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STAGES OF PARENT-CHILD BONDING

Like snowflakes, no two children are alike.

Their individual personalities, and the way their parents respond, are key factors in how hard, how long and to whom a child will become attached.

But those who study child development are able to identify behavior patterns that children generally fall into as they grow and mature.

Family therapist Karen Busche calls the changes "ages and stages."

The first two years mark the period when children are likely to cling the hardest.

"This is their very first feeling of "Is my world safe?'

" says Busche, of Newport Beach, Calif. "It is especially important for them in forming trust in the world and in their relationships."

As toddlers, children are feeling their way toward more independence. They are asserting themselves, while at the same time needing reassurance.

A 2{-year-old is likely to be the most contrary and the most lovable, particularly with Mom, Busche says.

"They know that Mommy gives a lot of services. So if you say "Daddy will do something, they'll say,"No, Mommy do,"' Busche explains. "It's really important for the father not to feel rejected during these early years."

From about ages 3-6, children are beginning the process of gender identification _ getting a sense of what it means to be a girl or to be a boy. It's during this period that they "fall in love" with the parent of the opposite gender.

"They really believe they're going to marry the parent," says Kelly Hogrefe, a child-care specialist. "That's who they love the most."

These feelings run deep and should be handled with tender loving care.

Busche suggests: "If your child says, "Marry me,' you say, "I love you so much and I know why you feel that way.' You don't respond to the marriage proposal. If the child is persistent, you say, "You'll grow up someday and find a lady like Mommy."'

For boys, the elementary school-age years usually are marked by the need to be with and learn from their fathers. "Seven to 10 is a real golden age for fathers and boys," Busche says. "The 10-year-old boy idolizes his father and wants to spend more time with him because guess what happens next: adolescence. And the golden days are over with."

For girls, Busche continues, the golden age with Mom typically doesn't last quite as long. "At 8, there's a little period where she wants Mom to be her chosen travel mate, her chosen playmate, her chosen shopping mate. Then at 9, they're not around anymore. For some reason, (at that age) little girls really bond with other girls, while boys will still bond and do things with Daddy."

And the teenage years? No surprises here.

"There's a sweeping need to reject all authority and parenting," Busche says. "There's an overwhelming need to assert independence and selfhood."

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