Supporting Secure Attachment and Self-Regulation through Mindfulness in Traumatized Children

By Dana Asby, CEI Intern

Around 676,000 American children are abused and neglected each year ((U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018). When caregivers are unable or unwilling to provide the warmth and attention children need to form secure attachments, young children experience difficulties with self-regulation that can affect later academic achievement and interpersonal success. Mindfulness practices help these children repair insecure attachments and problems with self-regulation that are a result of their early adversity.

Consequences of Erratic Parent Behavior and Insecure Attachment

Attachment is a how children use their caregivers’ reactions to stimuli as a model to assist them in understanding how to interact in a social context, primarily through formation of emotional regulation strategies that soothe insecurity (Moss, Bureau, Cry, Mongeau, & St. Laurent, 2004). For children who experience trauma, such as child abuse and neglect, their caregivers’ erratic or absent behavior leads to an insecure attachment. Children then have no mental models of good relationships, causing them difficulty in peer-to-peer interactions.

When a Baby Cries. Another consequence of an insecure attachment is the inability to regulate emotions and consequently, behavior. Infants learn how to alleviate discomfort by taking cues from their caregivers’ responses to their cries. Typical caregivers will attend to an infant’s cry in a timely manner attempting to meet the baby’s needs appropriately. However, if a  caregiver takes too much time responding, responds inappropriately, or does not respond at all, an the infant may then fail to learn how to calm its negative emotions. As Katie Statman-Weil of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (2015) put it, ‘Children who have secure attachments learn to trust their emotions and trust their understanding of the world around them.’ Traumatized children must be taught how to trust their own emotions.

Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma. Interpersonal conflict, chronic stress, and trouble regulating emotions and behaviors can lead to debilitating consequences that follow children into adulthood and perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of trauma. Mindfulness practices break that cycle by teaching children how to cope with their stress and negative emotions themselves rather than relying on the inconsistent adults in their lives. Fortunately, the value of mindfulness practices in supporting secure attachment styles and enhancing self-regulation skills is being recognized by the early childhood field. Mindfulness ‘significantly increases one’s ability to cope with stress, regulate emotions, and attune to others’ (Synder, Shapiro, & Treleaven, 2012).

Mindfulness Practices

Several popular mindfulness practices to help preschool children include:

  • Yoga: For active preschoolers, yoga can be a fun introduction to mindfulness. Children practice moving their bodies in small, intentional movements that help young children build their attention skills and reduce their stress level.
  • Breath Work: NAEYC recommends teaching breathing techniques, such as deep belly breathing, to stop stress in the moment by helping children better attune to their emotions and understand how to alleviate negative ones with intentional breathing (Statman-Weil, 2015).
  • Body Scans: A fun technique for kids is the rainbow body scan, which asks children to pay attention to how their body parts and emotions feels as they move from the top of their head with red down through all of the colors of the rainbow until they reach their violet sitz bones.
  • Progressive Relaxation: This practice takes the body scan further by asking children to tense up different sets of muscles and release them, allowing some of the built-up stress children who have experienced adversity often have to be released as well.
  • Intentional Refocusing: Another way to help traumatized children enhance their self-regulation skills is an exercise that requires them to bring their focus onto a specific object, concept, or sensation without moving their body. These exercises help children bring their minds back into the present (Gehl & Bohlander, 2018).
  • Practicing Compassion: Being kind to others can actually improve one’s own social competence. Learning to practice compassion can lead to improved interpersonal relationships, supporting secure attachments in traumatized children.

Many of the above techniques are presented in an engaging way for preschool-age children in the book by Eline Snel, Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and their Parents). In addition to giving parents a crash course on mindfulness and mindful parenting, the book presents kid-friendly descriptions of mindfulness practices and gives kids fun activities that engage them in practices that focus on breath, attention, emotional regulation, compassion, and patience.

The Kindness Curriculum

High-quality and structured mindfulness interventions can reduce adverse effects of childhood trauma (Ortiz & Sibling, 2016). Dr. Lisa Flook and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed just this with the Kindness Curriculum, which focuses on empathy, gratitude, and sharing to cultivate attention and enhance executive functioning and emotional regulation (Flook, Goldberg, Pinger, & Davidson, 2016). The team found that this curriculum increases social competence, cognitive flexibility, and delay of gratification. Children who started out with lower levels of executive functioning, a trend in children who had been maltreated, improved their attentional and organizational skills the most. Students around the country, including Pre-k students at New York City public schools, are learning how to control their emotions and gain other socio-emotional skills using the Kindness Curriculum. Teachers notice that students are showing more compassion. For all young children, especially those who have experienced maltreatment, this curriculum and other mindfulness practices can improve self-regulation leading to more pro-social behavior. This helps children form important relationships that lead to a secure attachment.

References

Bergstrom, C. (2016). Mindful Feet- A body scan for children. Blissful Kids.

Bragdon, L. (2012). 4 breathing exercises for kids to empower, calm, and self regulate. Move with Me Yoga Adventures.

Burnett, C. (2017). 8 fun breathing exercises for kids. Childhood 101.

Flook, L., Goldberg, S.B., Pinger, L., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulation skills in children through a mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 44-51.

Flook, L., & Pinger, L. (2016). What if schools taught kindness? Greater Good Magazine.

Gehl, M., & Bohlander, A.H. (2018). Being present: Mindfulness in infant and toddler settings.Young Children.

Mehlomakulu, C. (2016). Help your kids calm down: Strategy #2 progressive muscle relaxation. Therapy with Carolyn.

Moss, E., Bureau, J., Cyr, C., Mongeau, C., & St. Laurent, D. (2004). Correlates of attachment at age 3: Construct validity of the preschool attachment classification system. Developmental Psychology, 40(3), 323-334.

Ortiz, R., & Sibinga, E.M. (2016). The role of mindfulness in reducing the adverse effects of childhood stress and trauma. Children, 4(16).

Schiffman, R. (2017). Can kindness be taught? New York Times Spieker, S. and McKinsey Crittenden, P.M.  (2009). Comparing two attachment classification methods applied to preschool strange situations. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 15(1), 97-120.

Statman-Weil, K. (2015). Creating trauma-sensitive classrooms. Young Children.

Synder, R., Shapiro, S., & Treleaven, D. (2012). Attachment theory and mindfulness. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 12, 709-717. doi: 10.1007/s10826-011-9522-8

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2018). Child maltreatment 2016.

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