Within Western cultures we seem to have moved into an obsession with encouraging independence. We glorify the children who can separate from caregivers without strong emotions or meet developmental milestones “early”. Meanwhile, children who appear hesitant to leave their caregivers side are seen as problematic in some way.

Perhaps you have heard comments like “oh they’re shy”, “they’re clingy” or “he’s such a mummy’s boy” in reference to your child.

Such comments perceive developmentally appropriate, attachment seeking behaviours as abnormal, problematic, or perhaps even pathological.

This has potential implications for the unfolding of a child and their sense of self. The toddler who was always labelled as shy may internalise this as fact about who they are. This toddler may become a primary school student who is fearful of raising their hand in class. This same student may continue to believe they are shy into adulthood, choosing a career path that allows them to remain unseen or perhaps they turn down opportunity because of a view they hold of themselves that is based on fear.

Such judgements upon young children are based on momentary expressions of that child’s attachment needs, and not on the essence of who they are.

The unfolding of a child’s attachment needs in context to their development has not changed. However, our perceptions of children and parenting paradigms have.

During the industrial revolution, many families moved to seek employment. This displacement and relocation saw parents and caregivers physically distanced from their usual support systems of extended family members, such as grandparents. As a result, parenting paradigms shifted toward prioritising independence. Practices such as early weaning, toilet-training, scheduled feed and sleep times and the use of ‘time out’, where children were forced to repress their emotions, became the new normal.

However, the rate of child development hasn’t changed. Let’s have a look at how our children need closeness in the early years:

Attachment theory has a significant evidence base that was preceded by theorists such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. The theory of attachment formation tells us that infants and young children require warmth, closeness, and physical proximity as a basic need, as much as they require adequate nutrition and sleep. The first year of life is especially critical to a child’s secure attachment formation, however this process does not end here. Children continue to need and find safety and security within the physical closeness, responsiveness and warmth that is held within the relationship with their primary caregiver.

A child may seek attachment by communicating needs through crying or behaviour, or seek physical closeness to their caregiver especially after physical or emotional hurts.

Attachment relationships can be categorised into four different “types”; secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment and disorganised attachment.

Gordon Neufeld’s Hierarchical Model of Attachment further explains the process of attachment formation. In his model, the relationship between caregiver and child is seen as a dance. Where the caregiver assumes the role of providing, and the child the role of seeking. These roles are wired into our biology and often instinctual (however, if we have experienced trauma or an insecure attachment relationship as a child, we may need to unpack some layers and healing around this).

The child seeks dependence through following, seeking guidance or assistance and this triggers the caregivers providing instincts to protect, lead and guide.

“The more an adult provides, the more a child should rest in their care; the more a child depends on an adult, the easier it should be to provide for them” – Deborah McNamara

Children form attachment relationships with people outside of the relationship with their parents or caregiver. Any relationship with children, whether that be as a family member, family friend, teacher or other professional, should always be based on a strong foundation of trust and safety – including emotional safety. Children are not biologically wired to follow the orders of adults who they aren’t attached to.

Before we can expect children to be cooperative, we need to invest time into relationship

A child who is not connected won’t be cooperative.

A child who is not dependent won’t be connected.

To encourage independence, we must first encourage dependence.

A child whose attachment needs are met will feel safe. Children’s emotions need to be met with acceptance, empathy and support with safe caregiver in the early years. On a functional level, this gives them access to the higher-level brain functions they need to explore and engage with the world.

We continue to live in communities where parenting exists isolation or disconnect from wider support systems. The shift from prioritising dependence before independence is both an internal and external one

Get support for yourself

If the support of extended family is not an option for you, how can you replicate this? Cultivate a community of like-minded friends and parents who’s parenting ideologies align with your own. Seek out aligned playgroups or meets where you can actively seek out these people. If finances allow, can you outsource any roles around the home such as cleaning? It is also helpful to have an outlet for yourself, be this exercise, creative arts, meditation or a friend or professional that can attentively listen to you and hold space for your emotions and tears.

Release yourself from the judgment of others

Easier said than done, I know. Get clarity around your own values and vision for your life and regularly remind yourself of these to avoid the downward spiral that can come from becoming caught up in the opinion of others. Surrounding yourself with people who align with your views and parenting approaches can be integral to this. Perhaps you may adopt a practice that allows you to vent or express yourself such as journal writing or maybe you need to establish boundaries with certain people in your life.

Get grounded by the facts

Hopefully this article has served as a reminder of some truths surrounding child development. Remaining connected to your needs, your child’s needs, and evidence-based parenting and child development can provide a grounding voice, especially in the face of unsolicited advice or parenting “trends”. You can continue to source information through books, online courses, workshops or perhaps a podcast.

What small but mighty actions could you lean into this year to reclaim childhood?

Join the waitlist for Raising Play – the course and online community for parents and educators reconnecting with play, prioritising connection and reclaiming childhood. Enrolments are opening soon!

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