Attachment is a critical component of healthy child development. Based on John Bowlby’s work with children separated from their parents during World War II, we now know that infants and young children must develop secure attachments with a nurturing caregiver. These secure attachments become the foundation for a child’s social and emotional development, as well as a template for all future relationships.
Throughout the first decade of life, parents are advised to practise “attachment parenting“. That is, parents should ensure that the child’s basic needs are met, that the child feels safe and secure, and that the child knows that the parent is there when needed.
This critical role continues as the child leaves the safety and comfort of home for the first time. Separation is easier when the child is sure that their parents will be there. Even as they progress through elementary school, children thrive when they know that nurturing carers are nearby, not just to provide food and clean clothes but also to assist, protect, and keep things organised and running smoothly.
As children begin to approach their teen years, however, a different approach to parenting is needed. Having supported and sheltered children through elementary school, parents must begin to transition from that ever-present, problem-solving, safety-officer parent to something very different. Beginning in middle school, parents must start to detach from their children. Now the task is to loosen the bonds so that their children can begin the all-important task of exploring the world on their own and to experience the risks associated with independence.
However, far too many parents insist on maintaining an attachment-based parenting approach even after children enter their adolescent years. These parents continue to solve their children’s school problems, intervene in struggles with peers, and look for ways to give their children advantages with teachers, coaches, and even employers.
Unfortunately, though, maintaining this attachment parenting style can have some unintended negative consequences. To begin with, when parents remain attached into the teen years, children may feel that they don’t need to take responsibility for actions and decisions that get them into trouble. If a parent is always there to get the child out of trouble, how is the child ever to learn that he or she will be held accountable? This is a critical life lesson and one that is best learned in middle school.
A second area where attachment parenting is maintained for too long is their children’s academic success. While there are many caveats about maturation rates and special needs, the fact is that most children (upwards of 80%) are capable of handling their own educational responsibilities. Nevertheless, too many parents continue to be overly involved in their children’s academic success. And while parent-guided success may lead to a slightly higher GPA, too much involvement denies children the opportunity to learn to succeed on their own and to feel the pride that comes from doing it yourself.
To avoid these negative, unintended consequences, parents are encouraged to shift from attachment parenting to detachment parenting. By the start of middle school, parents should begin shifting their parent-child relationship to one in which the child gradually assumes an increasing share of responsibility. Gift your children with support and assistance through elementary school. But by middle school, the best gift you can give your children is the opportunity to solve their own problems and to develop independence. Allowing them to do more things with less parental involvement is one way of accomplishing this. Another is to allow the child to make decisions, even if you know that things are not going to work out the way the child thinks they will. You will still be there to assist them in managing their disappointment, and failure is an important lesson towards becoming self-sufficient.
So, as your child approaches middle school, parents should start the shift from attachment parenting to detachment parenting. Academic success, athletic success, and interpersonal success are important. However, these successes should belong to the children, and the only way children can own success is if they accomplish it themselves. By remaining too involved for too long, we deny children the opportunity to learn to function on their own. Learning to manage disappointment and learning to be self-reliant are the most important skills parents give their children.
Berney Wilkinson, PhD is a licensed psychologist who has practised in central Florida for over 10 years and specialises in paediatric psychology, neuropsychology, and forensic psychology.