Give Your Kids ‘Little Lice’ (and Other Affectionate Touch) to Help Them Thrive

In Latin America, they call it piojito—literally, “little lice”—but parents all around the world use this special form of physical affection to bond with their children. The Spanish name hints at the basic technique: parents draw their fingertips over their child’s head, back, or arm in short, gentle strokes.

The resulting sensation might remind some people of little lice, but the effect is more magical, evoking a warm, cozy feeling—and a sense of closeness between the person giving and receiving the touch.

It turns out that lightly stroking the hairy parts of our skin at just the right speed activates special nerve cells called C-tactile fibers. The activated CT fibers signal the release of dopamine, which in turn lights up parts of the brain that process sensation, emotion, and reward. The resulting burst of pleasure motivates us to seek out the same connection again, strengthening the relationship.


We’re Hard-Wired for Physical Affection

But if the idea of imitating creepy-crawly little bugs turns you off, don’t despair. Piojito isn’t the only way to connect with your kids; many types of physical affection are just as effective. 

What is most important, according to Dr. Greg Popcak, is for parents to be generous with appropriate physical affection.

“We’re hard-wired by God to long for affection and to want to be affectionate with each other,” Dr. Popcak says in a video on CatholicHOM, the Catholic parenting app. “In fact, for mental and physical well-being, affection is a more fundamental need than even food.”

The importance of so-called “social touch” for kids’ healthy development has been understood for decades. In the moment, physical affection measurably reduces stress and pain. But it also releases growth hormones, boosts the immune system, and strengthens brain development. Children who experience regular affectionate touch often display stronger cognitive skills, empathy, and emotional resiliency.

The benefits of physical touch last well into adulthood, according to one decades-long study by Duke University researchers of 482 people. The researchers found that individuals who received lots of affection from their mothers as eight-month-old infants “showed significantly lower levels of distress, anxiety and hostility” as 34-year-old adults.


But I’m Just Not Affectionate!

Parents sometimes tell Lisa Popcak, a family coach and vice president of the, that they’re “just not affectionate” or that their children aren’t affectionate. But while some people may shun affection due to a neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism, in most cases, “if we aren’t affectionate, it’s actually because somehow affection was trained out of us,” she says.

The good news is that even people who aren’t used to giving and receiving affection can train themselves to become more comfortable with it. But because this involves physical changes to our nervous system, it might take some time, much as it takes weeks or months of practice to develop a new physical skill.

Start by pushing yourself a little out of your comfort zone, Dr. Popcak advises, gradually building up to a more affectionate way of interacting with your kids.


7 Ways to Practice Physical Affection with Your Kids

Remember, too, that physical affection comes in many different flavors. Here are seven to try with your kids in the coming week:

  1.     Hugs, especially as part of a daily leaving or returning ritual
  2.     Cuddling on the couch
  3.     Gentle back and shoulder massage
  4.     Holding hands
  5.     Tickling, playful wrestling, or piggyback rides
  6.     Hand games (“Miss Mary Mack,” “Say, Say Oh Playmate,” “Stella Ella Ola,” etc.)
  7.     The gentle pressure of a soothing hand

And then, of course, there’s always piojito—the magic touch that soothes, calms, and connects…despite its association with “little lice.”

If you’d like more parenting help, come join our Catholic parenting community on the CatholicHOM app, where you’ll find the CatholicHOM Foundations course, a library of helpful videos and podcasts, and a supportive community of Catholic parents. For more in-depth help with family issues, visit

But I don’t want to spoil them!–How to Have a Healthy and Positive Relationship With Your Child

I want to have a good relationship with my kids but I don’t want to spoil them!”

Does this statement feel familiar?

Attachment does not mean that you have to give your children everything they want, when they want it, and how they want it. It means listening to them, taking the time to understand why they want the things they want, and—if you can’t let them—brainstorming more godly and efficient ways that you could help them meet at least some of those needs in the here and now.

Alternatively, if you have to say no, as parents often must, it is always for a good and objective reason (for instance, your child’s safety or well-being) and not just because you don’t feel like it or because you reactively tend to say no to things out of stress and irritability.

In infancy and toddlerhood, fostering healthy attachment means responding promptly, generously, and consistently to cries. It means trusting the schedule God has built into your child for sleeping, feeding, and comforting and not making your child “cry it out” at night, or cry for long periods as a matter of habit during the day. Crying is never good for a child. It always means he needs help in regulating some system in his body (Sunderland, 2008). God gives parents the responsibility to attend to those cries promptly, just as he tells us He does in Psalm 34:4. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

As your child matures through childhood and adolescence, his needs become more complicated to meet. Parents should, as much as possible, use the “qualified-yes” technique in responding to these needs unless the request is for something that is truly contrary to the child’s well-being. For instance, if a child asked for something the parent couldn’t afford, the qualified-yes technique would have the parent say, “I can afford to contribute only X toward that, but let’s talk about ways you might be able to earn the difference if it is that important to you. Otherwise, this is what I can do. What do you think?” This would be as opposed to saying, for instance, “You want me to spend $250 on a pair of sneakers? Are you crazy?”

With the qualified-yes technique, the child learns that the parent is always someone to whom he can turn to get help in meeting his needs or making a plan by which those needs could be met. Because of this, even when the parent can’t supply what the child wants or needs, the child still feels attached because he has been heard and helped to come up with a plan. And, if the child decides that having that thing really isn’t worth the effort after all, it is he who makes that decision, and not the parent who makes himself an obstacle to achieving that need or want.

For more on how to use the qualified-yes technique as a way of fostering attachment through childhood and adolescence, check out our books Parenting Your Kids With Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace!


Quick Links and Resources:

Parenting Your Kids With Grace

Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace

Discovering God Together

Set Your Child Up For Success: The Relationship Between Attachment Style and Financial Well-Being

We all want the best for our children: for them to succeed, be happy, and be their best selves. But did you know that you can even have an influence on your child’s financial security later in life simply through the way that you parent? 

A study out of the University of Arizona found that “people with high attachment anxiety and people with high attachment avoidance both reported low life satisfaction and low relationship satisfaction. Those with attachment anxiety also reported low financial satisfaction.” 

Likewise, the study revealed that those with high anxious or avoidant attachment—both types of insecure attachment—“engage in more irresponsible financial behaviors.”

Often as parents we feel that there are only certain areas of our children’s lives that we can truly influence. But in reality, focusing on fostering healthy attachment with our children can set them up for long term success in all areas of their lives—even down to their financial security and success as adults. 

Here are a few ways to cultivate healthy, secure attachment with your children:

Respond Promptly and Consistently—starting as early as birth, we can begin to set our children up for a lifetime of success by responding to their cries, needs, and concerns promptly and consistently. Research shows that babies who are responded to by their parents in a way that is loving, generous, prompt, and consistent develop a stronger and healthier sense of self, greater independence, as well as more positive relationships and coping strategies than those whose  needs were not met in such ways. 

Date Your Kids—Spending one on one time with our kids in both big and small ways helps our children develop a greater sense of identity and self worth. Sometimes it feels difficult or even impossible to get time with each of our kids to go out to dinner one on one, go to a movie together, or attend an event with them. But while these larger ways of spending time with our kids are important and wonderful when possible, we don’t have to wait for an entirely free day or evening to spend one on one time with our kids. Spending 15 minutes to take a walk with one of our children, running to grab coffee, or joining with them and doing chores together instead of separately are just a few ways we can spend quality time with our kids on a daily basis. 

Physical Affection—When we hug our kids (or anyone for that matter) our physical bodies—such as heart rate, respiratory rate, etc.—sync up. When we do this often with our kids through hugs, cuddling, gentle/loving touches, we are helping them learn how to emotionally regulate and we are creating the bond of healthy, secure attachment.

For more information on how to cultivate secure attachment in your children and set your kids up for success, check out Parenting With Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (Almost) Perfect Kids!

New Study Finds Pervasive Criticism Leads to Depression and Discontinuation for Co-sleeping Moms.


Image: Shutterstock

A new study in the journal Infant and Child Development found that co-sleeping moms experienced at least 16% more criticism than other moms.  Additionally, moms who were persistently criticized for co-sleeping were 76% more depressed and anxious about both their parenting and their baby’s wellbeing than other parents.

According lead researcher, Douglas Teti of Penn State University, “We definitely saw that the persistent co-sleepers—the moms that were still co-sleeping after six months—were the ones who seemed to get the most criticism,” Teti says. “Additionally, they also reported greater levels of worry about their baby’s sleep, which makes sense when you’re getting criticized about something that people are saying you shouldn’t be doing, that raises self-doubt. That’s not good for anyone.”

Although a majority of parents (73%) practice co-sleeping in the first month of baby’s life, criticism by friends and family often results in a precipitous drop in co-sleeping by the baby’s 6th month.

“We found that about 73 percent of families co-slept at the one-month point. That dropped to about 50 percent by three months, and by six months, it was down to about 25 percent,” Teti says. “Most babies that were in co-sleeping arrangements in the beginning were moved out into solitary sleep by six months.”

The study found that it was not co-sleeping that was responsible for mother’s depression, but the increased level of criticism they received from family and friends that made them doubt their own observations about the quality of their baby’s sleep, and their own parenting skills.  According to Teti, “In other parts of the world, co-sleeping is considered normal, while here in the US, it tends to be frowned upon”  

C0-Sleeping Moms Sleep More

Although some critics suggest that it is co-sleeping, itself, that causes parents, and mothers in particular, to sleep less (and therefore, be more depressed/anxious), previous research has found that mothers who exclusively breastfeed and co-sleep actually sleep significantly more than mothers who bottle feed, sleep separately from their babies, or some combination of these two latter conditions.  This most recent study lends support to the idea that for many parents,  perceived problems with co-sleeping may be due less to disruptions in the mother’s and baby’s actual sleep patterns than to fears–brought on by the lack of support and/or persistent criticism–that there could potentially be problems with co-sleeping.

As Teti explained. “Co-sleeping, as long as it’s done safely, is fine as long as both parents are on board with it.”

The fact is, research consistently shows that, assuming proper support and the adoption of safe co-sleeping practices,  there are numerous physiological, relational, and emotional benefits to both mother and baby.  No parent who wishes to practice co-sleeping should ever be made to feel that they are doing something wrong.  If you are co-sleeping, or would like to, here are some things to keep in mind.

Spousal Support

Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page regarding co-sleeping.  Discuss concerns openly and respectfully.  Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood offers many suggestions for how to successfully balance mom care, baby care, and marriage care.  You don’t have to choose between being attentive co-sleeping parents and having a great marriage.  Get the support you need to learn how to achieve a healthy balance that lets you celebrate the best of both worlds.

Trust Your Baby

Listen to your baby. You are the expert, not your friends and family.  Is your baby happy?  Is he or she growing?   Then everything is fine.  Most babies do not sleep for long stretches.  In fact, there is strong evidence that suggests that monophasic sleep (one 8-10 hour period of sleep) is less healthy and natural for humans than biphasic or polyphasic (2 or more shorter sleep periods) sleep patterns.  We can learn to sleep monophasically, and most people eventually  learn to, but it isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally, and depending on multiple factors that are unique to each child, some babies come into it later than others.  If your baby seems happy and healthy, it really doesn’t matter what your mother in law or your moms’ group thinks.  Trust your baby and sleep when they do.

Circle the Wagons

Your decisions regarding nighttime parenting are personal and private.  How you and your baby sleep is no one else’s business but your own.  Because, as this study demonstrates, there is strong social pressure against co-sleeping in the West, resist the temptation to openly discuss co-sleeping with people who you aren’t sure will be supportive. Other parents are welcome to do things differently.  Don’t argue with them.  Just smile, nod, and change the subject.  As long as your baby is healthy and happy, you’re doing fine. If you do have concerns, by all means seek help from professionals who are both supportive of your choices and open to working with you to finding the best arrangement for you and your baby.

Check Your Scruples

Every new parent struggles with a little nervousness and self-doubt, but some parents are particularly prone to self-criticism, anxiety, and scruples (the crushing sense that there is exactly one, right, way to do everything—and you can never get it right).  The more anxious you are, the more difficult co-sleeping will be for you–partly because you will be too busy looking for problems to enjoy it, and partly because babies are barometers, they absorb and reflect their parents’ emotions. If you still want to attempt it, make sure that your spouse is your co-sleeping champion, and  carefully follow the above advice about trusting your baby and circling your wagons. Most importantly, if you feel that your anxiety is robbing you of your ability to feel confident as a mom or enjoy your baby, seek professional help to learn how to cope more effectively with the stress of being a new parent.

To learn more about how you can find the balance that helps you celebrate your role as a mom, check out Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood or visit to learn more about the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic tele-counseling services.  With the right information and good support, you can make sure that you, your baby, and your marriage are getting everything they need to thrive.




Parenting in the Age of Weinstein


Almost every day, new allegations of sexual harassment are in the headlines. The #metoo campaign has exposed the abusive behavior of power-brokers in Hollywood and DC helped victims, who have been silenced for too long, find their voices again.

One parent, despairing at the onslaught of depressing headlines and salacious stories recently asked me, “What can we do to raise boys not to act like this?  How can we protect our girls from a culture like this?”  While we can never control every variable, the truth is that parents can do a lot to raise young men who can be respectful of women and young women who know how they deserve to be treated.  Interestingly, the answer to both questions involves the same two things.

Attend to Attachment

Research consistently shows that a child’s attachment style predicts both how likely a child is to victimize others as he or she grows up as well as how likely it is that a child will be able to set appropriate boundaries with those who try to hurt them.

There are three basic attachment styles (secure, anxious, and avoidant) that determine a child’s basic sense of how they should both treat others and expect to be treated by others. Which attachment style a particular child develops is determined by how promptly, generously, and consistently his or her parents respond to the child’s emotional needs.

Securelyattached children are raised by parents who are generous with affection, employ gentle discipline that teaches good behavior instead of merely punishing bad behavior, encourage healthy emotional expression, and model the healthy give-and-take involved in loving relationships.  Securely attached children are naturally empathic, and are naturally repulsed by the idea of using or hurting another person.  They also have a gut-level sense of when they are not being treated properly and so are much more likely to sense and avoid dangerous situations, set boundaries early when someone tries to take advantage of them, and be confident about seeking help when they feel like they are in over their heads.

Anxiously-attached children are raised by parents who tend to be conditional about giving affection and praise, tend to use harsh, emotionally-driven discipline that blames rather than teaches, and tend to be too distracted by their own problems to consistently respond to the child’s emotional needs.  This child grows up feeling like it is their job to make other people meet their needs and it is their fault when other people don’t treat them well.  As adults, anxiously attached children often have a hard time recognizing unhealthy relationships. They tend not to notice that others are treating them badly until its gone too far.  And then, when they do notice, they tend to blame themselves, thinking they somehow caused the problem or even deserve the poor treatment.  This makes it difficult for them to set limits, or seek help.

Avoidantly-attached children are raised by parents who are unaffectionate and emotionally shut-off, tend to use heavy-handed approaches to discipline, and tend to leave children to themselves.  Avoidantly attached children grow up to become adults who, because they have never been taught to connect emotionally or spiritually with others, over-emphasize the importance of sex.  The more seriously avoidant a child’s attachment style is, the more likely that child will be a bully, a sex-addict, or, in the extreme, a sociopath who takes joy in hurting others.

If you want to raise a child who knows how to treat others well and knows how he or she deserves to be treated, the most important thing you can do is teach your child what a healthy relationship looks like by engaging in those practices that promote secure attachment.


The second most important thing a parent can do to raise children who know how to treat others well and know how they deserve to be treated is to teach kids, from an early age, that everything we do to another person is either ordered toward loving them or using them. When we are affectionate and respectful, when we do things to build them up, or look for ways to make their lives easier or more pleasant, we love others and help them become the persons they are meant to be.  By contrast, when we disregard others, when we are critical, mean, or derogatory, when we use people as a means to some end, or act in ways that say we don’t care about what they are going through, we treat people as things to be used, abused, or neglected.

A Catholics, we believe that the only appropriate response to another person is love, never use.  Children as young as 4 or 5 can understand the difference between love and use in relationships.

Parents who foster healthy attachment and teach their child the difference between loving and using another person from the earliest days not only are prone to raise healthy kids.  They strike a blow against a culture that sees people as objects and relationships as exchanges where the powerful use the less powerful as a means to their selfish ends.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including Beyond the Bids and the Bees: The Catholic Guide to Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids.  Visit him at

Yes, There IS a Catholic Way to Parent. Here’s Why.

Is there a Catholic way to parent?shutterstock_163230620

It really depends upon what you mean by the question.  If you mean, “Is there an approved list of preferred parenting methods the Church requires that we use for child rearing?”  Well then, of course the answer is “certainly not!”

But if you mean, “Does our Catholic faith ask parents to have a mindset about parenting that reflects the Church’s unique vision of family life and make choices that are mindful of that vision?”  Then the answer is, “unquestionably, yes!”

Vision, Method, and Mindset

Catholicism is an incarnational faith.  Catholics can’t just say prayers that invoke the name Jesus and be done with it.  We have to live differently.    So, while Catholic businesspersons aren’t “required by the Church” to use a certain brand of accounting software, they are challenged to have a mindset about work, management, and money, that reflects the Church’s views on economics and, in turn,  informs their workplace behavior and choices.  Likewise, the Church doesn’t tell soldiers what uniforms to wear or weapons to carry, but the Church does insist that soldiers have a mindset informed by Just War principles that will govern their behavior and choices on the battlefield.

In the same way, the Church never says to parents, “Parent this way.”  But it also doesn’t say, “Just do what works best for you!”   Instead, the Church does say, “As Catholics, we have a unique vision of family life,  so Catholic parents, please keep that vision in mind when making decisions about parenting so that vision may be fulfilled and you can be the witness the Church calls you to be.”   So, what is that vision?

The Vision

Archbishop Chaput once observed that Pope St. John Paul the Great wrote about two-thirds of everything the Church has ever said about marriage and family life.   His Theology of the Body could arguably be said to make up the mission statement for Catholic family life.  If Catholic parents are looking for a place to turn to see what makes the Catholic vision of family life different from, say, the various Protestant denomination’s views of family life or a more secular view of family life, then it would be hard to find a better place to start than the Theology of the Body (TOB).  And while TOB doesn’t tell parents what parenting methods to use, per se, it does articulate certain principles about family life and love that Catholics are encouraged to give serious consideration to when choosing their parenting methods.  In fact, the parenting methods we choose are actually a kind-of catechism.  The way we interact with our children–even more than what we say to them–teaches them how to think about relationship, life, faith, priorities, and morality. 

TOB & PARENTING:  2 Principles for Practice

TOB is a huge body of work, and this article couldn’t possibly begin to articulate its unique vision of family life in any comprehensive way, but here are two points taken from TOB to begin to give you an idea of how TOB can help parents make choices about parenting that are truly informed by a Catholic vision of relationship.

1. Love is Embodied.

TOB teaches that God gave us our bodies so that we could express love for one another.  It isn’t enough to have warm feelings for someone.  To be truly meaningful, love must be expressed with our body and experienced by another body through words, and acts of service, presence,  and affection.  The more bodily an expression of love is, the more senses it uses to communicate itself, the more intimate that expression of love is.

Catholic vision of family life is one of embodied self-giving.  God gives moms and dads bodies so they can hug and hold and carry and cuddle their children so that their children can feel God’s immense love in real and tangible ways.  As TOB says, “the body, and it alone is capable of making visible that which is invisible; the spiritual and the divine.”   Our children first encounter the reality of God’s love through our loving touch.  The more physical we are with our kids, the more they develop the capacity to feel love and be loving.  Interestingly, this theological point is backed up by neuroscience.  Physical affection stimulates nerve growth and myelination (the growth of coating around nerve cells that make them fire more quickly and efficiently) especially in the parts of the brain responsible for empathy, picking up on facial and social cues, moral reasoning, compassion and other pro-social traits.   TOB teaches that biology is theology because God’s fingerprints are all over creation.  If we want to know how God wants us to relate to each other, look at the ways of relating that make our bodies function at their best.

Considering this teaching of embodied self-giving as the ultimate sign of love, Catholic parents have a clear mandate to ask themselves which parenting methods do a better job of communicating this vision embodied love: breast or bottle? Co-sleeping or crib? crying it out or comforting to sleep?  And so on.  The Catholic vision of love is embodied self-giving.  Parents who want to convey an authentically Catholic vision of family life do well to choose those methods they prayerfully believe are the most bodily-based expressions of their love they are capable of giving.

2.  Love is Intimate

TOB also teaches that we were created not just for love, but for intimacy. The entire point of the Gospel is loving, intimate, eternal union with God and the Communion of Saints. Think of intimacy as a unit of measure for love.  Just like ounces, or cups, or gallons tell us how much water there is, intimacy tells us whether the love that is present is a puddle or an ocean.   TOB tells us that families are to be “Schools of Love” that help us experience, as much as possible, the ocean of love God has for us.  By extension, Catholic families are encouraged to choose those styles of relating, organizing their priorities, and disciplining their children that foster the deepest level of intimacy possible.

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul the Great wrote,

By word and example, in the daily round of relations and choices, and through concrete actions and signs, parents lead their children to authentic freedom, actualized in the sincere gift of self, and they cultivate in them respect for others, a sense of justice, cordial  openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity and all the other values which help people to live life as a gift.

Here, Pope St. John Paul II articulates a mission statement for the Catholic family.  To approach parenting with an authentically Catholic mindset, we have to make all of our choices with this call to respect, justice, cordial openness, dialogue, service and radical togetherness in mind.

Does the Church tell parents exactly how many activities to let their kids participate in, or what discipline methods to choose, or how much time parents and kid need together?  Of course not.  But you parent with the mind of the Church when you ask yourself how many activities your kids can be involved in while still preserving the prime importance of family intimacy. Likewise, you can determine which discipline methods are more “Catholic” in the sense that they are more relationally-based and more likely to foster the open dialog and cordiality discussed in Evangelium Vitae.

Why, “Do what works for you”  Is NOT Enough

Theology of the Body doesn’t give parents a step-by-step methodological blueprint for parenting that says, “do these methods instead of those.”  What it does do is say, “Here is the mindset God wants you to have about family life.  Choose accordingly.”

As Catholic parents, it just isn’t enough to say, “What works?”  Or even, “What works best for you?”   Catholic businesspeople can’t do that.  Catholic soldiers can’t do that.  Catholic families can’t do that either.  Rather, from a TOB perspective, Catholics are challenged to ask, “Of all the different ways I could raise my kids and organize my family life, which choices enable me to do the best job I can of bearing witness to the embodied self-giving and call to intimacy that rests at the heart of the Catholic vision of love?”

For more information on how the Theology of the Body can transform your family life, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of almost 20 books. He directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute which provides Catholic tele-counseling to clients around the world.

But Aren’t All Kids Different?

One of the challenges of being a “parenting expert” is that you often find yourself arguing that one type of parenting is superior to others despite the fact that all children are, in fact, different and need different things.

How is it possible to do this?  Isn’t it over-reaching at best or hypocritical at worst to argue that one style of parenting is better than others while at the same time acknowledging that all families and children are different and need different things?   Well, not to get all Bill Clinton about it, but it kind of all depends on what you mean by “different.”

For instance, it is true that everyone has a different personality, but it is also true that, as different as we are, we all share a common humanity.  What we share ought to make it possible to say that certain things enable every person to function at his or her best regardless of our very real and important differences.

Let’s take the focus off people and talk about one of my other favorite things; ice cream (YUM!).   Now, ice cream comes in lots of different flavors, and those flavors are really important, but there are certain ingredients that make some brands of ice cream superior to others regardless of the flavor those competing companies produce.

In the same way, thanks to developments like interpersonal neurobiology (the science of how relationships actually affect the way our brains develop and function), which, since it is dependent upon neuroimaging, is more science than philosophy, it’s possible to say with some confidence that certain ways of raising children tend to allow those children to reach their fullest neuropsychological potential even while allowing for wide differences between personalities.

For instance, we’re able to see that being a loving, intimate, empathic, interdependently social person is what is actually normal for the well-functioning human brain–just, incidentally,  like the Theology of the Body says it is supposed to be.  Both Interpersonal Neurobiology and the Theology of the Body assert that every human being ought to be able to experience those qualities to the full because they are both essential and foundational to our humanity.  Personality then builds upon those traits in a secondary but still tremendously important way so that while each of us can be fully human, we can all still be “unique and unrepeatable” (to use a TOB term).

The point is, when I say that self-donative parenting approaches (aka Attachment Parenting) are superior to other forms of parenting, I mean no disrespect to the very obvious and real differences of each child that every family has to contend with.   What I do mean is that that this style of parenting is actually being shown–by neuroimaging studies–to best facilitate the formation of the brain structures responsible for the fulfillment of every child’s basic humanity.  Personality will develop on top of that.  Of course, parents need to be sensitive to the differences each child’s personality brings but attachment parenting strategies are more likely to give you the healthiest neurological/basic human foundation that allows you to raise a healthy, well-adjusted, well-formed, child regardless of that child’s particular personality traits.

Every child is different but regardless of those differences every child has a basic humanity that needs to be formed and nurtured.  I believe that the research from both theology and science show that attachment parenting practices are the best tools available to hel parents do that job.

Feel Insecure in Relationships? Healing the Roots of the Problem.

Last week we had a vigorous discussion (here and here, in particular) about the pseudo-scientific claims of the “cry-it-out” method of sleep training.  Specifically, I challenged the junk science that claims that letting a baby cry-it-out works  because it teaches a baby to “self-soothe.”  We discussed the absolute absence of any evidence whatsoever from developmental psychology and neurology that an infant or toddler has any ability–or even potential ability–to self-soothe (a skill requiring a level of brain maturation that does not even begin to occur until, at earliest, age 4 or 5-ish).  We discussed how the mechanism behind the cry-it-out method is actually learned helplessness, a neurological and psychological state that is associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety disorders as well as host of relationship and, yes, even problems with spirituality and moral reasoning later on.

I had planned on leaving the matter alone, but a new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships highlights the long term psychological and relational consequences of the cry-it-out method.  In particular, the new study looks at the tendency of insecurely attached adults to feel threatenned by otherwise healthy, intimate relationships.   The study is one of hundreds that look at the effects of insecure attachment in childhood on adult relationships.  In order to understand how the two connect, a little background is in order.

Three Types of Attachment

Previous research shows that there are three, basic attachment styles; Secure, Anxious-Ambivalent, and Avoidant.  Secure attachment is just like it sounds.  It represents a child (and later an adult) who is confident in interpersonal relationships, someone who knows how to be intimate and vulnerable (in a healthy way) without losing himself.   The anxious-ambivalent-attached child (and later, adult) is insecure in relationships, tends to be clingy and nervous of being abandoned or failing to connect successfully with others.  The avoidant-attached child (and later, adult) wants to be in relationship, but tends to act as if he or she could take you or leave you once in a relationship.

What determines which category a child (and later, adult) will fall into is the consistency and response time with which moms and dads respond to infant cries.  Children who’s cries are responded to promptly develop secure attachment.  Children who’s cries are responded to inconsistently (i.e, time to response or consistency of responding at all varies) develop anxious-ambivalent attachment.  Children who’s cries are consistently ignored develop avoidant attachment.  This it not a theory.  These findings (both how a child comes by their attachment style and the long term relationship effects) have been established by hundreds of studies conducted over decades and, in some cases for decades (as with some of the 30year + longitudinal research done on attachment styles and adult relationships.)

Attachment Affects Adult Intimacy

Now, we flash forward.  According to research from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, people with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style (the ones who’s cries were inconsistently responded to in childhood) can expect to be fearful in otherwise healthy, intimate relationships as adults.

…insecurely attached individuals, compared to the securely attached, perceive potential close relationships as socially threatening vs. rewarding. Although we all evaluate what we will get out of our interactions with others, anxiously attached people are more likely to perceive social interactions as threatening. “Anxious attachment seems to revolve around concerns for negative evaluation and rejection,” MacDonald notes.

So should anxiously attached individuals fear rejection when initiating a new relationship? Is their perception of threat justified? Not exactly, says Dr. MacDonald. In the beginning of a new relationship there is no objective evidence that others view anxiously attached people as less attractive or of lesser value. MacDonald goes on to explain, “The problem is when people with anxious attachment start acting on their fears of rejection, for instance asking for reassurance over and over and over again. Those kinds of patterns can create self-fulfilling prophecies where the partner starts to tire of providing that kind reassurance.” In other words, anxious individuals are not inherently more likely to be rejected that anyone else. Unfortunately, their constant fears of rejection lead to behaviors that make it difficult to sustain a satisfying relationship for everyone involved.

So what do you do if you recognize this behavior in you or your partner? MacDonald says it’s important to realize that your own fears about rejection are just that: fears. But they are fears that can be overcome if you step back and reinterpret what’s going on in the interaction. Further, although a relationship with a secure person can help an anxious person resolve some of these issues, the best advice, according to Mac Donald, is to deal with these issues in therapy. “Spending time with a therapist is in many ways a way of resetting your attachment system,” said MacDonald. He goes on to explain that the therapeutic relationship is set up in such a way that people can explore and reevaluate the root of these emotional insecurities in a safe environment.  (read a summary of the research here.)

Attachment and the Catholic Parent

So, let’s pull this all together.  What does Jesus tell us is the fulfillment of the law?  “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.”  Likewise, what does the old catechism tell us we were made for “to know God, to love him and serve him in this life and be happy with him in the next.”  Both of these classic truths teach that we were made for intimacy with God and others–first and foremost.

The Theology of the Body further asserts that we were made for love and that even our bodies were created to support and encourage the call to both be loving persons and create “communities of love” in our families and in the world.  In short the Catholic vision of love teaches us that we were created to live in intimate communion both in this life and in the next and that God not only gives us the grace to do this, he even creates our bodies to serve these ends.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that there is only one Catholic way to parent.  Catholic parents are free to do what they think is best and they don’t need my approval one way or the other.  What I am doing, though, is presenting data that would appear to show that there are some ways that parents can do a better job of cooperating with God’s grace and the way God actually constucts their children’s brains and bodies so that their children develop their full capacity to be intimate–both with God and the people God places in thier lives.

Sadly, it would also appear that many of the common parenting practices that Catholic parents buy into cause them to work at cross purposes with the radical call to intimacy that our faith challenges us to take up, to the degree that a simple thing like letting a child cry it out in infancy could lead to that child becoming an adult who is suspicious of otherwise healthy, intimate relationships.  No doubt this news is shocking to many parents, but literally hundreds of studies over decades of research back up these claims.  Parents who are interested–and even parents who are irritated–would do well to read up on both attachment theory and the theology of the body.  By all means, make up your own mind. But at least do your homework before writing this off.  The stakes–your ability to facilitate your child’s capacity to love God and others–are just too high to take this stuff lightly.

–For more information on creating a family around the principles of the Theology of the Body, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

“It Is Not Good for Man 2B Alone” –Good Relationship with Parents Can Mediate Child’s Learning Disabilities

Here’s a surprising new study on how the strength of a child’s attachment to mom and dad helps improve learning disabilities.

Adolescents with learning disabilities were discovered to have less secure attachments with significant adult figures compared to their non-disabled peers, which had a direct impact on their socioemotional state. Within the disabled group, those who had more secure attachments to their mother and father, or who considered their teacher caring and available, exhibited fewer negative emotions, feelings of loneliness, and behavior problems — all of which can interfere with learning.  Read more.