Kids Need Healthy Attachment — But Attachment Parenting Doesn't Deliver
Attachment parenting can make kids fragile and dependent on their parents.
If you follow parenting style trends, you’ve probably heard a lot about attachment parenting of late. Maybe you saw that Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker recently announced their intent to follow attachment parenting with baby Rocky Thirteen. In any case, there’s a lot of noise as to what attachment parenting actually is, but one thing is clear: It doesn’t actually foster healthy attachment in kids.
“There's a big difference between attachment parenting as we've come to know it through pop culture and the academic concept of attachment theory,” says licensed clinical psychologist Tasha Brown, Ph.D. “People have taken attachment and created their own meanings for it, and we’ve started to see some pretty extreme examples of how the term is now applied in parenting.”
Untangling the web of healthy attachment and the downsides of attachment parenting is obviously tricky since the two concepts are interrelated and use shared terminology. Although secure attachment is essential for kids, attachment parenting — in which parents complete tasks for kids that they can do for themselves, or keep kids in such close physical proximity that they can’t cope with being away from their parents — is counterproductive.
What Is Secure Attachment?
As any parent knows, kids get distressed and anxious when they’re separated from their primary caregivers. Securely attached children do this too — it’s a function of the fact that they feel like they can depend on those adults to meet their needs. But they can also work through that distress due to a deep assurance that their caregiver will return.
“A prominent feature of healthy attachment means that a child knows that they can stray away from their caregiver or from their base, but that they can also always come back,” Brown says. “Children who are more securely attached do well in making friendships and regulating emotions, so healthy attachment is an important focus during a child’s early years.”
Like most kids, securely attached children seek and receive reassurance from a caregiver when frightened; the key difference is that they internalize that reassurance. For example, a securely attached child who hears an owl hooting outside their bedroom window while falling asleep may cry out to their parent. Within a reasonable timeframe, that parent can calm the child down and get them back to sleep. An insecurely attached child in the same situation would refuse to let their parent leave the bed or room. They would be clingy whenever the parent moved or shifted, have trouble falling soundly asleep, and wouldn’t be able to self-soothe or fall back asleep if they woke up and the parent had gone elsewhere.
Why Attachment Parenting Doesn’t Foster Secure Attachment
The most strident criticism of attachment parenting is that well-meaning parents end up so laser-focused on fulfilling their child's needs that they end up stressed and burnt out, and their kids grow up without appropriate boundaries and discipline.
It should be noted that not all versions of attachment parenting are harmful. The version first introduced to the masses by physician William Sears in the mid-1980s essentially holds up. Sears held that when parents respond to their baby’s needs quickly and consistently, they form a healthy bond that yields positive benefits as the child ages. Skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, and room sharing are some practices promoted by attachment parenting to encourage healthy bonds.
The problem comes when proponents of attachment parenting swing the pendulum so far that they make an emphasis on fulfilling their child’s every need an all-or-nothing proposition. Or, when they extend attachment parenting past infancy to the point that it negatively impacts a child’s ability to grow more resilient, independent, and sociable.
“What's missing from the attachment parenting conversation is that we want children to be able to form healthy relationships with a wide variety of people,” Brown says. “When a child lacks space and autonomy because their parent is immediately responding to their every need instead of fostering healthy independence, they actually end up insecurely attached to their caregiver.”
Furthermore, the view that attachment is a permanent "trait" has largely fallen out of favor in psychological circles. Recent research indicates that early childhood experience is just one factor that plays into the ability to form healthy attachments later in life. Changes in non-parental relationships due to peer pressure, romantic relationships, and shifting family dynamics can play a role in adult attachment.
How To Foster Healthy Attachment In Kids
So, what is the best path towards fostering a healthy attachment in kids? An authoritative parenting style, which the American Psychological Association describes as parents who are “nurturing, responsive, and supportive, yet set firm limits for their children,” has long been recommended as the parenting style most likely to foster healthy parent-child attachment.
Admittedly, “authoritative parent” doesn’t look zippy on a shirt or social media bio. Parents looking for a fun and trendy moniker will want to check out dolphin parenting, a pop-culture subtype of authoritative parenting that attempts to balance structure with responsiveness to a child’s needs. Introduced by psychiatrist Shimi Kang, M.D., in her book The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids — Without Turning into a Tiger, Kang describes dolphin parents as those who “maintain balance in their children’s lives to gently yet authoritatively guide them toward lasting health, happiness, and success.”
An important part of this is fostering independence. Brown encourages parents to start with simple opportunities to allow kids to express themselves in social situations from a young age. “With my clients, there’s often a desire for caregivers to step in and speak for their children,” she says. “But if someone asks a child how they are doing, parents can step back and encourage them to respond to the question independently so they feel empowered to develop and use their voice.”
Brown also recommends that parents allow for some space when their young kids participate in sports or other activities by watching practice from a distance, leaving the room for a short period, or dropping the child off altogether and leaving to run an errand. Allowing kids the latitude and opportunity to engage with others in a safe environment will help foster independence while solidifying the child-parent bond when the parent reliably shows up just before the conclusion of the activity.
The balance comes in figuring out how to stretch your child’s comfort with independence without pushing them so far in that direction that they’re incapacitated. It can be tough for parents to strike that balance, a struggle Brown empathizes with. “It’s important for parents to consider their own values and the type of children that they want to raise, and use that to guide their parenting,” she says.
“It's okay to pull different ideas about parenting from various sources, but what's most important is that you're doing something that feels right for your values and that feels right for your family — and, most importantly, is right for the child.”