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Expert Insights on Building a Secure Attachment with Dr. Jeanne Segal, co-creator of HelpGuide.org and author of The Language of Emotional Intelligence

July 25, 2013

by Michelle LaRowe
Editor in Chief

Recently I had a chance to chat with Dr. Jeanne Segal, co-creator of Helpguide.org, featuring the free Bring Your Life into Balance Tool Box and the Creating Secure Attachment video that I strongly encourage all nannies and parents to view. An expert in the field of emotional health, she provided fascinating insight into adult and child attachments, the bond between a child and a nanny and what parents and caregivers can do to foster the development of a child’s emotional intelligence. 

eNannySource: What does secure attachment look like in children aged birth to three?

Dr. Segal: At 0 to 3, a physically healthy child with a secure attachment is good at comforting himself, doesn’t cry all the time, doesn’t get upset quickly, smiles a lot, makes eye contact, makes sounds and really communicates. These children learn to trust fairly quickly and anticipate something that they need is coming. They use nonverbal cues to tell you they feel good and they are able to engage in nonverbal communication. They have reason to believe good things are coming and believe others are interested in them and in communicating with them.

eNannySource: What are three of the easiest things parents and caregivers can do to foster a secure attachment?

Dr. Segal: First, turn the cell phone off. Don’t use a cell phone when in the presence of a child. Second, make an effort to communicate. Third, learn the child’s language. Listen and try to understand and respond to the child’s nonverbal language.  Each baby’s cues will look different, but when you pay attention, you can figure out what they mean.

eNannySource: Can children have a secure attachment bond with their nanny? And if so, is that healthy?

Dr. Segal: Of course! They can and need to! Children need a secure attachment with one primary caregiver. If you really want to make a crazy kid, fire a nanny he’s attached to on the basis of the bond they share. When hiring a nanny, look for a nanny who can commit to two or three years. Once the bond is created you want to secure it. Parents should be thrilled, not threatened, and should thank their lucky stars if their child and nanny have a secure attachment bond. If your nanny is loving your child she is helping to create a loving human.

eNannySource: So can a child have a secure attachment bond with both parents and their nanny?

Dr. Segal: No. Children can have only one secure attachment bond at a time. Research shows us that. When we talk about secure attachment, we are talking about the attachment that makes the brain cohesive. One attachment creates that sense of cohesion. This does not mean that other relationships and bonds are not important and not meaningful, they are. But when we talk about secure attachment, it’s a brain phenomenon and the one who spends the most waking time with a child who will develop the secure attachment. That’s assuming that the caregiver is responsive and communicating in the nonverbal way. If not, then whoever communicates most and is most responsive will have the secure attachment bond.

Again this doesn’t mean that the child won’t bond with parents or other caregivers. It just simply means that the person who spends the most time in that nonverbal communication role will develop the secure attachment.

Parents who hire nannies want a caregiver who will spend time in this role. The more time spent in it the better the child’s brain will be. A good resource for parents and nannies on this topic is our article on Secure Attachment and Bonding. It outlines the difference between bonding and a secure attachment bond.

eNannySource: Do you think that there is any relationship between colic and secure attachment?

Dr. Segal: It’s hard to tell. If a baby has real pain and their gut is screwed up, they will cry because they are experiencing pain. If a baby is high strung in the first place and a mother or caretaker isn’t good at communication, that could create tension, make the baby more stressed and take away an infant’s sense of safety.

eNannySource: In your video you mention that stress will shut down a caretaker’s awareness. How concerned should nannies and parents be about a nanny’s level of stress on the job?

Dr. Segal: Very concerned. If a nanny is stressed, she won’t be good at nonverbal communication. When you are highly stressed, you go into automatic flight or fight mode. When highly stressed a caretaker isn’t able to think clearly or pick up on nonverbal cues. It can be dangerous. The child should always be the first priority.  Parents should look for a relaxed person who settles them down when they are with them when choosing a nanny.

People confuse the flight or fight stress reflex with emotion, which can give emotions a bad rap. Everyone needs stress to live. We all operate in a range of stress. Without stress we are dead. We need stress to live, to keep us awake, alert and motivated. When stress becomes out of range or out of balance because we feel threatened, the nervous system can’t work. Then the automatic response kicks in that we can’t control. A person may appear angry, agitated or withdraw or freeze. When this happens it looks emotional, but it’s a reflex and, until the stress is back in balance, the reflex will stay until the threat has passed.  Emotion flows and moves. We can be angry, frightened and loving at the same time. Think of a parent who is waiting for her child to come home. It’s midnight. She is scared, she wants to kill him, but when he comes home she is overjoyed. These differences are often not detected and can be confused.

eNannySource: What is emotional intelligence and how important is it?

Dr. Segal: Emotional intelligence is really accessing the midbrain, the emotional and most important part of the brain. When we lose our frontal cortex you can still recognize us. When you lose your emotional brain you are gone, as your personality is there. Emotional intelligence turns out to be so much more important than we ever knew.

People who have emotional intelligence are people who are aware of what their emotional brain is saying. They are in touch and aware of their emotions, and their decisions are made using that information. Their decisions are not made entirely on feelings, but they do factor in. Emotional intelligence means you’re in touch with and trusting of your instincts.

eNannySource: How can parents and nannies foster the development of emotional intelligence?

To raise an emotionally intelligent child, you have to be emotionally intelligent. That’s the only way you can raise them that way. Words don’t mean much, it’s what we do and how we behave and interact that makes children socially and emotionally aware.

When we are aware of what we feel and interact with that, it gives us sensitivity and we are able to see the sensitivity of others. When a parent picks up on what their kids feel, he picks up on what others are feeling. This is how compassion and empathy is grown. Children get compassion and empathy from a compassionate and empathetic adult.

eNannySource: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Dr. Segal: Most parents can’t do all of this. It’s not cultivated and we don’t have time for it. We are distracted. You have to slow down to do engage in this communication – you can send a text message a whole lot faster. It takes a few seconds more. There are huge numbers of people that are anxious and depressed—parents are struggling and they need to learn to be in touch with their feelings. Our Tool Kit helps you learn to reconnect with your emotions and learn skills you may have not learned unless you had a secure attachment – which many of us didn’t. It’s never too late to learn.


Dr. Jeanne Segal has been a psychotherapist helping individuals and families for nearly 40 years. Dr. Segal’s books have been published in 13 languages. She has served on numerous local and national nonprofit boards. Dr. Segal focuses on how individuals can empower themselves and bring about life-altering social and emotional change. To learn more visit www.helpguide.org


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