One of the most common questions I am asked about relationships is whether a child can be too attached to his or her parents. There is a general fear and persistent myth that if we focus on building relationships with our kids, we may hinder their grow as independent and self-sufficient beings. There is a paradoxical relationship between attachment and separation, which is often misunderstood.
The short story is this: Attachment doesn’t slow down growth, it fuels it.
When you consider the big picture, the ultimate goal in raising a child is to help them become their own separate person. We should want them to have their own mind, set their own goals, form their own reasons, make their own decisions, think for themselves, know their boundaries and create their own intentions. What we really need to be asking is: What do we need to do to make sure our kids grow like this?
Children younger than three routinely cling to their parents. They may chase after them, cry when they are not near and be unhappy when they have to share their parent’s attention with others.
Young children are hungry for attachment because they lack self-sufficiency and are highly dependent on us for caretaking. By the time they reach 5 to 7 years of age, they should be able to play more freely on their own, take responsibility for simple things like getting dressed and even start to do chores such as cleaning up their toys.
Children can’t be too attached, they can only be not deeply attached. Attachment is meant to make our kids dependent on us so that we can lead them. It is our invitation for relationship that frees them to stop looking for love and to start focusing on growing.
When kids can take for granted that their attachment needs will be met, they are freed to play, discover, imagine, move freely and pay attention. It is paradoxical but when we fulfill their dependency needs, they are pushed forward towards independence. As a child matures they should become more capable of taking the steering wheel in their own life and we will be able to retreat into a more consulting role.
Whenever children can take for granted their attachment needs will be met, they will no longer be preoccupied with pursuing us. In other words, when you can count on your caretaker, you no longer need to cling to them. Kids who are clinging to us when they are no longer preschoolers may be doing so out of insecurity. It is security in the attachment relationship that frees children and allows them to let go of us; attachment isn’t the enemy of maturity but insecure relationships will be.
Other ways children may seek attachment
The prerequisite for growth is resting in the care of an adult. In other words, a child shouldn’t have to work for love. There are many ways kids can work at getting their relational needs met, such as...
A child works at trying hard to fit in, to belong, to be good enough and to measure up.
When a child is self-deprecating or tries to be favorable towards others so that they will be liked.
If a child works at getting attention—such as by being the class clown—and works to matter, be loved, recognized or be deemed special in some way.
Sometimes the child works at being pretty, smart or avoiding trouble in order to be liked or loved.
Bragging, boasting and being overly competitive in order to gain superiority can reveal a child’s inherent insecurity.
For a child to rest in someone’s care it means they need to be able to take this person’s relationship for granted. When kids feel they matter just as they are, they don’t have to alter themself in order to work for love.
How can adults foster attachment?
We need to take the lead to keep our kids close, to show them affection as appropriate, to pay attention to them and to provide an invitation for relationship that is unconditional. When we let them know their behavior is not okay, we can also make sure they understand that the relationship still is.
The biggest thing we need to do is to make sure their hunger for relationship is always outmatched by their faith in us to provide for them. They must trust in our capacity as a provider and not feel like they have to pursue us in order to make sure their needs are met.
The goal is to be both caring but firm while inviting our kids to depend on us. There are a few things we can do that make a significant difference this way...
Make it safe for them to depend on us by not using what they care about against them (e.g., sanctions and withdrawing privileges) or forms of separation-based discipline, such as time-outs.
We need to earn their trust by being consistent in our caretaking, as well as being generous with our attention and signs of warmth, delight and enjoyment
Take the lead in conveying we can handle them and whatever comes with this, including tantrums, resistance and opposition.
Be the one to comfort, guide, protect and hold onto them.
Don’t meet their demands, but meet their needs instead.
Arrange scenarios where they have to depend on you, including outings or if you teach them a hobby or skill.
At the end of the day, the most important lesson is this: Children don’t need to be pushed to separate or to grow up. What kids need most are deep relationships and to be freed from their hunger for connection.