COVID and Attachment: What Has Lockdown Meant for Little Ones?

Attachment in a nutshell

Attachment theory, first proposed by John Bowlby, describes a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’  Whilst we can develop attachments throughout our lives, our early years are especially important and the development of secure attachments during the sensitive period lays the foundations for positive social interaction for the rest of our lives as well as promoting emotional regulation, self-confidence and readiness for learning. 

  • Things are always easier when someone ‘has our back’ – have you ever taken a friend somewhere with you give you courage?
  • Nurturing adults provide a safe base from which children can explore and engage with the world
  • Early care giving has a long lasting impact on development of all kinds
  • Early attachment has a significant impact on personal development
  • Attachments can be formed with any trusted adult, not just a mum or dad

How to form strong attachments

Children can form strong attachments with any adult and this process can feel quite natural; but there are several things that we can do to promote and strengthen attachment building.  Dan Seigel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book ‘The Power of Showing Up’ gives some excellent and doable advice here. They advocate the need for children to feel safe, seen and soothed.

  • Safe – children need to feel safe physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively
  • Seen – children need to feel seen, heard and valued: we should step into their world
  • Soothed – having their emotional needs met matters a lot, co-regulation builds bonds fast
  • Being a predictable, consistent presence in a child’s life providing unconditional care
  • We can quickly build connectedness through touch too
  • When in doubt, be curious…

The strengths of lockdown

During lockdown, many children have had the opportunity to spend more time with their primary caregivers than they usually would.  As well as a greater quantity of time spent together, many families are reporting a greater quality of time together too.  This intense period of togetherness during lockdown, for some families, will have formed the basis of stronger attachments and relationships at all ages. It’s important to remember that every ounce of love and laughter a child is building now is an investment in their emotional piggybank which they will be able to draw on for years to come.

  • Great quantity and quality of within-family interactions
  • Focus in on family and creating our own entertainment with limited other options
  • Time to really get to know one another
  • Improving emotional literacy and reading of each other’s needs
  • The common enemy of the virus builds ‘togetherness’ in families

Issues with lockdown

There are a lot of worries about the potential impact of lockdown on children’s attachments and social development.  In particular there is a concern that for some children the time at home may have been challenging if the family are living in adverse circumstances with domestic abuse, poverty, anxiety and depression all being reported at higher than usual levels. 

Indeed, even for those for whose circumstances are positive, there are several fears:

  • separation anxiety when they return to care or education
  • damage to relationships with extended families will be damaged
  • develop a fear of other people due to physical distancing measures
  • won’t know how to interact with others using touch
  • will be under socialised and won’t know how to interact with other children

How can we help?

The main thing is for us to understand the problems and to be creative in our problem solving.  Acting as a genuine team around the child responding to their needs and being curious about their needs will drive us to do what is right for the child.  Proactive, creative planning is key and being flexible in our response, building on what works and learning from what doesn’t. 

Starting points on specific issues

Separation anxiety:

  • Support both the adult and the child
  • Establish how a child will be kept safe and communicate this clearly and early
  • Establish ‘goodbye’ routines and rituals
  • And soft landings that welcome children in
  • Transitional objects such as a laminated kiss can help

Relationships with grandparents etc:

  • Make use of social media and online technologies to ‘pass time’ it doesn’t have to be focused
  • Physically distanced game playing 
  • Substitute physical touch with an equivalent using ‘Peanuts Fabulous Five’ (see appendix)
  • Care out loud
  • Talk with excitement about a time when kisses and cuddles will be allowed

Fear of people:

  • Explain the context of our distancing and look to the future when it won’t be necessary
  • Explain why people wear face coverings, make a game of children wearing their own
  • Talk positively about the future and how we’ll behave differently than now
  • Try to be calm and decisive in your social distancing actions rather than having an emotional response
  • Purposefully reintroduce children to positive social experiences when it is safe

Social development and Interacting with other children:

  • Share clear expectations and boundaries around interaction
  • Use games, play and creativity to foster connection
  • Do more of what sparks joy
  • Adults will need to lead the way
  • It will take time

Further learning and reading

Build Bonds with Babies & Infants 

Enable Children to Feel Safe so They Can Flourish 

Create a Truly Inclusive Environment Where Children with Special Needs Can Thrive

Use Simple Self-Soothe Strategies

Books

The Power of Showing Up  – Written for parents and carers but suitable for all, I love this gentle book which teaches us how and why we can build brilliant bonds with babies and children. 

The Science of Parenting & What Every Parent Needs to Know These two books by Margot Sunderland simplify the neuroscience underpinning bonding and explains the practical steps that we can take as parents, carers and professionals to help babies and infants develop healthily. 

Steve Biddulph’s Books – I’ve read and loved everything Steve Biddulph has ever written. Raising Girls and Raising Boys are neat summaries of lots of his wider work. 

The Parenting Patchwork Treasure Deck  – 100 colourful and versatile cards to improve relationships, assessments and interventions when working with parents, carers and children. Again, I’m a big fan of all of Karen Treisman’s books and resources, they are simply fab and very easy to use. 

Attaching Through Love, Hugs and Play – Simple practical advice for building bonds from an attachment therapist. 

Promoting Attachment With a Wiggle, Giggle, Hug and Tickle – Suitable for individual or group work and featuring structured, rewarding and fun exercises.

Parenting with Theraplay – Theraplay® is an attachment-focused model that allows parents to build confidence in their abilities and strengthen their relationship with their child. This book provides an overview of Theraplay based ideas that can be used directly by parents. Illustrative case examples detail these ideas in action.