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Allison LaTona, M.F.T.
Psychotherapist | Parenting Coach + Educator

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Growing a Solid Foundation

Photo by g-stockstudio/iStock / Getty Images

Raising a child to become an adult who thrives requires building a solid foundation from the start. 

When I became a mom almost 20 years ago, my whole world view took a dramatic shift. I was in awe of the profound sense of love and connection I felt with my baby boy.  I was deeply struck by this blessed life, privilege, and opportunity I had before me to nurture a connected relationship of safety and security, to teach and guide with limits, and ultimately give a foundation that would significantly impact the quality of his life as a child and experience in adulthood. 

In my practice, I had been seeing families, children, young adults and couples with early attachment issues, school & behavior challenges, difficulties in relationships, dysfunctional communication styles, self-esteem issues, and various other life struggles.  As I looked at my son, I felt a great sense of optimism in being given the chance to foster a lifelong connection, give experiences, and to mindfully parent, so as to give him a foundation that would pave the way for him to reach his potential.  Now as a mom, I had a deeper understanding of my academia and professional experience.  My master’s degree, training, and licensure now combined with my personal experience of motherhood, and birthed a new passion that fueled my work. 

Building a strong foundation:

From birth, the two most important ingredients to a solid foundation are:

1)    a connected, attuned relationship, responding with presence to cues of communication, thereby fostering a sense of reciprocity, safety, security, trust, and significance

and                  

2)    providing lots of opportunity for movement, which optimally fires and wires brain connections, and gives the experience of their body becoming a vehicle for learning, as it facilitates exploration of their environment and engagement of interpersonal connections

These two ingredients are interdependent, as the safety of an attuned relationship is what allows for the movement away and exploration.  The mother (or primary caregiver) is the secure-base from which to feel safe enough to move away, explore, and learn in order to become an autonomous individual.  The child moves back and forth from this secure relationship to the exploration of the world throughout childhood.  Building a solid foundation, a multilayered process through adolescence, facilitates ease of individuation, quality of connections, and skill development. 

Practice attunement:

As parents, we begin to pave our babies’ foundation by reading and responding to their cues of communication, not just their tears, but also paying attention to the subtle gestural, and non-verbal communication from their bodies and eyes, and tending to appropriately.  When parents are consistently available and notice what their child is expressing, and respond with warmth to meet their need for connection or otherwise, the baby feels their communication has meaning, their feelings are valid, and there is someone in their world understanding them.  This gives the baby a deep sense of feeling ‘felt’, connectedness and security, which fosters a secure attachment. Children continue to need attunement as they grow throughout childhood and adolescence. 

Fostering a secure attachment:

A secure attachment is at the core of thriving as an adult.   Researchers have found that those who have developed a secure attachment in early childhood grow up more adaptable to life’s stressors, experience more fulfilling relationships, have respect from peers, and meet their intellectual potential.  This attachment style is rooted in how a child experienced patterns of interaction from their early caregivers, and is independent of inborn temperament or other genetic factors.  Brain studies have further shown that those with a secure attachment style have optimal outcomes in executive functioning skills, such as: emotional regulation, physical regulation, flexibility, insight, self-awareness, empathy, planning, focus, decision-making, judgment and morality.  These are all skills we want our children to be equipped with as adults, thus the early work of building their foundation is an essential gift.  Early moments of love, nurturance and responsive connection matter.

Perfection is not the goal:

Hearing the realities of what a child needs and how this can so significantly impact their future can feel daunting, and even worrisome to some.  When done well, raising a child is an enormous commitment and responsibility.  Most parents want to give their children the best they can. However, some parents themselves have not been given the gift of a solid foundation in their own childhood, and therefore wonder if they have the capacity to provide it. 

The encouraging news is the research shows that as long as an adult works therapeutically to make sense of their childhood experience, thus creating a “coherent narrative”, they can be free to parent consciously, rather than be programmed by their early experience.  In other words, if you had a traumatic or dysfunctional childhood experience and/or you were not parented optimally, you can still parent well if you so choose.  Additionally, as much as children need an attuned caregiver, children don’t need this a hundred percent of the time!  There will be many less-than-perfect moments on this parenting journey, and a solid foundation can still be developed.  Children don’t need perfect, as there is no such thing in reality, and it’s good for them to experience that too.  They need regular practice and demonstration of these respectful and connected moments, but they don’t need it all the time. 

In the inevitable “low-road” moment, parents can “revisit & repair” by reconnecting with their child, acknowledging feelings, and taking responsibility for the less than ideal way in which an interaction was handled.  Parents can feel assured that these moments can be just as valuable, in that they demonstrate parents aren’t perfect (so they don’t have to be), model accountability, foster forgiveness, and promote healing. Misattuned moments demonstrate the reality in relationships that conflict can foster growth and intimacy, and build resilience.

Developing and maintaining routine and schedule:

Part of feeling safe and secure for a solid foundation is knowing what to expect. For babies and young children, routine and schedule help to provide this and are the beginning of discipline.  As a child often resists the transition and separation to sleep, a daily structure (with flexibility) also facilitates valuable skills of self-soothing, frustration tolerance, and delayed gratification, as well as gives the opportunity to gain essential sleep needed to grow and be refueled to explore and learn.

What naturally unfolds when mindfully reading babies’ communication is the development of a schedule and routine.  Babies’ threshold for taking in the world is very small.  They can only take in small bits of their new sensory-rich environment at a time, until they inevitably become overstimulated and overtired.  When the parent responds to these ‘tired’ cues by giving the baby the opportunity to sleep, and repeats this throughout the day, a pattern evolves.  As much of a commitment as this is for parents, it is truly a gift to a child, who grows, develops capabilities, recharges, and learns optimally.  Their world feels predictable.

The value of movement:

Giving a baby the experience of moving freely with lots of floor-time wires important connections in the brain, and allows their whole body to become a vehicle for learning.  As babies begin to roll and crawl, these developments allow for exploration of their environment and increased interaction in the interpersonal world, both promoting connections and discovery. 

It may seem obvious to let your child move, yet parents are enticed by the consumer world of product and technology, with contraptions such as the ‘bouncy’ and ‘bumbo’ seats, exersaucers, swings, walkers, etc.  As parents seek to give their child the ‘best’ and to seemingly make life a bit easier, these contraptions seem like a need, when in fact, they actually can inhibit development.  Although limited use of these products is likely harmless, overuse of contraptions, which restrict your baby from moving freely, can take away their tolerance for the ‘work’ they need to do on the floor.  This ‘work’ invites valuable problem-solving through struggle, which drives the sequence of developments, ultimately leading to their milestones (eg. on back reach to side, roll to side, roll to tummy, push to hands and knees, push back into sitting position, transition back to crawl, pull to stand, let go to walk).  When given the opportunity to develop this sequence naturally, babies are most efficient in their movement allowing ease of exploration, confidence, and competence.

Movement continues to be important as children grow.  Television and technology are the main culprits of limiting children’s movement, problem-solving, imagination and skill development, as well as their interactions with people and the environment.  Movement also impacts behavior, as most need an outlet of expression through activity to feel balanced.  As parents give their children lots of opportunity to engage their world through movement, which involves setting limits and making mindful choices, they foster the development of many critical skills for a solid foundation.

Words matter:

How parents choose to communicate with their child also impacts the quality of their foundation.  Respectful and clear communication that honors your child as a human being is deserved and essential to their well-being.  When parents are mindful of how they communicate with their child, including validation of their feelings, mindful semantics, and positive discipline, a child is more likely to listen and cooperate. 

Many parents weren’t communicated with respectfully or effectively, impacting their ability to do so with their own children.  Yet a parent can always do the work in therapy to make sense of the pain and hurt they felt when communicated with poorly, and then be free to more consciously communicate with their child. 

It may just be words or gestures, but they significantly impact your child’s experience and foundation. 

Maintain appropriate balance of power:

As babies begin to roll and crawl away from their parent, the natural process of seeking autonomy and independence commences.  As this is an essential developmental task of the child, parents need to support the exploration with limits.  This is a major balancing act in the journey of parenthood.  It is relatively easy to allow your child to explore freely in a fully babyproofed space with no time agenda on the part of the parent.  Yet when the parent needs to set limits for safety, or otherwise, and has to transition to the next activity, and the child’s sense of his/her own opinions, desires, preferences has emerged (around 8-10+ mos.), the limits are often met with protest. This is when parents can attune to their feelings by giving acknowledgement and validation, and redirect them to what they can have or do.  This is will be theme as long as you are raising your children.

Children need limits to feel security. Although they will protest them with their own emerging desires, they ultimately feel safe when the limits are there, and are held firm.  When limits are scarce, the child feels too much power.  Children with too much power will manifest misbehavior and look for limits.  Although children must seek autonomy, they do best with just a limited and appropriate amount of power.  This can be in the form of a choice, such as the “pink or purple cup?”, or an open-ended question, such as “what do you want to put in the bath?” or “where does that go?” which will invite their thinking to increase cooperation, but will give a parameter around the scope of their power.  This involves a coming alongside your child, instead of up-against them, thereby creating a win-win outcome, rather than a power struggle.  The parent ‘wins’ getting their child to move in the direction they need them to go, and the child ‘wins’ because they felt powerful along the way.  Finding this balance will create a solid foundation for your child, as with limits, children not only internalize safety, but gain lots of practice in emotional and physical regulation serving them into adulthood.

Be your child’s container:

Part of having a solid foundation is having the capacity for emotional and physical regulation, self- awareness, insight and empathy.  We now know that these are executive functioning skills and develop in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, taking 25 years to develop.  Children then have a journey ahead of learning these skills, which amounts to a lot of tears fairly often.  When children are having big feelings and aren’t able to regulate their emotions right away, they are showing us they need help.  Parents are a child’s regulator, as their presence calms and contains the child. 

Children need to express their emotions and have someone in their life who gives them a sense of “feeling felt” and validation.  This is an essential ingredient to a sense of ourselves and well-being.  This does not require you to fix or rescue their feelings, which is often the intuitive response.  Rather, children just need acknowledgment and validation in order to rebalance themselves. 

Being a container of emotion allows for expression without judgement, and a model for emotional tolerance.  When children see their parent tolerating their emotions, they learn to tolerate their own.  A parent’s ability to contain, tolerate and validate their child’s emotions is contingent on the parent’s history around emotions, temperament, and resources in the moment.  Self-care is at the core of giving the parent the ‘bandwidth’ to be able to meet their child’s needs, especially in the midst of a tantrum.  This is definitely not always easy, and yet an important aspect to a child’s foundation. 

It’s a surreal experience to be looking back on the foundation my husband and I have built for our 17- and 19-year-old children.  The old adage “the days are long, and the years are short” resonates. The journey has been rich with fulfillment, deeply rewarding, and yes, of course, often challenging.  There were lots of moments and days I felt pleased with my mindful parenting style, my presence, tone, curated semantics and effective tools, and there were plenty of moments where I fell short, was reactive, and said or did the less than ideal.  It is these challenging moments and periods that have brought on some sort of growth, be it within my child, our relationship, or within us as parents.  I remind often, I teach the ‘ideal’, but am a human being, who falls short of that plenty.  Even with this truth, we did it “right” enough of the time to pave a solid foundation for our kids.  I feel a sense of gratitude witnessing who they are becoming and the many ‘fruit of our labor’. 

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