Monday, April 19, 2010

Why does a four year old still cry for Mommy?

In 1958 John Bowlby published a paper entitled The Nature of a Child's Tie to His Mother (Bowlby, J. (1958). The Nature of the Child's Tie to his Mother1. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 39:350-373). With this paper, an understanding of humans called Attachment Theory was born. In the decades that followed this paper, research has demonstrated that the quality of attachment between mother and child predicts later functioning in many areas of life. The only time this attachment does not predict functioning is when kids take up with callous peers or when there is significant psychological trauma. In other words, a secure attachment is important but is not sufficient for well-being.

How can a parent tell if a child is securely attached?

Unfortunately secure attachment is a laboratory, not a life concept. The test for secure attachment can only be done by especially trained researchers/clinicians. Nonetheless, parents are often concerned that a number of childhood behaviors may indicate problems with attachment. I recently came across an example of this problem. A friend of mine has a four year old daughter who is very bright and generally happy. The child enjoys playing with her sisters and other children. She is not particularly anxious or fearful. However, this child does not like to be without her mother. At times, she cries at preschool because she wants Momma. The question is, "Does a four year old who cries for Momma have a disordered attachment or any other psychological problem?"

In our times, most women with 4 year old children are working full-time. We have little tolerance for four year olds who "act like babies" and cry for their parents. Therefore, it is convenient for us to label this behavior disordered and blame the child and not our lifestyles. Other than the desire to be with mom, my friend's child displays no sign of any psychological disorder. Thankfully, my friend is not working full-time and can be there for her daughter. However, my friend wonders if she should "give in" when her four year old yearns for her. In my view attachment specialists have failed because the field does not answer this question for the public. In fact, I would bet that if my friend took her daughter to 5 different specialists in the area, she would get five different answers. I will therefore provide my own opinion on this question.

Why does a four year old still cry for Mommy?

Attachment means one thing, that is a compulsion for proximity seeking. People who are attached seek to be near one another. Yes, attachment is a compulsion, a behavior we feel compelled to do. The attached person feels compelled to be near that special other. In normal young children, this compulsion is very strong and is the driving force behind much of what they do. This compulsion is also very important for psychological well-being. In fact, when it is absent, children are very disordered. Imagine the child who doesn't care whether his parents are around. That child is disordered! No one knows how much time in minutes/hours a child needs to be physically with his parents in order to have well-being. The answer is likely different for different children even of the same age.

During the preschool years, children also begin to develop what researchers call Self Regulation, an ability I have called impulse control. This ability enables a child to cope with all his many drives, compulsions and emotions. In the case of my friend, her daughter has not yet developed the impulse control necessary to cope with this very strong compulsion. We know that physical affection between parents and children strengthens the development of impulse control. We also know that helping a child understand and cope with his drives and emotions strengthens impulse control. Therefore, depriving a child of the contact he seeks will weaken NOT strengthen his impulse control. Rejecting a preschooler who wants us will likely impair his development and will weaken his sense of independence and competency. When parents require premature independence, children grow up with less impulse control and may be more vulnerable to developing ADHD.

But what if life circumstances make it impossible for mom to be there? In the case of the compulsion to be with mom, it is important not to require a child to exercise control over this impulse before he is ready. We don't want our children to develop the idea that wanting mom is a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. My advice is to have the child keep a picture of his mother with him at daycare or preschool. Staff should be instructed to have the child look at the picture when he misses mom. Staff can also say encouraging words like, "I know you miss your mom, she'll be here in just a little while, then you will be together." Staff can also help the child learn to use distraction to cope, "Let's draw a picture for your mom." "I know your mom wants you to try to have fun playing while you are here."

To sum it all up, many young children can adapt successfully to the demands of modern life. However, there are some vulnerable children for whom too much separation from parents may be harmful. Families have to be able provide for the special needs of these vulnerable children. This is the real meaning of putting the well-being of a child first in our lives.

Posted by Lim Sin Loong, T3

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