A healthy attachment

a healthy attachment

Understanding how to develop a healthy attachment between you and your child can help smooth difficult transitions in your child’s life, and give you a better grasp on their development.

a safe place to grow

Developing a safe haven for children to grow and mature into healthy adults is one of the main goals of most parents. We want our kids to explore the world and then come back to a loving, safe base – and there are many parenting styles and methods that can produce this. Children who see their parents or caregivers as a safe haven will develop a strong preference for them. Just watch a group of kindy kids and you’ll see safe havens in action: one runs to Mum for a hug when he falls over; another plays chase with her friends but smiles at Dad as she runs past; others sit quietly on Grandma’s knee, or drag their nanny by the hand to the sandpit. We call it “love” or “like” when a child shows this kind of preference for their special people over others. In child development and psychology, it is called “attachment”.

early attachment

Attachments develop in early years and affect how we experience relationships, what we expect of others, and how we express emotions like love, devotion, or grief. Research has shown that children with healthy attachments develop better language and social-emotional skills, have better self-esteem, form more positive peer attachments, and become more self-controlled and emotionally stable as teenagers than those with less healthy attachment patterns.

Reading a list like this might cause you to question your parenting: “Are my kids developing healthy attachments?” “Am I doing a good enough job?” It is easy to get overly concerned about this, but the good news is it’s pretty hard to get wrong. Most people develop normal attachments, even in some difficult situations. However, understanding attachment and how it develops is particularly helpful in situations such as the loss of a parent or sibling, divorce, fostering or adoption, or even choosing a childcare provider for your child.

considering childcare

Obviously Mum and Dad are the most important people for children to attach to, but that doesn’t mean kids will suffer if they’re away from their parents for short periods of time. A good balance is needed. Time with grandparents, other family members, or with a nanny or in-home carer can help children develop other special attachments where they have positive, fun, loving interactions. If you decide to use a childcare service, look for the following things in particular:

  • Low number of children-per-caregiver ratio.
  • A low turnover of staff (too many changes in caregivers can potentially be harmful to a child’s development).
  • Loving, caring, and positive interactions between the caregiver and the child.

Childcare can be very positive for many children as they explore a wide variety of new experiences. Long hours in childcare, however, can create difficulties (such as behavioural and emotional problems) for some children, and need careful consideration.

raising other peoples’ children

As a foster parent, I am particularly aware of the importance of understanding attachment when a child is in foster care or with extended whanau. To us as adults, it may seem strange for a child to be sad about leaving a dangerous or unhealthy home environment. This is where our attachment knowledge comes in.

Separation from parents, whether healthy or not, is usually a very difficult situation. The child may react to their loss with grief, misbehaviour, withdrawal, mistrust, or even anger. As a carer or new parent, we need to be sympathetic to that reaction.

Adoption has similar issues to fostering, where children are expected to separate from birth families and attach to new ones. The child’s age has a big influence on what new parents will need to do.

If you are a parent who is working to help a child transition, getting some professional training to understand attachment and separation would be very beneficial for all involved.

parenting through separation

Divorce and remarriage are now commonplace in our society. Many kids now face issues such as separation from birth parents and the formation of new ties to step-parents. These issues can affect a child’s schoolwork, play, health, and friendships. Parents need to keep in mind the emotional impact these events can have. Parents can make a big difference by being sensitive to a child’s feelings and allowing time for them to process what’s happening. Let them know that they may feel angry, sad,  happy, or even a mixture of emotions, and that you’ll be there to support them.

attachment disorders

Attachment problems can occur for some children, and the causes and effects of these are extremely varied. Some children become withdrawn, anxious, or aggressive; while others may show affection to anyone, even strangers. If you suspect your child has an attachment problem, it’s best to seek professional help. It’s also important to keep in mind that attachment can be repaired: love, patience, effort, and time will rebuild trust. Good support is essential if you are dealing with a child with an attachment disorder, as it can be stressful and exhausting. Caring for yourself and remaining hopeful that things will change means you
can care for your children better too.

Children with severe emotional or behavioural problems may qualify for assistance from the Ministry of Education. You can self-refer or go through your child’s teacher.

ages and stages what’s important?


  • Sensitivity to baby’s needs and signals.
  • Eye contact and warm interactions.

2- to 12-years

  • Set boundaries. Know when to say yes or no, and be consistent.
  • Both parents involved, where possible.
  • Prioritise time with your child.
  • Validate their feelings.
  • Parenting programmes such as Toolbox Parenting Groups and The Incredible Years Parent Programme are great resources.

12+ years

  • Involvement and acceptance.
  • Coach-style parenting.
  • Increased freedom and independence, within safe boundaries.
  • Stay available and be ready to listen when they want to talk.
  • Validate their feelings.

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