- Parents help children to thrive and feel good about themselves by meeting their fundamental needs for connection and nurturance.
- For children, studies show that emotional and relational support from adults makes all the difference in the present and throughout their lives.
- Children do not need and would not benefit from perfect parents; they need parents who are calm in the face of mistakes and work to repair them.
By Kat Scherer, PhD. How can we give children the best start in life?
Most parents want their kids to grow up happy, connected to others, and successful in some way. According to child development experts, the quality of the parent-child relationship strongly influences each of these outcomes and affects a child's future. This primary attachment relationship lays the foundation for a child's sense of self and success in life. So, what are these essential qualities parents or other primary caregivers can offer to help their children thrive?
To address this question, we reviewed recent neurobiological studies, developmental theories, and our clinical work with families to create a list of what we call "The Seven Essential Attachment Needs."
No parent is perfect; it's unrealistic to expect to meet your child's emotional needs flawlessly. We are imperfect by nature; accepting this and working to reconnect after disconnection is crucial. Nevertheless, there are specific, fundamental social-emotional needs that, if met (often enough), help children grow into their best selves.
1. Safety and security
Want to help your child feel safe and secure in life? Parents play a vital role in protecting their children from harm. Providing a secure environment not only keeps them physically safe but also shows them that they are worthy of care and protection. A safe environment builds trust, and the child learns they can count on others—which becomes a foundation of hope that can last a lifetime.
Want your child to learn how to handle difficult situations? Give them comfort and support during tough times. By doing this repeatedly, cycling through struggles and recovery, children learn that they can survive and tough times will pass.
This soothing between parent and child (co-regulation) teaches emotional coping skills through experience. Eventually, the child will be able to self-soothe. For example, if a parent sings a soothing song to an upset child, the child may later hum or sing to herself. If a parent reads to an upset child, the child may later turn to books to calm down. Similarly, reassurance can lead to self-reassurance. This emotional capacity fosters feelings of optimism, resilience, and confidence.
Want your child to feel worthy of attention and love? Tune in to their experiences with compassion. Both actions and feelings can be reflected, such as, "I see you are running really fast," "I notice you are excited," "I hear you are sad," or "You seem angry." Recognizing their experiences and their full range of emotions validates children and helps them feel seen and heard. It teaches them that their thoughts and feelings are valued and legitimate. Over time, children develop the ability to empathize with others and create close, satisfying relationships.
4. Reliability and consistency
Having parents who are reliable and present is reassuring. A stable, consistent, and predictable environment helps reduce stress and promotes a sense of calm and trust. This experience with parents is the perfect antidote to childhood anxiety or confusion. And reliable parents serve as role models for responsibility and self-discipline.
5. Support and encouragement
Believing in and showing support to a child bolsters self-esteem. It helps them to feel capable, hopeful, and valuable. Encouragement fuels the drive to move forward with optimism. Seeing your child in a positive light, even during difficult times, helps them understand that they are trusted and that setbacks are temporary.
6. Novelty, play, and fun
Stimulation, novelty, and fun are hugely attractive to children and enhance life. Playfulness, such as dancing together, playing patty-cake, or hide-and-seek, is invigorating and draws children into connection. These interactions not only energize them but also promote emotion regulation and teach them how to nurture positive experiences. As they learn to play and enjoy themselves, they develop crucial skills to form positive relationships.
7. Boundaries and structure
Clear rules, limits, and schedules can provide children with a sense of security and confidence. This structure defines what is acceptable and what is not, with each family setting their own guidelines. We do not encourage over-scheduling, rigid control, or inflexibility. However, patterns and boundaries reduce confusion and disorder. They also help children learn about cooperation and frustration tolerance. Eventually, they will become aware of their own need for boundaries—and respect those of others.
As stated above, caregivers cannot always meet all emotional needs. Children do not need and do not benefit from constant parental attunement. Normal fluctuations in connection, with disruption and reconnection, are expected and help to build resilience. All parents have strengths and areas that they find challenging. This list of seven essential attachment needs can be used as a guide to help highlight family strengths and identify areas that could use improvement.
When children's basic needs for a healthy attachment are met, they feel secure, hopeful, and confident. Meeting these needs for children lays the foundation for a secure parent-child relationship—offering children the best conditions to thrive.
Sylvester, E. & Scherer, K. (2022) Relationship-based Treatment of Children and Their Parents: An integrative guide to neurobiology, attachment, regulation, and discipline. WW Norton.