More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Attachment: The Key to Raising an Independent Child
by Dr. Tali Shenfield, Child Psychology Resources
Oct 14, 2020

Having a child show deep attachment can be a moving experience. It propels parents to model good behaviour, maintain their child’s trust, and generally be the best people they can be… But at the same time, many parents worry that this level of attachment may not be healthy for their child. In today’s culture, there’s an enduring myth that parent-child bonding somehow hinders a child’s development, irrespective of the lack of evidence to support this idea.

The premise behind this kind of thinking is simple: If a child is too attached to her (or his) parents, she will have a harder time making the journey towards independence that all children must make. As it turns out, however, parent-child relationships aren’t nearly this black and white. Emerging research suggests that far from hindering a child’s growth, strong parental attachment actually fuels it.

A child’s journey from being a completely dependent infant to being a self-sufficient adult is in many ways biologically predetermined. Most kids go through distinct, nearly universal developmental stages: As toddlers, it’s perfectly normal for them to want cling to their parents more or less all of the time. Children under the age of five naturally experience a degree of separation anxiety and will often cry when their parents are not within easy reach. By the age of six or seven, however, their growing brains propel them to change—even if their parents do nothing to discourage their prior level of attachment. Children in this age group start to demand to do things on their own, whether it’s playing, getting dressed, or even (if you’re fortunate) doing their chores. Finally, by the age of twelve or thirteen, most children start to actively push for complete independence (even though, ironically, kids need parental support more than ever during adolescence).

As parents, it’s our job to guide our children through each of these inevitable stages. We must nourish them with a sense of security, safety, and acceptance so that they have the confidence they need to become independent in a healthy way. Of course, all of the aforementioned feelings rely heavily on a strong bond of parent-child attachment. When kids feel like they can rely on their caretaker to be there for them with no questions asked, they’re better able to “let go” and venture out into the world on their own.

Attachment is also the bedrock of independent thinking. When children are not deeply attached to their parents, they tend to lack a sense of leadership—and love. This causes them to look elsewhere for the caring they crave and leaves them more susceptible to peer pressure and other negative influences. They develop a desperation to “fit in” and this clouds their judgment. It causes them to go along with the will of their peer group, rather than reflecting on the lessons they have learned via being attached to strong role models. What’s more, these kids are so distracted by worrying about what everyone thinks of them that their growth is stifled. It is, after all, hard to progress to a state of self-reliance if you’re constantly second-guessing yourself.

So, how do you know if your child is feeling secure in her relationship with you? Usually, you won’t—because she’ll take her security entirely for granted, in the same way adults assume the sun will rise each morning. You can, however, usually tell when a child isn’t feeling secure. Kids usually display signs of struggle when they feel like they have to “work” for a parent’s love, such as the behaviours outlined below:

  • Your child is extremely preoccupied with “fitting in” or being “good enough” for others. While most children start to value peer relationships very highly during their preteen years, if your child seems to think she is chronically inferior to others and must earn their approval, there’s probably a deeper issue present.

  • Your child is known to be an attention-seeker at school. This may not always take the form of looking for negative attention, i.e., acting out. Some kids display unhealthy attention seeking in relatively pleasant ways, such as by striving to be the class clown or the “perfect” student. Regardless of what form attention seeking takes, however, this extreme desire to be recognized as special is seldom indicative of personal security.

  • Your child is extremely competitive and feels the need to brag about her achievements frequently. Overly aggressive competitiveness usually stems from self-doubt rather than confidence.

How to Help Your Child Feel Secure
If you notice signs that your child is “working” for your love, it’s important for you to take the lead in the bonding process. Many parents make the mistake of feeling rejected by their child’s initial moves toward independence, and this causes needless division. These parents feel like they are no longer needed, so they step back; meanwhile, their child feels abandoned. If you have distanced from your child for any reason, it’s important to start reaching out to her again by openly demonstrating affection.

Parents must also cultivate an environment of unconditional love and acceptance at home. They need to learn to strike the right balance between letting kids know when their behaviour is not okay and showing them that they are loved regardless. Above all else, kids need to know that they can approach their parents and have their needs met at any time—even if they have behaved poorly. The best parent is one who is caring but firm, available whenever possible, and generous with his or her love and attention. He or she is strong enough to stand up to a child’s demands, caring enough to meet her needs, and wise enough to tell the difference between the two. It’s a tall order, but when children are given what they require to maintain a deep and trusting connection, they are free to be themselves.
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