Colorado State University Researcher Finds Secure Emotional Bond Crucial to Child’s Success

Creating a secure emotional bond with babies and children is crucial in shaping their future success, a Colorado State University researcher has found.

The No. 1 predictor for how a child turns out is a baby’s and child’s secure bonding with caregivers, said Zeynep Biringen, associate professor and interim department head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State. Biringen has been researching emotional availability for 16 years, and her findings form the base of her recent book, "Raising a Secure Child: Creating an Emotional Connection Between You and Your Child."

"Raising a secure baby, in particular, is a way to give them an edge in how they adapt to life," Biringen said.

The balance between connection and independence is what parents, child care providers and teachers should be aiming for as they raise secure children, Biringen said. Although most people think children and adolescents need a sense of security within themselves, babies also can communicate whether or not they feel secure with their caregivers.   

By attentively responding to babies’ needs and learning to read their behavioral and emotional cues, parents can ensure their children relate better with them, are more attentive in school and have better social skills, Biringen said.

"It is also much easier to raise a child and adolescent who was a secure baby – much easier than the day-to-day life of raising an insecure one," Biringen said.

Emotional availability is a quality of a caregiver/child relationship that predicts the security of their bond, Biringen said. On the caregiver’s side, the relationship is characterized by sensitivity, appropriate structuring, non-intrusiveness and non-hostility. In return, the child is responsive and involved with the caregiver. Parents can learn to observe the nonverbal and verbal signs of their child’s emotional availability toward them and turn things around if their child has "shut down" emotionally or their child has become overly emotional, needy, and clingy – two major signs that are red flags.

"A rich emotional connection with our children is the best legacy we can leave them and the finest inheritance they can have," Biringen wrote in her book, which includes quizzes to help parents and caregivers assess if their children are emotionally unavailable and insecurely bonded as well as tips on how to improve the bond.

About 30 percent of babies and young children as classified as emotionally unavailable or insecurely bonded to their caregivers, Biringen said, and often their parents and caregivers are unaware of it. She shares techniques that can help families move babies and young children toward security with the important adults in their lives.

Good parenting is not the same thing as emotionally available parenting, she said. Emotional availability makes caregivers feel more connected with their children and makes their children feel more connected with them.

"Many good parents provide for their children’s basic care, such as nutrition, finding the right schools and helping with homework, but they may actually not be emotionally connected with them," Biringen said

The first step in emotionally available parenting is responding attentively, not mechanically, to a baby’s needs, establishing a relationship by their emotional presence. That relationship promotes security. Biringen assesses the security of a bond between a child and her caregivers by observing how the child interacts in the caregiver’s presence and after the caregiver has left.

For securely attached babies and young children, parents are a "secure base" from which they feel safe to explore their surroundings and with whom they enjoy sharing their findings.

"When they have that secure base, when their emotional needs have been met, they’re ready to go into new situations and see the positives rather than demand attention in negative ways," Biringen said.

Babies first experience emotional availability in their relationship with their parents and transfer those skills to their siblings, other caregivers, peers and teachers. It’s important to focus on creating a bond with babies, Biringen said, but it’s never too late to strengthen the relationship between parents and children.

"If you focus on the babies, then you have a less difficult time when they’re children and adolescents, but at any time you can change the emotional security of a child," she said. "There can be healing at later points even if a child has not started out secure, but parents have to jumpstart the process and work at the emotional connection."

Biringen believes the more adults a baby is securely attached to, the more that child is emotionally successful. This is the concept of a village raising children.

Biringen recently received a Bohemian Foundation grant for Project Secure Child. Working with Ellen Coker of Colorado State’s Early Childhood Center, Biringen will administer the program to train child-care providers in the community on how to interact with babies to enable the babies to be secure. Workshops and interactive coaching will be used to train providers to be more emotionally available and to create secure connections.