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The secret to well-behaved kids

“My kids absolutely refuse to cooperate with me. Just this morning, my eleven-year old son gave me a dirty look when I asked him to put his breakfast dish in the sink. What should I have done? I’ve tried all kinds of punishments and consequences, and nothing seems to work! Help!” Does Leah’s frustration sound familiar? Author and therapist Susan Stiffelman explains how to strengthen your attachment with your child to make them want to cooperate with you, without resorting to threats or punishments.


 The secret to well-behaved kids

Leah’s phone call was typical of the kind I receive on a regular basis. I told Leah what I tell most parents who ask me how to handle a child’s problematic behavior after it’s happened. “My approach is a little different. Rather than scripting for you what to say or do after a child has refused to do as you ask, I’m going to help you avoid these kinds of problems.” She scheduled a number of phone coaching sessions, and soon reported tremendous improvement in her children’s behavior. While I did teach her specific strategies to enlist her children’s cooperation, one of the most important elements we worked on was strengthening the connection she had with each of her children. 

Why kids resist being told what to do

 Human beings are wired to resist being told what to do or bossed around outside of the context of attachment. This is actually a very good thing. By having instincts that tell them to only obey those they are securely connected to, children have an internal safeguard that protects them from wandering off with strangers, or doing the bidding of those who may not have their best interests at heart.
Gordon Neufeld, the author of Hold On to Your Kids, has developed a model of the six stages of attachment that all children ideally progress through in the first six years of life. By ensuring that each of these avenues of connection are strong with our children, we fuel their natural inclination to follow our lead and cooperate with us.


The 6 Stages of Attachment

1. Proximity

An infant begins the journey of attachment to the parent or caregiver through Proximity by touch, contact and closeness. As they grow and we send the message that we like to be around them, attachment gets stronger.

 2. Sameness

 Around the age of two, a child adds Sameness. Their desire to be like us is an important element in their acquisition of language. It also helps the growing child—and adolescent—continue to feel connected to us when we emphasize interests or inclinations that we share with them. 

3. Belonging or Loyalty

Around three, a child’s connection further develops through Belonging or Loyalty. Children of this age are possessive of their parents, pushing siblings off Mommy’s lap or saying things like, “I want to marry you, Daddy.” With bonding through loyalty, the child also begins wanting do what we ask of them.

4. Significance 

Connection deepens even more with the next stage: Significance. By letting our child know how he or she is special to us, we fortify the sense of closeness between us.

5. Love

Around five years old, the child moves into the fifth stage of attachment, Love. This is where the whole range of emotions begin to help deepen attachment between parent and child.

6. Being Known

And finally, the last stage — Being Known — is where if all has gone well, the child from six on up tells us their secrets. This, to me, is the most important stage, and the one that plays a critical role as we guide our pre-teens and teens through adolescence safely towards a healthy adult life.
This is just a cursory overview of the stages (for more information please visit or but by looking at their connection with the child who misbehaves, instead of trying to come up with ever-escalating punishments or consequences, a parent has the most profound chance of eliciting true, instinctive cooperation.

How parents can strengthen attachments

When Leah focused on strengthening attachment with each of her children, she saw significant improvements in their behavior without raising her voice or using more serious threats.

Here are just a few of the ways parents can build attachment, using these six inroads:  

  • Invite your child to a spontaneous game of cards, a walk, or a joke-telling session
  • Emphasize activities or interests you share with your child. If you’re both fans of America’s Funniest Videos, watch it together, or brainstorm funny ideas for your own
  • Show the child you’re on their side if they’re having problems with homework or friends, letting them know you’re there to help them get through it rather than blaming or judging
  • Look through photo albums of your child when they were a baby, letting them know how eager you were for them to arrive and how much love you shared
  • Let them see your face light up when they walk into the room — without adding a reminder or request
  • When your child starts telling you their truths, listen without interrupting. Show them you’re capable of hearing what they have to say.

While this is just a brief introduction to the importance of attachment and ways to strengthen it, allow these ideas to simmer. Notice the times your kids do cooperate with you without your having pushed and prodded. Chances are you’ll see that your connection to them felt loving and strong.  By building deep roots of connection, we help our children be resilient, strong, and naturally inclined to cooperate with us.

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