you wish to calm your child’s brain down enough to where he responds appropriately. Until a secure attachment has been achieved in a child with attachment issues, therapeutic parenting requires you to slow down. You need to go through the steps over and over again. Persistence and patience are key!
  2. Advance the healing process by developing rituals of attachment. Bedtime and mealtime routines fall into this category, as do simple verbal exchanges such as, “Okay?” “Okay.” “See you later, Alligator.” “After a while, Crocodile.” This kind of playful interaction— what Dr. Karyn Purvis calls the “Attachment Dance”—is more an art than a science. It won’t work unless you have fun with it.
  3. A child with attachment issues needs to hear the truth. Intimacy is directly connected to the feeling of being understood. In all things, be honest and straightforward with your child, and encourage her to do the same. Create trust by building a home of acceptance and openness. And let your daughter know in every way you can that she is loved with an unconditional love.

Take Care of Yourself, Too

As a parent, grab a few minutes each day to catch your breath and take a time-out. Tend to your needs as well. These suggestions can make a huge difference in your ability to cope with the stress of therapeutic parenting.

  1. Make time in your day to sit quietly for five minutes.
  2. Before getting out of the shower, turn the water a little hotter to allow your body to relax.
  3. When you go to the bathroom, pause, wash your face with a warm washcloth and take five deep breaths. You might also look yourself in the mirror and remind yourself to take it one hour at a time.
  4. Every hour or so take five deep breathes and relax your shoulders before doing your next activity.

It’s never too late to become connected in a healthy way! When parenting a child with attachment issues, the bad news and the good news are the same: The human brain can always reorganize itself—whether to deal with danger and trauma or to adapt to a new environment of safety and trust. Compromised attachment can heal. It just takes determination and hard work, persistence and patience.

Also, remember that the expectations you have at the outset are going to be very different from the ones which will be possible later. You will be working along a continuum of healing that requires an average of one month for each year of your child’s age. When this process is completed, you will be in a better position to return to traditional parenting tactics.

Get Additional Help

If you’re doing everything you can to help a child with attachment issues and you aren’t making progress, reach out for help. Look specifically for a licensed Christian counselor who has special training in Child Led Play Therapy, TheraPlay, TBRI, or trauma informed experiential therapy. With proper training and support, you can create a safe nurturing environment where your child can learn to attach.

Ask for help finding a trained Christian counselor who specializes in family attachment therapy. Your family pediatrician may be able to recommend a good fit. If not, Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide referrals to qualified professionals in your area. Call us for a free phone consultation.

For more information about the therapeutic parenting model developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis called TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention), visit the webpage of TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development for a free one-hour “Introduction to TBRI” online video designed to help parents understand their child’s brain development. You can find other resources through their online store.

The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family

Empowered to Connect: Created to Connect Study Guide

Upstairs and Downstairs Brain

Therapeutic Parenting Flow Chart


TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development

Empowered to Connect

Copyright © 2019 by Focus on the Family


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