Today’s parent faces many problems in creating quality time with their child. Here, parenting expert, Dr Margot Sunderland, tells MM how she is trying to help parents build the best relationship with their child even in the first few years…
With all the pressures of being a modern day parent, it’s clear that keeping up with daily quality time can be a struggle for many parents in all sorts of ways, particularly with the under-fives. Just take a look at the statistics:
- Two thirds of communication between parent and child is about daily routine
- Over a third of parents think they don’t spend enough time with their children
- Over half of parents say they only play with their children occasionally. A third say they simply don’t have the time to play, and one in six dads say they do not know how to play with their child!
Then there is the allure of technology, with so many parents concerned nowadays that their children prefer to communicate with their mobile phone than with their family! In fact, statistics show that a third of parents and their children use devices at the dinner table!
As a parent myself, I know all too well that with all the endless tasks of being a parent, the washing, preparing meals, and the rushing off to school or nursery, special ‘together times’ can all too easily take a back seat. Yet I have learnt a lot with my own children about how the guilt of not spending enough time with them can be alleviated with little, but regular, moments of playful connection throughout the day. You can see their eyes light up and the messages they get when we really connect through some playful exchange: ‘I delight in you’. ‘I delight in being with you’. ‘You are delightful’.
Recently, I’d become all too aware that, while there was a lot of information out there on how to get children to behave, there was actually very little on how to enhance parent-child relationships on a day-to-day basis. Recent studies have also shown that parents want so much more than just advice on effective discipline. They want to know how to have the best possible relationship with their child. So I wanted to provide a resource, which would give parents a huge menu of ideas for lovely ways of connecting with their child, particularly through attachment play. Over the past 17 years, I have carried out a meta-analysis of research on the long-term impact of positive parent-child interactions on a child’s developing and, as a result of this, I wanted to communicate to parents how attachment play is key for healthy brain development and long-term mental health.
I am absolutely passionate about the concept of attachment parenting and the importance of strengthening emotional bonds between parent and child, for both self and society. Attachment parenting is about ‘forming and nurturing strong connections between parents and their children. The long-range vision of attachment parenting is to raise children who will become adults with a highly developed capacity for empathy and connection (www.attachmentparenting.org).
The main principles of attachment parenting include: feeding with love and respect (ie, breastfeeding or bottle nursing that ‘adapts breastfeeding behaviours to bottle feeding to help initiate a secure attachment (www.attachmentparenting.org) and baby-led weaning; using nurturing touch (such as baby wearing, baby massage, skin-to-skin contact); providing emotionally-attuned responsiveness from key attachment figures, (an emotionally-attuned and playful nanny or carer can be a key attachment figure too); discipline with empathy – not anger – using a calm, non-shaming tone of voice, upholding the child’s dignity and quickly mending inevitable attachment ruptures so that children know that their behaviour has not damaged the attachment relationship.
I like the phrase ‘correction with connection’, which was coined by the clinical psychologist, Dan Hughes. But, most importantly, attachment parenting means meeting the child in pain (when they are distressed) and meeting the child in joy (playful interaction). The scientists call this ‘amplifying positive feelings and moderating negative ones’. In fact, research shows that by age eight, children who have experienced empathic listening and attuned responsiveness on a regular basis, are happier, healthier and enjoy higher academic achievement and social and emotional intelligence than those who have not been parented in this way.
When my science-based parenting book’ What Every Parent Needs to Know’ first came out, some people said, ‘We don’t need this. Parents do just fine without someone telling them what to do. All you need to do is to love a child.’
My retort is this: If this opinion is correct, how come last year there were over 57 million medicinal items dispensed in the UK for depressive illness and anxiety disorders at a net cost to the NHS of £265 million? There are only 53 million people in the country! The number of course includes repeat prescriptions, yet still the figures are staggering. We are not born depressed. The evidence is now overwhelming that how we are parented has a major role to play in future mental health, parenting being a highly sophisticated art.
And parent-child attuned communication and attachment play isn’t just a ‘nice thing’ in the moment. If you do some attachment play every day – even for a short time – you are investing in the health of your relationship with your child long term as well as enhancing your child’s brain development in remarkable ways (all backed by research). I would recommend aiming for at least an hour of quality time a day with your child. But this can be made up of separate quality moments spread out through the day, rather than just one big block of 60 minutes. I think it’s more powerful that way.
To help parents improve their quality time, Dr Sunderland recently launched a series of DVDS: ‘Best Relationship with your Child’, one of which ‘The First Five Years’ is specifically aimed at equipping parents with the tools, skills and practical ideas to strengthen their attachment relationship with their child from the word go.