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Activities for Raising Secure Children

What you can do to instill a strong sense of security in your children.

In my two previous posts on the topic of raising secure children, I suggested that your words and actions have a powerful and direct impact on developing secure children. Security may be the most subtle message you communicate to your children. Though you can talk to them about what security means, the deep message of security is really something that your children will feel by having it woven into the fabric of their lives.

Secure Attachment Activities

The basics of instilling a sense of secure attachment in children are pretty simple and obvious; you just do what parents are supposed to do. Yet when you connect what should be normal parenting with its profound importance to security, it may heighten your awareness of its value and ensure that you take extra steps to provide these fundamental ingredients for healthy attachment.

Be there. Jonah grew up with a father who wasn’t “there” much literally or figuratively. His father traveled constantly, so he wasn’t around much. Plus, even when his father was home, he didn’t show a lot of interest in his three children. When Jonah learned that he was going to be a father, he was determined that he wasn’t going to be his father. He believed that nothing sends a more powerful message to children than their parents simply being present. And, by gosh, he was going to be very present in the lives of his two children.

Jonah didn’t just mean being physically there; he didn’t want to be just a warm body in the room accompanied by a cold mind and even colder heart (meaning distracted and otherwise occupied). That, he knew first hand, was worse that not being there at all because it sends the message that even when physically in the room, your children aren’t important enough to you to be all there.

And in this hectic and connected world in which his family lives, it is so easy to focus on the million and one things he and his wife Lucy could be doing instead of really being with their children. Jonah’s goal is to really there for his children, attentive, engaged, and interactive; present in mind, body, and spirit. And he believes that they feel his presence in the deepest way.

Be responsive. Myra grew up feeling neglected. It’s not that her mother meant to neglect Myra and her three brothers, it’s just that she was a single mother who worked two jobs. When Myra was about to become a mother herself, she read about attachment and realized that was one thing that she didn’t get from her own mother. Because Myra’s mother was so overwhelmed, she simply couldn’t respond to her children when they needed her.

Myra was committed to building that trust and attachment by being responsive to her two children’s needs quickly and appropriately. She wanted to make sure that when Erik and Melanie need her, she is there to support them, particularly when they are experiencing what Myra calls primitive needs, that is, needs that are most relevant to their survival (even in the 21st century), including physical ones, such as hunger or pain, and emotional ones, such as fear, frustration, or sadness.

At the same time, Myra didn’t want to spoil her children by being too responsive. She has taught them that not all of their needs are really needs at all (“But, Mom, I really need that doll!”), so she tries to make the speed of her response appropriate to the urgency of their need. If her kids’ need is not a crisis, then she wants to send the message that she isn’t always at their beck and call and that some of their so-called needs can wait. Myra realizes that when she responds to her children in ways that are out of proportion to the need, she ends up sending them very different messages (e.g., fear or they always come first) that can undermine rather than bolster their attachment to her.

Be loving. Before their daughter Kaylie was born, Ike and Lisa heard a great lecture about attachment, the central message of which was that love is children’s most basic emotional need and lies at the heart of secure attachment. So Ike and Lisa were going to make sure that they gave Kaylie plenty of love to attach to. When they express their love to their daughter through their words and emotions, they believe they are giving her something to which she can metaphorically attach. When they express that love through their hugs, kisses, and touches, Ike and Lisa give Kaylie something to which they can literally attach. And when they not only meet some other need, be it fear or hunger, but do so with love, they give her a double dose of the magical elixir that creates secure attachment.

Be close. Rene and Todd made close physical contact a part of their family life. They both worked full time and Rene only took two months of maternity leave They worried from day one that their three daughters, now ages nine, five, and three, wouldn’t bond with them because they were in child care so much. So they “wore” their children constantly (with the Baby Bjorn and Ergo baby carriers, early on, and then in backpacks, on their shoulders, and in their arms as they got older) when they were together. Rene and Todd were big fans of attachment parenting and all three girls have slept with them for most of their lives (they even bought a California king bed so everyone could be comfortable).

Secure Self Activities

Activities that encourage children’s development of a secure self involve anything that reinforces their sense of competence and control over themselves and their lives. Such pursuits can be organized, such as sports or arts classes, or informal, such as puzzles and games at home. They can also include household activities, for example, chores, cooking and baking, and yard work. You can also incorporate secure-self experiences into your children’s routines by allowing them to make decisions about when and how they fulfill their daily tasks. For example, they can decide in what order they want to complete their bedtime routine, what they want for lunch, or what they want to wear to school.

One of the most important secure-self activities we got both of our girls involved in early on was swimming. By having Catie and Gracie learn to swim as early as possible, not only have we sent a powerful message about their competence and control over themselves in a relatively unnatural setting, namely, the water, but we also have taught them an essential skill that may save their lives (drowning is the second leading cause of death among children 12 and under). Plus, swimming is just plain fun for children.

Dave is an absolute sports fanatic. He loves playing and watching sports. And he wanted his daughter, Patrice, to feel the same way. So, from the time she was in a crib, he surrounded her with every kind of ball imaginable (okay, not a rugby or cricket ball, but most other kinds of balls). As soon as she could walk, Dave had her kicking soccer balls, throwing baseballs, and swinging at golf and tennis balls. When Patrice turned three, she took her first soccer class and now, at seven, is playing in a soccer league coached by, you guessed it, her dad. And, happily for Dave, Patrice absolutely loves sports (go figure).

Secure World Activities

Any activity that enables children to explore their world and expand their comfort zone geographically, socially, physically, and emotionally will help instill their sense of a secure world. Anything with an open space, for example, parks, beaches, museums, or mountain trails, gives children the opportunity to expand their geographical comfort zone. Camps, play dates, and school allow children to experience and master social discomfort. And physical pursuits, such as playing on play structures, climbing boulders on a mountain, riding bikes, and going on hikes, can extend their physical comfort zones. All of these activities help children to explore their emotional comfort zone, allowing them to experience, for example, fear, frustration, and disappointment. These activities send the additional message of a secure self because they enhance their feelings of competence and control over their bodies and the world.

We love taking our girls to parks and watching them explore away from us. Catie, from when she first became mobile, would go quite a distance from us, but always kept in frequent eye contact. She also seemed to know her limits intuitively when she went far enough and, often, just when we felt she was getting too far away for our comfort, she’d come to the same conclusion and begin her return journey back to us. Gracie, in turn, was more cautious, often asking us to go with her the first few times she ventured out. But once she gained familiarity with a particular setting, for example, a park or playground, there was no holding her back.

Barb had always been shy and uncomfortable with people and it had caused her a lot of problems in her life. She figured this was so because both of her parents were introverts with few friends. But she didn’t want her son, Richie, to be held back socially. Barb had read that, though shyness was genetic, life experiences could moderate the impact of this aspect of a child’s temperament, in other words, he wasn’t doomed to a life of shyness and social discomfort. So, she began to expand his social comfort zone within months of his birth. It started with playdates and childcare at the gym at which she exercised. As Richie developed, Barb took him to parties, concerts, and sports events just so he could be around a lot of people. She also taught him to smile and say hello and goodbye to everyone he met. When Richie was ready for pre-school, she enrolled him in one with a small class size his first year so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed, but then transferred him to another pre-school with a larger class, so he would become comfortable in large groups in preparation for kindergarten. Now in first grade, Richie shows initial signs of shyness when he first joins a group (the apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree), but in a short time he is right in the mix with the other children thanks, Barb believes, to her early effort to enlarge his social comfort zone.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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