WILD THING: 7 ways to “attachment parent” the older child

This is for you. You know who you are. Originally published as “Five is hard, or can you attachment parent the older child?” xoxo

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It happens to the most attached parents among us. We’ve breastfed, co-slept, and slung our babes happily. It was easy—or, it became easy, once we got into the groove and shook off Aunt Augusta’s disapproving glare. We saw our children grown and flourish, loved, connected, happy. But then, at some point, the demons of self-doubt return. Our child goes through a phase we see as difficult and challenging. Almost inevitably, this happens when we’re not at our best—pregnant, tired, stressed. And we wonder—is it possible to attachment parent the older child?

Five seems to be the milestone when these demons attack most ferociously. Makes sense: it’s such a milestone age in our culture. The preschooler becomes a kindergartener. The stroller’s abandoned; the first loose teeth come. The search for self becomes super-pronounced, and our five-year-old is frighteningly selfish. (I write about that aspect of five in Ferocious Five.)

It hit one of my friends very hard when her eldest daughter turned five. She asked our playgroup community for help, and she framed her struggles under this big question: “Is it possible the attachment parent the older child? This five year-old who’s driving me utterly, completely crazy every moment of every single day? Is it time to bring out the conventional discipline–punishment–toolbox?”

This was my response to my friend. I had seen Cinder through five pretty successfully. Not yet Flora. Bear that in mind as you read (also bear in mind that I had a very specific audience-of-one in mind for this piece. And I do again…). Check out Ferocious Five for the lessons Flora taught me.

(2008). Five is hard. But so is two, three, four, six, sixteen–all in their different ways. Part of the trouble is that our children move onward and forward through the different ages and stages, while we, their imperfect parents, have just figured out how to cope with the preceding one.

Is it possible to attachment parent the older child? Possible, necessary, critical. And here is where the difference between AP “things we do”–co-sleeping, breastfeeding, babywearing–and the AP “things we are” plays large. We don’t carry our five year olds, the majority of us don’t breastfeed them any more, we’re not necessarily co-sleeping with them. The “do” stuff is gone.

The “be” stuff is all that remains.

And how do we “be” with the older children? I think this is one of the points at which our paths can diverge quite dramatically. And I don’t know that there is one *right* answer. For what it is worth, based on my sample of one five-year-old shepherded through some challenging stuff to date, these are the principles that helped us:

1. Make their world larger.

At five, Cinder’s world got larger. We’re homeschooling, so the massive change that is five day a week kindergarten wasn’t part of it–but think of what a huge change that is for the average five-year-old, and how hard it must be sort out, everything so new. Still, even minus kindergarten, it was so clear to us that a five-year-old was very different from a four-year-old. And absolutely, we butted heads because while he had moved on, I was still mothering a four-year-old.

A huge breakthrough for me was to make his world larger–ride his bike on (safe!) streets, cross the street on his own, go into stores on his own, play a bigger role in everything. I can’t quite remember all the different changes we did, but they’re pretty much irrelevant–they wouldn’t necessarily work for your child. Talk with her. What would she like to do now that she couldn’t (or wasn’t interested) in doing a year or six months ago?

2. The only person whose behaviour I can control is myself.

The other thing I always come back when we run into “downs”: the only person whose behaviour I can control is myself. And if I am unhappy with how my child is acting, the first step is not to look for a way to change my child, but to look at myself, within myself, and ask myself what can I do to change how I am reacting and communicating with my children? What am I doing–reflexively, thoughtlessly–that I can change. Start with me. When I’m okay, when I’m balanced, when I’m grounded–well, very often, the problem goes away, because it was in me in the first place. My children mirror me.

And, if the problem really is in the other–if it is all my Cinder being crazy or my Flora being whiney–when I’m taking care of myself, reflecting on my behaviour, and acting from a place within me that’s grounded, well, then I can cope and talk and help them sort through whatever craziness they are going through at the time without losing it.

3. Re-connect, re-attach.

I strongly, strongly believe that any punishment–be it a time out, a withdrawal of privileges, or the most innocuous manufactured consequence–does not help these situations but serves to drive a tiny, but ever growing, wedge between the attached parent and child. The absolutely best thing I’ve ever read about discipline was in Gordon Neufeld’s Hold On To Your Kids–absolutely aimed at parents of older children, through to teens. We’ve talked about this before, you and I, but this is the essence of what I take away from Neufeld’s chapter on “Discipline that Does Not Divide”: “Is [whatever action you were going to take] going to further your connection to your child? Or is it going to estrange you?”

So what do I do when I kind of want to throttle Cinder? I work at re-connecting. I call them re-attachment days. Have a bath together. Wrestle (I’m not advising it for pregnant mamas). Go for coffee (for me) and cookie (for him) at Heartland Cafe, just the two of us (see Ice Cream Discipline). Really focus on him and try to enjoy him. So often, that’s what he’s asking for by being obnoxious–really focused attention from me.

Now if I could only ensure I always give it to him so that we wouldn’t go through the head-butting phase in the first place!

4. Remind myself of what I want to say and how I want to act.

What do I do in the moment? That’s way harder in practice, no question. When I’m really frazzled, I leave notes to myself in conspicuous places with “when Cinder does x–do not say/do this–say/do this instead.” (Fridge and front door best places. Also, bathroom door. See Surviving 3.5 and 5.5–a cheat sheet.) And I tell my children what they are–“Those are reminders to me of how I want to treat you and talk to you, even when what you are doing makes me very, very angry.”

5. Sing.

Sometimes, I sing, “I want to holler really loud, but I’m trying really hard not to, someone help me figure something else to do, I think I’m going to stand on my head to distract myself…” (This works really, really well with two and three year olds too, by the way.)

6. Forgive. Move on.

Sometimes, I don’t catch myself in time and do all the things I don’t want to do: yell, threaten (if there is an “if” and a “then” in a sentence, it’s almost always a threat)… and then I apologize, try to rewind, move forward.

7. Put it all in perspective.

And always, always, I remind myself that 1) the worst behaviours usually occur just before huge developmental/emotional milestones, changes and breakthroughs, 2) my child is acting in the best way he knows at this moment, and if that way is not acceptable to me, I need to help him find another one, and 3) I love the little bugger more than life or the universe, no matter how obnoxious he is. (This is a good exercise too: after a hard, hard day, sit down and make a list of all the things you love about your little one. From the shadow her eyelash make on her cheeks when she sleeps to the way she kisses you goodnight… everything you can think of.)

And, finally, if I want my children to treat me–and others–with respect, I must treat them with respect. No matter how angry or tired I am.

Lots of love and support,


2014. Gods, that’s long-winded and self-important and painfully sincere. But then, I was so. Still. There’s this: “If I want my children to treat me–and others–with respect, I must treat them with respect.” I don’t know that I needed to write 1400 more words, do you? Is it easy to do that when I’m exhausted, empty? Fuck, no. But then, most worthwhile things are hard, at least some of the time…


12 thoughts on “WILD THING: 7 ways to “attachment parent” the older child

  1. Now of course this resonates with me. As an AP parent, I had the same struggle and even attempted time outs… I know, I know…. anyway, I learned really fast that wouldn’t work with the child who was so lovingly parented up until the point he turned into a monster. We made it through, and this is when the disapproving family really got intense. While cousin is given time outs, and my boy is re-focused, my family found it hard to be together.
    But to me that was their problem. This post would have been very comforting to me 3 years ago 😉 So I know it will be for many who find it now, when they need it!

    • Thank you. And–what you made me think about–another key point in the parenting journey: when you fully realize that you are parenting for your child and for yourself–and not for others. And I think that hits you when a child is about five as well (or, you go the other away, and parent for the perceptins of others…) Hmmm. I need to let that percolate for a bit….

  2. Thanks so much for your words Jane! My ferocious 5 year old, Makai would absolutely love to spend time with your kids! Your words have always come to my inbox at the most appropriate times:) My family is about to embark on a travel adventure and the negative judgement of others has been 2 fold,our travel lifestyle choice and our choice to unschool. Thanks for your perspective and honest opinions, you helped me be a better Mom today.

  3. God I love this. This line is swimming in my head: “…our children move onward and forward through the different ages and stages, while we, their imperfect parents, have just figured out how to cope with the preceding one.” So true. I’m continually amazed at what my son wants to do. I try to go with it, when it’s safe, but yowza. Seriously fabulous advice. I didn’t find it long-winded at all and hung on every word. You’re that awesome.

  4. Not entirely sure how to react when we are being serious. MUCH easier to “play the giddy goat” and laugh everything off only your children can’t be laughed off and even if they could… who would want to? It doesn’t get easier, my son just turned 32. You never stop being an attachment mother at heart you just have to re-evaluate your portfolio of emotions. I might have girls who are 24 and 26 but they are still my kids, still in my sphere of concern and still more important than life itself even though we have passed on our close comfort for joint hilarity and honest appraisals. Kudos on not lecturing, on not telling “how to” but rather what worked for you. Leading by examples rather than by elevated opinions is a life line to people at the end of their tether. Can we have a funny one next please ma’am…I feel like a hermit crab between shells…

  5. Pingback: Quote This: Kurt Vonnegut on what’s wrong with the world | Undogmatic Unschoolers

  6. Thank you thank you thank you!!! I had tears on my eyes just to try to think of things I love about her, no wonder I find it hard to love her sometimes… but then I do, I absolutely love her, so much it hurts my heart! Thank you! all you write makes perfect sense!

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