Knowing Gordon Neufeld’s Stages of Attachment has allowed me to anticipate my children’s needs better over the years, and has helped me understand their behaviour better too, something that can be very powerful and reassuring amidst the uncertainty and challenges of parenting! Applying these stages to sleep, this article explores what each stage looks like, and what parents can do to support each stage.
Discipline and managing toddler tantrums are pretty common parenting topics! After sleep and feeding, discipline just might be the most frequently asked question of parents with young children.
Parenting, discipline, and co-regulation are things that invariably weave in and out of any conversation families have with me about sleep, feeding, and development. Even when discipline and regulation are not the key challenges, they are inevitably part of the solution. How empowered we feel about parenting, and how available strategies are to us "in the moment" can make a BIG difference.
Bridging to the next connection is an attachment-based strategy for separating from a child in a way that reduces anxiety and resistance, and respects a child’s developmental and emotional ability to separate. The concept of bridging to the next connection was developed by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist from British Columbia who co-authored the book “Hold Onto Your Kids”, and whose Neufeld Institute runs courses on understanding the emotional and attachment needs of children. Bridging is a strategy for separation that I have used as a parent, and have recommended at my workshops and private consults. It can be a tricky concept to get the hang of, and so I am describing it below so that parents who feel their child is ready for separation at bedtime have a developmentally-sensitive and attachment-oriented way to nudge their toddlers and preschoolers towards more independent sleep.
Bridging is a strategy that can pave the way for all sorts of separation situations including the separation to school, for a sleepover at grandma’s house, time with a co-parent, and even getting yourself out the door for much needed solo time. I’ll focus here specifically on using bridging as a strategy for solitary sleep in toddlers and older children but have included two children’s books in the resource list that address a broader idea of separation. Despite its usefulness in a number of scenarios, bridging is a particularly useful strategy for parents who are working towards leaving their child’s sleep space while their child is still awake, with the expectation that the child will stay in the bedroom and fall asleep on their own.
The premise of bridging to the next connection is that by focusing on being with, rather than leaving, you help your child relax because they trust you will return. The focus is on reconnecting, not on leaving. Children are more likely to fall asleep alone when they can relax in the knowledge that you will return before they need you. They will, in effect, not be chasing your attachment literally right out of the room when you get up to leave.
Although the concept works well in practice, it is somewhat difficult to explain and does require hitting a bit of a sweet spot in the yin and yang of meeting a child’s nighttime needs. So here are some ways to approach bridging, and ideas on how to implement it with your three year old or older child.
To pull off this bit of bedtime magic effectively, be in a place of surrendering to the present: you are in your child’s room, so bring your brain and future self back upstairs and be there with your child! I know this is easier said than done, but when your thoughts are on dishes or the email you need to return, or the thirty minutes you will relish when you finally can kick up your feet and watch TV, your child will know you are not fully in the room with them…And they may not relax enough to fall asleep.
When you are in the room at bedtime and are fully present and focused on being there, do not check your phone, or check the time. Fully suspend the thought around how soon you can leave! After finishing off any bedtime routine in ways that bring joy and calm to both of you, it is now time for you to leave. But the focus is on coming back. Yes. Just when you are feeling so close to escaping from the room after a very touched-out day, focus instead on when you will return. Tell your child you are going to step out of the room for one minute, and describe to your child what you will say when you come BACK (“I’ll come in to tell you I love you”) or what you will do (I'll tuck you in again, I’ll cuddle with you till you fall asleep). Tell them to listen for you to come back and that when you do you will be so glad to get one more hug before they fall asleep.....Then leave for as short as you need to (10 seconds? A minute? Five minutes if they -and you- are good at this) without her calling out for you. Return before she worries you aren't there. Then build from there.
What will you do while you’re gone? Go pee. Wash one dish. Tidy the bathroom counter. It’s likely worthwhile staying away from email (we know how time magically disappears when that happens!). Do anything that is short, is verifiable (they hear you), and is easy to end early (a good long pee aside). Then return before they call out! Return early as a way of shoring up their trust in you, and as reinforcing your promise to return. They may not be sure you will return initially, especially if bedtime separations have been rough in the past or they have never fallen asleep on their own. But build slowly (step into the hall to blow your nose every night if that will help) and over time you can grow their trust and help them relax in the knowledge you are coming back.
How does this actually look in practice? When our son was three and our second born was still an infant, we were desperate for a bit of separation from the bedtime routine of staying in his bed until he drifted off. I would like to say we wanted that time to relax together, but truth be told we were thrilled by the idea of cleaning the kitchen together which, I’ll point out, was actually a wonderful way for us to work together and connect at the end of the day. I had just completed Gordon Neufeld’s Making Sense of Preschoolers online course and the idea of bridging to the next connection made so much sense in terms of his development (separation anxiety was high!) and his needs (he had a great deal of difficulty falling asleep without us there).
We went through the regular routine and then I, not without trepidation, said “I’m popping out of the room for a glass of water. I’ll be right back”. And then I left. It was short, and I returned before he called out.
When I returned, I stayed with him as usual until he fell asleep. The next time, I left twice, and attempted to leave for more than a minute. It worked!
Until it didn’t. The third night I was over zealous perhaps, and thinking of what I could get done after I left. Or perhaps he just needed me more that night. Regardless, I was staying out of the room too long, and he was not relaxed enough to fall asleep, even coming out of the room before I got to the end of the hallway. And so, as we continued working on this separation gradually, we ebbed and flowed with the idea that some nights would be easy peasy, and on other nights his need for our presence would be high. When these higher-need nights happened, we suspended our expectations that this was a straight trajectory. Nothing in parenting seems to be, except the straight trajectory of our child following us out of their room when we want them to stay in bed!
I gradually, and with various excuses, left the room for progressively longer time. Within the first week, I was leaving the room for about 5 to 10 minutes at a time, and returning to a kiddo who was awake but calm, in bed, and happy to see me. I recall there being a joyful “you came back!” look on his face, happy that his faith in me returning was warranted. By about the fifth visit (and occasionally the eighth or ninth), he had drifted off to sleep, confident I would return as promised.
There were nights, in the coming weeks, that he called out soon after I left. There were other nights when I forgot to return, and he would call out wondering where I was. Yet more and more frequently, he would not call out at all, I would return once or twice, and be pleasantly surprised to find a peaceful sleeper with nary a peep of protest.
On the nights that he drifted off to sleep and I remembered an hour later that I hadn’t returned, I made sure to pop up and peak in on him, and to tell him in the morning how nice it was to come in and see him sleeping so soundly, and to whisper I love you. “Did you hear me in your dreams?”, I’d ask him? He never did, but I like to think that his knowing I came to check on him reaffirmed his feelings of safety and love we wanted to give him.
We have continued to use this approach for all of our kiddos, sometimes with great success, and other times not so much. When it hasn’t been working, it usually has been for one of two reasons:
We were already “out of the room” before we left, and our kids knew we were not present and focused on them.
Their needs were higher on a particular night (impending illness, a rough day, overtired, wound up) and we hadn’t adjusted our night time routine to accommodate that.
When it wasn’t working, we didn’t throw the idea out the window. We did our best not to become authoritarian and threaten separation (“You HAVE to stay in that room or I am not coming back!”) —that, if you didn’t notice, is about the polar opposite of what bridging is trying to do.
To this day, when the boys ask us to stay with them to fall asleep we know that for some reason they need us more that night, and we do it (mostly) with an open heart. But more nights than not we can check on them a few times after lights out and find that like candles burning themselves out, the boys quietly fall into a relaxed sleep at some point when we are not in the room; even when they are certain they are not the least bit tired and will still be awake when we come check on them.
And that, for us, is a parenting win.
My favourite Canadian developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, outlined six stages of attachment to explain the development of attachment in children. I have found these stages helpful as a mom in knowing what emotional and attachment needs my boys could be expected to have, and how that can shape my parenting. Knowing the stages has allowed me to anticipate their needs better over the years, and has helped me understand their behaviour better too, something that any parent of a toddler will tell you is a bit of a miracle!
The stages that Gordon Neufeld describes are:
Belonging or Loyalty
As I watched my first two boys move from stage to stage, almost exactly as Neufeld described, I was awestruck with the idea that something as seemingly “soft” as attachment could be so predictable. I was also well aware that the attachment I was seeing emerge from them would form the basis of every healthy relationship they have in their lives. My third kiddo, somewhat obscured by the busy-ness of life with three boys, has benefited greatly from my understanding of the natural progression of attachment, while at the same time I have paid far less attention to the details. Despite my lack of attention, the stages of attachment have marched on anyway. I can say, though, that anticipating each stage, and reveling in this natural emergence of attachment, is really rewarding.
Here, I outline the first three of Neufeld’s six stages of attachment and describe what each stage may look like, and how parents can respond to the needs of their child at each stage.
In general, the six stages of attachment correspond to age in years. Developmental and neurological challenges, trauma, illness, and separation can all have an impact on the timing of these stages —and when this is the case, understanding these stages can be helpful for establishing attachment on a child’s own timeline. It is useful to appreciate that the stages of attachment are worth working through gradually, at a child’s pace, and with the intent to ensure the needs at each stage are fully met. It is also helpful to appreciate that we can be grown adults and still have needs that correspond to earlier stages of attachment, particularly if we have had negative relationships early on in our lives, or have experienced trauma and adverse childhood events. Babies don’t entirely abandon earlier needs (e.g. the need to be close), However, Neufeld feels that the better a child’s attachment needs are met, the more easily they will be able to move to the next stage of attachment. It is never too late.
It is also helpful to understand that attachment is “in the present moment”. Attachment can be temporarily ‘broken’ if we are distracted, angry, or disconnected, or if our children are frustrated, overwhelmed, or angry. And attachment that has fallen apart earlier in the day can be re-established through connection, empathy, and attention. By focusing on re-establishing our connection with our children “in the moment”, we can re-establish the bonds of attachment. In practical terms, this means bedtime can be wonderful one evening and then feel like it is falling apart at the seams on another: look at ways to reconnect at your child’s level, if things feel disconnected. It also means that bedtime can be a wonderful time of day to repair attachment: focus on slowing down, listening, paying attention, and reconnecting during the bedtime routine to finish the day with strong, secure attachment.
STAGES OF ATTACHMENT
Proximity (1 year old)
What it is:
The need to be close, to touch you, to be touched by you, to be nearby, to see you, to hear you, to smell you.
What it looks like:
Babies will curl into you, reach out to you, cry when separated from you, be soothed by skin on skin contact with you, and have an easier time regulating with touch, breastfeeding, being held, or being carried.
How parents can meet this need:
Expecting babies to need to be close to you can help set reasonable expectations in the first year and beyond. Ways to meet this need for proximity include babywearing, roomsharing, holding, rocking, breastfeeding, bedsharing, and orienting yourself to hold baby for bottle feeding in ways that mirror breastfeeding (skin on skin, frequent cradling, considering having one primary ‘feeding person’ for bottle feeds) can all meet this need. Hugs, and squeezes, horseplay and cuddling are all very physical ways to meet this need. Using your soothing voice, your eye contact, or even remaining visible are all ways that help babies relax through your proximity.
As babies become more mobile, they will begin to move away from you but will circle back to you for proximity in order to get reassurance, particularly when unsure in a new situation. As they get older, this ‘circling back to you become visual: they will turn to check that you are still there.
By ensuring the need for proximity is met, we are reassuring our babies that we love them and are taking care of them.
2. Sameness (age 2)
What it is:
Two year olds tend to want to be like the people they love.
What it looks like:
Your child will mimic or imitate the behaviours, actions, and words of you and other very key caregivers (usually one or two key adults). Two year olds love to imitate household activities, facial expressions, gestures, and mannerisms. Children will often show an intense need for sameness of one caregiver over another at certain points in time. This may be difficult for the other parent or caregiver who can feel rejected and not understand why: the intensity of attachment is so great that it is often directed really strongly to one parent. This changes over time, and requires patience and understanding that it is typical.
What parents can do to support this stage:
Take pleasure in this imitation. Be playful with it. Model calm self-regulation, and share in these imitated activities as much as you are comfortable with. Enjoy this shared behaviour, and know that this imitation indicates a strong attachment to you. Encourage your two year old to help you around the house: wiping windows, folding cloths, using utensils, putting toys away. Imitation is a powerful indicator of attachment, but it is also nature’s way of setting the stage for behaviours that we come to expect our children to have. Know that if you are a loving parent who is not the object of this imitation, your presence, consistency, and love will lead to this happening: it is worth the wait!
At bedtime, create some ‘sameness’ with same physical belongings like pillow cases or even two stuffies that are the same (one for you and one for your two year old!) if you sleep apart. Same pajamas can also be a fun way to build on this stage.
The same routine, and reveling in that routine, can be a powerful way of providing security and predictability for your two year old. The same book, the same chair, and the same tuck in routine each night lets your child know what to expect.
3. Belonging/Loyalty (age 3)
What it is:
A strong sense of acceptance as a family unit to you and one or two other key caregivers.
A sense of you ‘belonging’ to your child. This can feel like ‘ownership’ or possessiveness, but is based on a strong sense of unconditional belonging.
What it looks like:
This stage can be clear to see when our children start using the phrase “my _____”. “My mommy”, “my cup”, “my toy”, and “my baby” are frequent at this age. Often, this age coincides with the birth of a baby which can make children feel even more possessive of parents and cherished things. Eventually, this sense of belonging extends to the new baby too, though this takes patience and time to get there!
How can parents support this stage:
At bedtime, belonging and a sense of loyalty can be supported through continued bedtime rituals that strengthen your child’s sense of safety and unconditional love.
Urie Bronfenbrenner, father of attachment, has said that every child should have at least one adult who is crazy about them. Enstilling a sense of unconditional belonging supports this stage of attachment.
Leaning into the need for your presence and for feeling the need to belong allows a child to relax in the reassurance that you and they are a family unit. It may also help them feel, over time, less concerned about how a new sibling can threaten this feeling of belonging.
This is a great age to consider shifting children to their own bed or own bedroom. Pulling the space together for them and focusing on phrases like “your room” and “your bed” can be helpful. Follow through by respecting that space and protecting their space from siblings in order to maintain this space as something that belongs to them.
Consider these stages ‘signposts’ of attachment development, rather than as set-in-stone measures of attachment. Use them to guide your parenting, to anticipate your child’s needs, and to take pleasure in the ever changing emotional landscape of childhood! It can be quite a ride.
Next month I will add stages 3 to 6. If you don’t want to wait, you can view my 5-8 minute videos describing each stage of attachment via my facebook page. Stage #3 is a stand alone stage pinned at the top of my facebook page, but the rest of the videos are all in a folder together (securely attached!).
If you want to understand more about how to use the Stages of Attachment to strengthen your child’s sleep routine, or want to explore other shifts in parenting and the environment that can support infant sleep development, I welcome you to connect with me via email or phone.
If you want to read or learn more about Gordon Neufeld’s approach to attachment and child development, I recommend his book, Hold Onto Your Kids (co-authored by Gabor Mate). I also highly recommend the online courses offered through the Neufeld Institute, most especially Making Sense of Preschoolers.
Angry outbursts from our children, hurtful words from them, or a hurtfully hard megablock thrown deliberately at you...These can all trigger our own anger, hurt, and tempers.
How do we handle such fiery hot emotions from our children while staying calm ourselves?
How do we help our little ones regulate these intense feelings?
What are we supposed to do to discipline them?
I will venture to say that developing our own self-regulation is the essence of helping our children do the same, and it is much more than child discipline: it is our own self-discipline!
When tempers from our children flair, we may be tempted to try to take the reigns, control the situation more tightly, force them to comply with our expectation, and threaten with punishment. And we may soon discover that this fans the flames, leading to a child who feels unregulated, behaves in even more challenging ways (or complies out of fear, rather than connection) and may lead to us reaching a boiling point too.
Here are some ideas for managing ourselves in the heat of the moment. Start here. Start with you. When you feel calm, and open, and able to cope, then you can more effectively help your child to feel calm, and open, and able to cope too.
- Breath in, breath out. Whether it is to slow down your heart rate, buy time to think of an action plan, or to model calmness that you hope will rub off, taking a deep breath in, and out can be a first step. You do not need to know what to do next. You simply breath. And breath again.
- Make your breath count. Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist monk, teaches the meditation of Tonglen: to send and receive; to breath in the anger and the hurt of another, and to breath out calmness, love, and joy. Regardless of your religious beliefs, you may find this resonates with you as a way of making your breath meaningful not just in practical ways but in ways of the heart too. If approaching your breath this way helps you feel more open to accepting your child's anger, lovely! If not, the simple act of a deep breath in and out still works to calm an excited nervous system.
- Know there is a reason behind it. Challenging behaviour is a sign of a need. We may not always understand our children's anger, but if we know that a need is at the base of it, then we can respond in a way that looks to meet that need. Often, with negative behaviour, we look to an emotional need: fear, embarrassment, hurt, shame, insecurity. And often this is the key. At other times anger and challenging behaviour may reflect physical pain, illness, or physical discomfort.
- Provide your presence, not your advice. Gordon Neufeld, developmental psychologist in British Columbia, discusses ways of being present for a young child (or adult too!) who is challenged with big emotions. When your child is lashing out in anger, stay close but not too close, talk quietly and calmly but not too much. Do not correct, until you connect. Dr. Bruce Perry, an American psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma, describes this as three steps: regulate, relate, then reason. Understanding that none of us can process information very well when we are angry is helpful to remember when being present for our angry child.
- Give another outlet -a physical one- for your child to release this anger. Ripping paper, kicking a garbage can. And yes, even emptying the garbage can onto the floor. If you can find a way to stay calm with it, then let it happen (though I've certainly swooped in to rescue a cherished bowl or other breakable object!). I know it seems counter-intuitive perhaps to let children destroy things, but I have found that the wider the girth I give my kids to release their anger, and the less upset I am with it, the more I see the limit of what they will do --at one point I told my angry preschooler, who was holding a book in a way that suggested he was about to rip it, that it was ok; that if he felt that angry he could rip the book. And he didn't. He almost melted into the permission as if he wanted to know just how far it would be before my unconditional love stopped. And he realized it doesn't. It is not always easy to stay that calm --but when it happens it feels like reaching the sweet spot of parenting: remaining calm in the tempest.
- Use simple language to calm the situation. We cannot process language very well when we are angry. And yet, calm, rhythmic, repetitive, and simple language can help us calm down, and can help give us tools for coping. I think this is why 'mantras' are so helpful for those who meditate. At young ages especially, talk in simple sentences (e.g. it is ok to be mad, it is not ok to hurt me, repeated).
- Use simple language to "correct" the behaviour or to reason with your child. When both you and your child are calm, then address the behaviour. For young children this will be more direct and simple, and can include words that acknowledge their anger, their behaviour, and gives an alternative. For older children, reasoning around why some things are not ok to do, and looking at ways they can cope with angry feelings next time can be helpful. Physical closeness can be an important part of this. By continuing to use simple language, we can avoid 'giving a lecture' or bringing up past behaviours. We can focus on empathy, reflection, and problem solving instead.
- Go for the long haul. Sometimes the hard work we do parenting through challenging situations doesn't bear fruit for a long time. Our children may make the same mistakes over and over, or take a very long time to develop enough self-regulation to stop pushing their sibling, throwing things, or biting when angry. Think of this in the long term. However, you may also find that the work you do in regulating your emotions gives you wonderful payoffs right away: when I stay calm through the tempests of my middle child (which is not always!), I am often met with a spontaneous "I love you" when things are calmer. I take this "I love you" to also mean "thanks for staying with me through that. Thank you for not getting mad".
It is a very challenging thing to regulate our own emotions when trying to help our children develop self-regulation skills. It can trigger a lot of hurt and anger in us that makes it difficult to meet the needs of our children. Hugs to anyone who has had to dig deep to stay calm with their angry child. It is no easy thing. As Laura Markham, Clinical Psychologist, has said, our own self-regulation is the foundation of effective parenting.