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Should Parents Always Be "In Sync" with their kids?

Should Parents Always Be "In Sync" with their kids?

Should Parents Always Be "In Sync" with their kids?

For many parents, the mantra of being constantly "in sync" with their children reigns supreme. But recent research suggests this approach might be oversimplified. While secure attachment bonds are crucial for healthy child development, it appears the ideal scenario isn't one of constant synchronicity, but rather a dynamic dance of connection, disconnection, and reconnection.

1. Attachment and the Power of Synchrony

Decades of research highlight the importance of secure attachment bonds, fostered through consistent coordination between parent and child during social interactions. This "bio-behavioral synchrony" encompasses everything from mirroring gestures to aligned heartbeats and hormone levels. Even brain activity synchronizes, with brain regions increasing and decreasing activity in tandem during shared experiences. Studies confirm the link between parent-child brain synchrony and attachment, with increased synchrony observed during activities like playing, talking, or problem-solving. For instance, a study conducted by Leclere et al. (2014) found that synchronous interactions were positively associated with attachment security and emotional regulation in children, showing that around 60% of securely attached children had high levels of synchrony with their parents.

2. The "Optimal Midrange": Why More Isn't Always Better

However, the latest research throws a curveball. While synchrony is generally beneficial, it might not always be a positive indicator. A recent study published in Developmental Science suggests that excessive synchrony can sometimes signify relationship difficulties. This study found that while synchrony supports attachment, an overemphasis can lead to over-involvement and stress within the parent-child relationship, which can be detrimental to both parties. Approximately 15-20% of the parent-child pairs in the study exhibited excessive synchrony, correlating with increased stress levels.

3. Parenting Advice: Beyond Constant Attunement

Much current parenting advice emphasizes constant "in-sync" behavior - physical closeness, immediate response to every need, and unwavering attunement. This approach draws on attachment theory and research demonstrating the benefits of parental sensitivity and responsiveness. However, it overlooks key details. Studies show that for roughly 50% of the time, parents and children are not perfectly "in sync". This is natural - children explore independently, and parents have their own tasks. In reality, a healthy parent-child relationship is more akin to a constant social dance, with moments of attunement interspersed with temporary disconnections and subsequent reconnection. This flow provides children with the optimal blend of parental support, moderate stress, and the freedom to explore on their own, all crucial elements for fostering a healthy "social brain" (Schore, 2012).

4. The Downsides of Constant Synchrony

Research suggests potential downsides to constant parent-child attunement. It can strain the relationship, potentially leading to insecure attachment, especially if parents overstimulate or become overly responsive. For parent-child synchrony, it seems an "optimal midrange" exists - more synchrony isn't necessarily better. A 2018 study by Feldman et al. found that too much synchrony, particularly in high-stress environments, could lead to increased anxiety and stress for both parents and children, undermining the benefits of secure attachment. Around 25% of children in the study with overly synchronous relationships showed higher levels of anxiety.

5. Brain Synchrony and Attachment: A Deeper Look

To investigate the link between parent-child bio-behavioral synchrony and attachment, a study involving 140 parent-child pairs (children aged 5-6) was conducted where pairs solved puzzles together. Brain activity was measured using functional near-infrared spectroscopy ("hyperscanning"), while video recordings captured behavioral synchrony (attunement and attentiveness). Attachment styles were also assessed.

Previous research had shown increased neural synchrony in parent-child pairs during various tasks. In mother-child pairs, it linked to turn-taking during puzzles or conversations, while in father-child pairs, synchrony during puzzling correlated with fathers' confidence and enjoyment in their role. However, the new study revealed an unexpected finding.

6. When More Synchrony Isn't Ideal

Mothers with insecure attachment styles (anxious or avoidant) displayed higher neural synchrony with their children. Interestingly, mothers' attachment styles did not affect behavioral synchrony. Additionally, father-child pairs exhibited increased neural synchrony compared to mother-child pairs, but decreased behavioral synchrony, regardless of attachment style. These findings suggest that higher neural synchrony might be a result of increased cognitive effort invested in the interaction. Mothers with insecure attachment styles might struggle to coordinate and assist their children during activities like puzzles, leading to increased neural effort. Similar logic may apply to father-child synchrony during problem-solving. Fathers, typically accustomed to active play, might find structured activities like puzzles more challenging, requiring greater neural synchrony for successful interaction.

Lessons for Parents: Quality Over Constant Connection

These findings offer valuable insights for parents. They shouldn't feel pressured to maintain constant "in-sync" behaviour. High parent-child attunement can sometimes reflect interaction difficulties, leading to parental burnout and negatively impacting the relationship.

Emotional availability, responsiveness to children's needs, and the ability to read their cues are all crucial, especially for younger children. However, aiming to be "good enough" - present when needed but not constantly hovering - is perfectly acceptable. As children grow older, they also benefit from emotional, social, and cognitive independence.

Ultimately, the key lies in a well-functioning parent-child relationship where trust thrives and mismatches are naturally resolved. This is the true essence of attachment theory, often misused or misrepresented in parenting advice.