Joe’s kids and grandkids came for a visit over the Christmas holiday. He and his wife couldn’t help but notice that his daughter and son-in-law seemed to hover over their child’s every need.
“Just take one bite of your dinner and then you can have your dessert,” his daughter pleaded with her 3-year-old daughter, Sarah. They lay in bed with Sarah until she fell asleep. They ran up to her room if they heard a little whimper.
This style of parenting is certainly different than how Joe and his wife raised their kids. Joe wondered — “What’s going on? Is this a new parenting approach? Where did it come from? What positive and negative impact might it have on children’s long-term development?”
In the late 1960s, Dr. John Bowlby theorized that a “secure attachment” between a child and her caretaker was a powerful predictor of future healthy development. When children have a strong connection to their parents, they feel a sense of safety and security that enables them to comfortably explore the world around them. Known as attachment theory, it became the basis of many psychological interventions.
In recent years, some exciting research has validated this theory. Beatrice Beebe, a professor at Columbia University, has done ground-breaking research on the importance of early caretaker-infant interactions on later development. Infants and parents react and respond to each other, forming rhythmic patterns of relating. These patterns predict future development.
In 2001, Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician, published a book on “attachment parenting.” Among other recommendations, he advocated extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping and the value of “baby wearing.” Much of his advice was based on attachment theory and research.
But how much connection does a child need to feel secure? Can “attachment parenting” become “overparenting,” especially as children get older?
Clearly, infants are completely dependent on their parents for care, protection and affection. We’re wired to respond to their cries and to their needs. Babies need touch, smiles, cooing and talk. They respond to their parents, and we respond to them. It’s wonderful to watch a parent sing and snuggle with their baby. When parents are unable to provide this stimulation and response, babies experience distress and discomfort.
But as they become toddlers and young children, they are increasingly able to verbally communicate their needs, self-soothe, and tolerate frustration and disappointment. Parents can struggle with when to provide soothing and when to let their child learn how to soothe themselves.
“Overparenting stems from parents not wanting to have their children experience pain, which is an understandable fear,” said Dr. Maggie Chou, a pediatrician at The Everett Clinic. “However, experiencing failure and disappointment is a necessary part of learning how to deal with emotions.
“So it’s important for children to have a secure attachment to the parent so that children see the parent as a ‘home base’ that they can rely on to be their support, but parents need to be able to step back and allow the child to go out and explore on their own as well.”
So how can parents strike a balance between being “home base” for their children and letting them learn how to cope with discomfort, disappointment and distress?
Wait a bit before responding. Don’t hover. Toddlers and young children benefit from learning how to settle themselves down. Learning how to soothe yourself and make yourself more comfortable is a life-long challenge for all of us. As we grow, we want to learn these important life skills.
Set age-appropriate limits. Think before you say yes and before you say no. Once you decide, don’t let your child’s behavior, especially escalating fuss, make you change your mind. You’re in charge. When kids know this, they feel more secure. Kids need to learn how to cope with frustration and disappointment.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.