The last month has been incredibly chaotic. On top of an exceptionally busy time with my ministry responsibilities, we have also been in the midst of a major transition. The distribution center I started years ago has now moved out of our garage to a new location. I feel excited for this new adventure, however, this process added to an already overly full plate. I am sad to say my work stress spilled into my family time which was costly for our joy levels.
About a week ago, I noticed a pattern in my youngest son’s behavior as it veered in a direction that concerned me. Andrew had become clingy. His usually joyful demeanor shifted to despondency and sadness. Frequent outbursts erupted when he failed to get his way. A few months ago Chris and I noticed an increase in whining and, with some focus on optimizing his joy levels, we overcame this pattern. This time, however, the whining had emerged with added intensity. His “listening ears” began to malfunction and stopped working. Andrew had been much more sensitive, especially when big brother teased or caused him trouble. Initially I thought my son was fighting a bug. After some time, when no sickness developed, I began to question what else could be going on. Andrew’s behavior was telling me a story, and I needed to pay attention.
After some prayerful reflection, I realized my emotional absence was taking a toll. I had been distracted. I had felt more rushed. My responses had been short instead of patient and tender. In my stressful state I had focused on keeping the household running by meeting physical needs and somehow I lost track of my sons’ emotional needs. With my relational circuits dim, I hadn’t given my children the attention and connection they deserve – and need. This painful absence created attachment pain, which is what children feel when mom and dad are unavailable and inattentive to their needs. Attachment pain leaves children feeling alone and creates anxiety, misery and restlessness. This is the last thing I want my children to feel!
Andrew has always been a caring, sensitive child. I like this about him. God has given my son a tender heart. I realized the change in my voice and infrequency of smiles on my face has instigated a downward spiral in his behavior and attitude. My normally secure child was shifting into a distracted attachment due to my overwhelm and lack of availability. His behavior was a warning signal saying, “Houston, we have a problem!”
If you are unfamiliar with attachment styles, there are two categories of patterns that develop in response to our closest relationships. These are known as secure and insecure styles. Secure attachments are the ideal attachment style for our children. These are established when mom and dad consistently meet the physical and emotional needs of their children in a timely, predictable manner. Children feel loved and secure. Children learn the world is a safe place because someone is available to meet their needs.
Next, there are three expressions of an insecure bonding pattern. These are called distracted, dismissive and disorganized attachment styles. Each of these insecure styles are based on fear where the child’s needs are not consistently met in a timely manner. Children learn their needs are unimportant, therefore the world is a scary place. These insecure styles take a toll on a child’s wellbeing and disrupt the child’s sense that having needs is a good thing. Insecure styles leave children feeling alone and overwhelmed. I am giving you a simple overview with the hope you will read more about these important bonding patterns with the chapter on Skill 17 in my husband’s book, Transforming Fellowship.
Once I realized my son’s behavioral changes were most likely the result of some attachment pain, I knew I needed to alter my behavior, quicken my responses and increase my availability. I needed to stay intentional about connecting with Andrew on his terms and in his timing. As much as possible, I made myself available whenever he wanted my attention. Yes, life is still incredibly busy and full, but the intentional effort made a drastic difference. In the span of one week I noticed more smiles, more laughter and less discontentment. Fiercely protecting times to build joy, play and rest together significantly turned around my son’s distressing reactions.
This is the second time in Andrew’s life where I needed to increase my intentionality because an insecure attachment threatened to rear its ugly head. While the first time took more effort, it paid off by forming the foundation for a faster recovery this time around.
If you notice your child’s behavior and bonding pattern is not what you want it to be, there is always hope. Like me, you can correct your pattern of connection with your child which can restore joy and increase security. At one point, Jesus’ disciples were feeling dread and attachment pain hearing about his impending absence. Jesus comforts them with His presence, saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) At the end of the day, God’s peace anchors us in the hard times and, as parents, our attentive presence is the best gift we can give our children.1