American Association of Christian Counselors
American Association of Christian Counselors

Attachment and Parenting: The Power of Attuned Sensitive Care

Ted Stein, M.S., L.P.C., N.C.C, B.C.P.C.C, A.F.C

Kids matter. In the hustle and bustle of life, it’s easy to forget that. But the reality is that harsh or dismissive parenting hurts children. In fact, observation and research data shows that low levels of parent sensitivity during the first year of life can predict harsh parenting during toddlerhood.

These early predictors, while not in and of themselves the cause, put children at risk later in toddlerhood and school age for behavioral and emotional problems in both the home and school setting. Harsh or dismissive care-giving patterns, without intervention, have been shown to remain constant and stable through the child’s development into later childhood years.

Ephesians 6:4 offers a clear admonition here: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” This biblical principle can be integrated when working with Christian parents who want to align their parenting style with biblical values.

As Christian caregivers, we can help parents learn to attune themselves to their children, rather than shaming, reacting to, or dismissing them. Attuned sensitive care-giving fosters self-awareness, emotional growth and healthy independence in children. This involves a three-task process for caregivers:

  1. Perceiving a child’s cue
  2. Interpreting the child’s cue accurately
  3. Responding to the child’s cues promptly and appropriately

Many internal (what is going on in the caregiver’s head and heart; depression; anxiety) and external factors (marriage distress; social support network; if a daycare, number of other children) can potentially impact how well a parent accomplishes the tasks of providing sensitive and responsive care-giving.

Harsh care-giving may include subtle and blatant acts, either verbal and/or physical, ranging from ill-timed tone of voice (caregiver is irritated) to physical aggression (slapping or worse).
Parents at risk for harsh and/or abusive parenting may display a challenge in one or more of the above three areas.

A 2012 study explores four stages involved in parenting strategies that put children at risk for physical abuse. Parents at risk for abusive behavior to children often display the following characteristics (Milner 1993, 2003):

  1. Less attentive and attuned to their children’s behavior when compared to average, non-abusive and low risk parents.
  2. Interpretations of the child’s behavior are often negative, including hostile intent (they are doing this to me) and generalized (they always do this; it is how they are wired).
  3. Exclusion of the context of behaviors (bad day at school, sad because their friend was hurtful, it is late and the child is tired, etc).
  4. Rigidity to parenting strategies and lack insight into how well their strategies are working and the emotional/physical impact of said strategies.

Parents may be mis-attuned to their own thoughts and dialogues and may or may not be aware of the impact of their behavior, often using justifications for their own behavior. This adaptation may often be as a result of their own history of parental care, current environmental or relational conditions, and/or their own mental health issues.

These patterns are critical to identify when working with parents, in order to prevent abuse, protect children and help parents foster healthy relationships with their children. Treatment considerations include:

  1. Helping the parent become aware of their own dialogue and its damaging impact of their child.
  2. Fostering self-reflective capacities to aid the parent in beginning to think differently and view their child with compassion and genuine care
  3. Working with the parent to reduce the use of reactionary emotion and talking “at” their child, rather than entering their kid’s world.

Parent education models should be reviewed carefully and implemented with intention and care. As we work with parents, we must be careful to use interventions that are realistic to carry out in the midst of the stress and drain of child-rearing. If the parenting model it too complex, clients may experience feelings of inadequacy and give up hope of change.

As Christian counselors, we must continually develop our own attunement skills in order to be fully present with our clients. An attuned therapist who co-creates an experience with a parent can be a powerful tool in the hands of God to give desperate parents hope and influence a child’s future.

Ted Stein has 18 years experience as a psychotherapist. He founded Stein Counseling in 2001. Ted has a strong Christian faith and unwavering commitment to glorify God in all things. His expertise has been sought in media regarding attachment, parent capacity, delinquents, parenting issues, abuse and neglect, custody, and marriage issues.

References:
Milner, J. (1993). Social information processing and physical child abuse, Clinical Psychology Review 13, 275 — 294.
Milner, J. (2003) Social information processing in high risk and physically abusive parents, Child Abuse & Neglect 27, 7 — 20.

 
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