Sunday, December 17, 2006

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.


Brenda Nixon said...

Excellent comments and insight about "Why does a four year old still cry for Mommy?"
On your statement, "Therefore, depriving a child of the contact he seeks will weaken NOT strengthen his impulse control." Put another way; let him cling and he will eventually cling less. However, in some situations I believe the parent nurtures an insecurity in the child to become happily independent.
I might add that if a photo of "Mommy" isn't available, a suitable substitute for the child is her scarf or object which carries her distinct smell. This could provide comfort and satisfaction in her absence. When I speak to parents/caregivers of young children on Separation Anxiety, I make this same suggestion.

terrie said...

That post just gave me goose bumps and made me sick to my stomach.

My grandkids don't have that attachment with their mother, nor their father for that matter. They come and go and they don't seem to care.

I have legal custody, what do I do? When they aren't in jail, I let them visit the kids as long as they aren't drugged up and/or crazy.

I try so hard to keep their family together. My daughter in law lived with me since she was sixteen, her mother is a drunk. She moved to S. Carolina because her daughter "was causing her too much stress." But when she's in town, she too has absolute contact with the kids as long as she's sober.

My feeling is that these kids NEED all the love that they can get. What do I do? Is our love for them enough?? Bella cries when I leave and so does Chase, if he's not busy doing something and sees me leaving.

Should I be scared to death? These children, these poor babies are my whole life. They and my husband are the ONLY things that matter to me. And I so desperately need help. Please tell me that I didn't start too late.

Anonymous said...

Hi Terrie
I was so moved by your post. The future is not written in stone for any child, ever. Sounds to me like you are providing lots of love for your dear grandbabies. Their parents are allowed to connect when they are sober and sounds like you keep them away when they are not. Bravo!
Continue to provide that love and security for them, as much as they seem to need. Let significant people in their lives, (teachers, etc) know about their special circumstances. Perhaps there are supplementary support services available to them/to you, to give you feedback about how they are doing.
Last thought: Don't assume that your grandchildren "don't care" about their parents, even though their behavior may communicate that. Children learn to protect themselves from parents that can't be relied upon; it doesn't mean that inside there isn't alot of love, however conflicted it may be.

Anonymous said...

What about parents intentionally trying to keep their once independent kids helpless? My stepdaughter was very happy and independent at age 3. Her mother started to feel insecure about parenting as she is a tv mom and her father and I like to bring her to social events, parks, playgrounds, and do art, science and other educational projects with her. My SD's mother was nurturing her independence at one point and then she started to tell her false statements such as "salt water at the beach will blind you" to get her to be scared of activities we do at our house. She tells her daughter "When she goes to daddy's, mommy cries cause she misses her" and even started taking showers with her again even though my SD has been in the tub or shower alone for three years (with supervision)! I am really concerned because SD seems to not care about being mean to anyone and she has become apathetic and completely selfish. She has said such mean things that I actually started crying and she didn't even flinch. I am really worried. She's 4 and I understand she should be attached to mom, but her mother has done some terrible things like taking her away from her father for months at a time and moving her in with an abusive new bf. She's moved houses eight times in two years, and is now married to man that she knew 2 months and got pregnant with before getting married. This isn't right and I don't know what to do about it! There is so much more to the situation. I really tried to like her mother, but her mother's psychological issues are damaging her now!

jodieshields said...

My grandson has lived with me since he was a year old. He has also lived with his father(my son) since that time. His mother was not attached to him as a infant and he was left with others to care for him. Although he still sees her(she has sinced joined the army) about every 4 to 5 months, he does not cry for her. He does see his dad, and uncles, my mother(nana) and he is very attached to me. What happens if sometime during the next year, mom has a chance to get custody? The court had given me temporary guardianship and has since gave dad custody, which means that my grandson's life for the moment stays the same. With the whims of the court system, the mother who live in texas and has since re-married(2 months after she was divorced), I live in fear for my grandsons well being. His other has told him in the past that he was going to get a new daddy, and that she works on guns, ect. Things that she should think about when talking to a "young" just turned 4 year old. We do have skype visits wherein she is talking to someone(possible husband) just out of sight, while she is supposed to be bonding with her son. What is this grandma going to do?

Dr. Leedom said...

Jodie if you would like to contact me for an answer to your question email ljleedom(at)