Attachment theory applied to God

attachment father daughterIt hit me like a bolt of lightning as I was preparing a workshop that I presented at a national children’s spirituality summit last month. (My topic was spiritual learning styles and how a child most naturally connects with God.) God is a primary caregiver and attachment theory applies to a human being’s relationship with God, not only to our human relationships.

Others have the same perspective.

For example, Peter Lovenheim, author of The Attachment Effect, discovered:

Of course I can have a true attachment relationship with God even though God cannot be seen. My sister, after all, had been unseen by me for more than a year now, yet I still had a relationship with her that met the attachment criteria…. I continue to keep her close (proximity) with photos and other objects, and by talking to her. And our love continues to strengthen me (secure love) and comfort me in times of stress (safe haven). My love for Jane and hers for me survives her death, as does our attachment relationship.”

attachment university studentWe are born to connect.

Harry Reis, Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, writes: “Attachment theory always captivates students. When I lecture about attachment theory, even the most distracted student soon starts to pay attention.”

In my experience, if the subject of a relationship with God has come up in conversations I’ve had, everyone has admitted, “If it were possible, I would want to know God personally.” Kids are no different. Most of us want to feel attached to God.

How can I help a child strengthen his or her attachment bond with God?

All of these previous blog posts give a description of different styles children use while bonding to God, with practical ideas and conversation starters. This is so valuable to a child’s continued growth in faith.

Attachment theory’s observations are at once wise, astute, and intensely personal–it’s hard to listen to an account of attachment theory without thinking, “Yes, that’s it!”  (Professor Harry Reis)

Tweetable: Is your child asking about God or interested in knowing about God? Or maybe your kids resist going to religious services? Be sure you know the child’s natural way to connect with God. It’s almost certainly not the same as yours. Click to Tweet 

Kids remind us: keep asking questions

reminder to ask not tellWe don’t ask each other questions. Instead, we speak—sometimes tweet—statements at each other.”*

What response do we get when we assert our own ideas before we attempt to understand the other person? What tone does this set in our family relationships and in social settings?  Can children show us a better way?

Reminder #1: Questions form a bond

reminder to bondHaven’t we all answered a 3-year-old’s question, only to be asked and answered again—and again—and again? Finally it dawns on us that the child is bonding with us. The give-and-take of her Q &A session produces dialogue and dialogue forms bonds.

Reminder #2: Questions lead to self-awareness

I find that the “Would you rather…” questions work best with most kids. I get blank stares with general questions. For example, “Would you rather take piano lessons or painting lessons?” works better than, “What kind of lessons do you want to take?” in finding out how we can develop their innate talents.

Reminder #3: Questions strengthen critical thinking skills

Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making, suggests these questions: “What ideas do you have?” and “What do you think is happening here?” Respect responses whether you view them as correct or not. You could say, “That is interesting. Tell me why you think that.” Use phrases like “I am interested to hear your thinking about this.” “How would you solve this problem?”

Ask God questions

reminder of friendly worldChildren relate well to God when they form an image of a personal God, one who loves them, cares about them and knows them by name. I like to say “Let’s ask God about that and see how God answers us.” I do this with confidence because years ago I added question-asking to my own relationship with God. I began to hear the world around me with new ears and to see my environment with new eyes.

Through nonverbal cues and just plain acting out, kids remind us to ask them questions and provide them with choices.  

“It’s hard, because we live in a world that is perfectly comfortable with making statements. And perfectly uncomfortable asking questions.”– Douglas Estes, assistant professor at South University Columbia, SC

*Douglas Estes

Tweetable: Kids can keep us from working so hard to get our point across because they respond so positively when, instead, we ask questions and offer choices. A good practice with peers too. Click to Tweet

 

Engage with children in ways that reflect God’s heart

God's heart for childAn acquaintance of mine, a preschool teacher, describes a time when she saw God’s heart reflected in a child’s actions.

“One of the children in my class became upset and started to cry. Her classmate, Miguel, immediately stopped what he was doing, grabbed a tissue and literally wiped her eyes. He then sat next to her and comforted her. Miguel is filled with a deep sense of compassion and justice. I praised Miguel for that compassion and for caring for his friend.”

God's heart toward sadness1) See experiences through the child’s eyes.

Miguel’s empathy reflected God’s heart toward his friend. He had understanding and insight into his friend’s thoughts and feelings. He took action to comfort her.

Empathy is not an easy skill to use, especially for those who were raised to minimize feelings, or skip over feelings and go right to changing or fixing them. When we practice empathy we communicate to children that we care.

2) Respond with empathy to reflect God’s heart of love toward children:

  • That hurts, doesn’t it?
  • I’m so sorry.
  • Good for you! You did it!
  • I remember feeling that way when I was a child–it’s exciting, isn’t it?
  • It’s scary to feel all alone.

3) Support the child’s bond with God and God’s bond with the child.

Obviously bonding requires presence. Mere information about someone does not make a strong bond. We reflect God’s heart toward children when we support God’s bond with the child.  This is difficult because we’re dealing with a Higher Power who is invisible. But when you are with the child, it is also easy to find God’s presence.

  1. God's heart in natureLook for kind acts and loving gestures wherever you go. Why? Because that’s where God is making an appearance. Develop a family habit to point out the good, not the stupid or rude.
  2. Notice and verbalize signs of God’s love: in nature, in movies, music, children’s literature, in happy surprises.
  3. Focus on God’s nurturing, comforting, gentle presence in difficult times and give God the benefit of the doubt.

Tweetable: Understand & support a child’s bond with God even when you don’t have one, or don’t have the same kind. Click to Tweet

Kids ask, “Can people actually make a connection with God?”

These ideas for discussing the possibilities of such a relationship are written at a child’s vocabulary level. Adapt it as needed for a child’s unique situation.

Your connection with God starts with God.

From the beginning of your life, God provides a family for you, intending that you will learn what love, nurture and care are. As an infant you responded to God when you experienced delight in looking at your parents’ faces, feeling warm bath water on your skin or being cuddled.

God’s bond with you is ready for you to join in whenever you want to.

God has been preparing it all along. Your human spirit–inside of you–is where this relationship develops. Since God is spirit, God provided you with your human spirit so you would have the inner space to hold a relationship with God.

You have been responding to God, even when you did not recognize it.

When you see the night sky with countless stars and feel amazement at how big and wide it is, you are responding to God’s glory.

When you see someone’s talent expressed you are responding to God’s handiwork. When you feel love and kindness being shown to you, you are sensing God’s presence.

If you take time right now to think about it, you would remember many times you connected with God. Something special was going on but you did not recognize that it was because of God.

Connect more directly with God the same ways you connect with people.

Starting in early childhood and continuing through your whole life, you have plenty of things to go to God about. You have lots to talk about and question. These questions, conversations and encounters, along with the feelings they produce, form the foundation of a real relationship.

Think about the relationships in your life.

You go places together, hang out, laugh, play, work, eat, talk, argue. With God, you do many of the same things. God has feelings. God is delighted when you are having fun. God feels anger when people hurt each other and feels happy when you are generous. God feels disappointed when someone breaks a promise. God understands everything you feel inside. When you are upset, maybe crying, you can be sure that God is aware of every tear. When you are celebrating a special occasion, God’s heart is full of joy. God knows and loves everything about you.

Note: These traits of God are taken from the Bible’s stories.

Tweetable:  What do you say when kids ask, “Can people actually make a connection with God?” Some good ideas here. Click to Tweet

Creative Mother’s Day message ideas for older kids

Are you a teacher, dad, grandparent–someone who will coach children in their Mother’s Day messages and gifts? Here are some fresh ideas to get them started on their messages.

Young children may touch mom’s heart with their crayon-drawn cards….

….but older children can begin to venture outside the box  of “Thanks for all you do for me” into specific actions mom does. Just two or three of them will communicate a deeper level of appreciation perhaps.

Older children and teens can begin to articulate specific qualities, character, personality traits and attitudes.

These creative sentences may spark children’s short messages affirming the spirit of their mother. I like these ideas offered by Keely Chace :

  • You’re the glue that holds us together.
  • I hope you know how much I admire the woman you are.
  • You’ve taught me so much without saying a word.
  • Your love has shaped me in lasting ways.
  • You are the heart and soul of our family. I love you.
  • For all you’ve gone through, all you are and all the love you share.
  • You’re the best listener I could ever ask for.
  • You don’t just give love, you are love. And I love you so much, too!
  • There’s simply no one else like you. I feel so blessed.
  • Creative, generous and fun–that’s you. [or whatever qualities fit her]

And for stepmom (or mother figure):

  • Thank you for being such an important person in my life. You’re someone I can tell anything and ask anything.
  • I wanted to recognize you on Mother’s Day for being such a caring and positive influence in my life.
  • I look up to you more than you know.
  • You’re an amazing women I admire, appreciate and love.

Tweetable: Creative ideas for Mother’s Day messages beyond “Thanks for all you do for me.” Click to Tweet

 

Give God the benefit of the doubt, for kids’ sake.

It was 8:50am. Jayeff sat in the passenger seat of my car as we crawled toward downtown Los Angeles on our way to teach another Life Skills class. A little daylight opened up in the fast lane and a luxury car jammed its way into the space, then zigzagged to cut in front of me, hoping to find another opening, propelling him to his destination more quickly.

Jayeff and I caught our breath at the reckless behavior. I remarked that he sure was in a big hurry. She said, “He must be late for work….” and I finished with, “…and he’s going to get fired if he’s late one more time!” She said, “He’s the sole provider for his family” and I continued, “I sure hope he makes it safely and on time!”

The skill we would be teaching, in a matter of minutes, was Positive Intent–the very skill we practiced in the car to keep our composure and manage self-control.

Are you a mind reader? Probably not.

I don’t know why that driver was in such a hurry, but since I was making up his intent, “Why in the world would I want to attribute an intent that results in nasty feelings for me? I can just as easily attribute positive intent to these situations and reap positive emotions.” (Dr. Becky Bailey)

Negative intent is ingrained in most of us.

Dr. Bailey writes, “The habit of attributing negative intent is so ingrained in most of us that it is difficult at times to recognize, much less reframe positively.”

I got to thinking: Have I practiced negative intent with God?

Most of us have formed an image of God. When we judged God’s nature, we harvested a bushel of emotions about this higher power. When we attribute negative intent to God, the emotions we experience toward God are equally negative.

Give God the benefit of the doubt

Seeing the best in God is the only perceptual frame that will enable us to connect with this supreme being, rather than projecting guilt, hurt and other negative feelings onto God. We can just as easily attribute positive intent to these situations and reap positive emotions.

Impress it upon the children

With positive intent we can transform the way a child’s experiences God. My parents did this for me, making it possible for me to form a deep, enduring connection with the one who loves us all.

Note: Becky Bailey’s lesson on the skill of Positive Intent inspired me to ponder its effect on human connections with God.

Tweetable: We try to give the benefit of the doubt to people. What would happen if we extended it to God? Click to Tweet