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Friday, August 23, 2013

Detachment parenting

I worry about the extremes some mums will go to, in the belief that they're doing the right thing by their child. Every day I read of mums who've faithfully followed a 'method' of parenting, to the point where they've fallen over a cliff that wasn't meant to be there.

I could write this article about several 'methods' which have hidden pitfalls if people take things to extremes, but I'll start with the one that I see come up most frequently in my Facebook feed.

Attachment parenting is a method I'd never even heard of when I had my child, but having done a LOT of reading, I do get what it's about- or what it's meant to be about. It's meant to be about peacefully meeting your baby's needs so that baby feels secure.

Isn't that what most mums want? A secure, happy baby?

I practised some parts of attachment parenting unconsciously; it seemed natural and right to me, for example, to take my baby into my bed when he expressed the need to be with me at night, and to feed him whenever he asked, and to carry him pretty much whenever he asked.

Me with my best friend's baby. Carry
a child this size around all day? No
way- I would have ruined my back!
He was seriously heavy.
Within reason, that is. Not to the extent that I constantly compromised my own precious few hours of sleep, or offered the breast at every whimper, or hurt my back trying to carry a solid 18-month-old everywhere. I had to make sure I didn't ignore my own genuine needs whilst meeting my baby's. I knew that if I did, I would become a worse parent- not a better one.

And that seems to be something many mums find difficult. While I see how attachment parenting has great value for so many mums, I also worry about the mums who have fallen over the cliff. They're struggling with feelings of failure because they see themselves as not doing it right, because their own needs haven't magically disappeared. I worry about mums who are setting themselves up for future pain by ignoring their own needs completely.

That's where a little detachment parenting can be very, very useful in the attachment parent's work kit.

Detachment parenting doesn't mean ignoring your child, or not caring! Of course not!

It means taking a 'time out' for yourself from your parenting mission, stepping back and looking at the big picture. It means understanding that your child grows increasingly separate from you.

And so it must be, and so it should be.


Here are some signs that an attachment parent needed to practise a little detachment parenting along the way. (They're problems from real life. I didn't invent them.)

1. Their preschooler resolves every emotional conflict with his/her peers by suckling.

2. Their husband no longer sleeps with them and the relationship is falling apart, because there isn't room for him in the bed; there's no sex either, because there's no privacy.

3. They're in physical pain from carrying a heavy child everywhere.

Those are extreme cases- of course they are!- and I suspect that Dr Sears would be horrified to read about them. One of the tenets of his theory is that parents need to recognise stages of development in their child and have age-appropriate expectations- and certainly his method is NOT intended to cause marital disharmony or physical injury.

Well, it's easy for me to sit here and sound critical, isn't it? It's one thing to point out a problem with some people's interpretation of attachment parenting, and it's another thing altogether to try to fix it. So while some parents' problems make me shake my head in dismay, I feel like I have no right to do that unless I have something positive and useful to offer as well.

I've always found that understanding why people head for a cliff is the best way to change their course. Here is my theory of why attachment parenting ends in tears for some women (not all! Some!), and how to address the problem.


Many, many mothers have parenting or relationship 'war wounds'. There's no such thing as the perfect parent or the perfect partner, but some are so imperfect that they leave scars.

If our own childhood was torn apart by a lack of intimacy and care, if our current relationships are abusive or superficial and unsatisfying, then the arrival of a baby can be the most addictively wonderful thing that has ever happened to us. If all our life we've felt somewhat unimportant, then our life becomes meaningful in a flash with the birth of our child.

These are heady, intoxicating feelings. Combine them with the overdose of hormones pounding around our bodies when we give birth, and some overwhelmingly powerful emotions can come to the fore. We're meant to fall in love with our baby... but some vulnerable women may do so to extremes.

At that moment of finally being loved and needed unconditionally, perspective can fall by the wayside. When a baby becomes our entire reason for living, that is a worry. When the techniques designed to comfort and support a baby are extended past the point where they are developmentally appropriate- then Houston, we have a problem.

The example of the preschooler who uses suckling to avoid peer-related problem-solving is a perfect example. That is not developmentally appropriate. Children need to experience mild conflicts with their peers, learn how to negotiate their way through them, and learn that even if a problem is not solved the way they'd like it to be, they will survive.

My son was fiercely independent from a very young
age. He liked to move away from me, then return. That didn't
make me feel less loved and needed, or him less attached to me.
A baby is a very small human being who will need to learn to stand alone one day. Every day she becomes more capable, more able to express her individuality. The idea is to help him become less dependent, not to strive to keep him dependent. If a woman invests her whole sense of self in her child, either she will be shattered each time that child grows away from her, no matter that it's in a developmentally appropriate way- or she will actively (though not intentionally) cripple her child's ability to cope alone.

Broken parent, or broken child? Not a great choice.

And of course, the spin-off from that- when a woman is completely wound up in her child's every need- is that other relationships wither, including her relationship with herself. When the child grows away from her, that woman has nothing left. The day the last child goes to school, or moves away to go to college, is a tragedy. Menopause feels like death. She's not invested in her own growth, either; she has nothing to fall back on. Her partner- sidelined for all those years- has lost interest, strayed, found other means of entertainment.

What is needed here, before the love story ends in disaster?

The first casualty of being too close to something- in this case, to one's own child- is perspective. Hold your finger too close to your eye and try to focus on it, and everything else becomes a blur; you can't even see your finger properly.

Do you recognise yourself in what I said? Pull back a little. Breathe. Detach, just for a short time, so you can focus on the big picture.
Yes, a 2-year-old operating an
electric vacuum cleaner. Children
are capable. Be present and aware,
but try not to be too fearful.

Learn about child development. What should your baby be doing for himself at this age? What skills should she be learning? Think about whether you're actually getting in your child's way by being too helpful, too present, too fearful.

Ask for help to see yourself and your child clearly. Plenty of people want to tell us how to fix things- don't we just love unsolicited advice?!!- but that doesn't help, does it? We have to want to know.

And we need to choose who we ask for advice very carefully. Remember that not everyone who replies on a Facebook thread has sound knowledge or experience. Brainstorming can be useful, sure, but it's human nature to cling to the advice that tells us to go on doing exactly what we are already doing.

Not helpful.

The bottom line, as ever, is for us all to recognise the need to work on ourselves, even if we're currently convinced we're parenting really well. Time spent addressing our own emotional needs is never wasted. Time spent healing old wounds is precious and necessary. Time spent establishing personal support systems? Priceless.

Never let anyone make you feel bad for seeking professional help for your hurts. Never feel like a failure for asking for help for YOU, because sometimes that is the single most wonderful thing you can do as a parent.

If you know your relationship with your partner is in disrepair, try not to use your child as a way to ignore the problem. Your child's job is to grow away from you. That will hurt like crazy if you've given them a role they're not designed to fill.

Detach from your child for long enough to address the issue of your relationship. Do you want to stay and work on it, or leave?

If you know your relationship with your parents left massive scars of anger and pain, you can bet that it's messed with your own parenting skills in some way. Even I can trace mistakes I made all the way back to my own parents, despite the fact that I was very lucky on that score.

Deal with the wounds. Find help- an understanding friend, or better still, a professional to talk to.


If the idea of detaching from your child for even a moment makes you angry or afraid, maybe this is striking close to the bone. Look away from your own relationship with your child, because that's what makes you feel sensitive. It's a touchy subject.

Instead, try to reflect on your separateness from your own parents.

You were not part of them, were you? At first you were dependent on them for everything, but then you became aware of your own thoughts and feelings and cares. You needed to grow away from them, to lead your own life. If they clung to you, it was uncomfortable or irritating. If they got in your way as you tried to become independent, it was frustrating.

You don't want your growing child to feel frustrated, irritated, smothered by YOU. Do you?

Honour your baby's need to discover their independence. Educate yourself about stages of development. Allow that you can't protect your growing child from everything- nor should you. Let them find out who they are, away from you. Understand that the pain of letting go is a necessary part of parenting, and that nothing lasts forever.

Above all, remember that the woman in the mirror is just as loveable and just as deserving of tender care as her child. She, also, needs her independence. She needs to let her child go for longer and longer periods, so she can see who she is when she's not being a mother.

That addictive moment of being everything to our baby is ephemeral. We need to let it go, or it sours and ruins everything.


  1. Except... that's not detachment parenting. It's principle 8 of Attachment Parenting - "strive for balance in personal and family life". Those people who take the other 7 principles to extremes, at a detriment to themselves or their families, are not practicing Attachment Parenting, or at least not doing it well. It's articles like this, misrepresenting the principles of Attachment Parenting, that perpetuate negative stereotypes.

    1. I feel you're giving the idea a higher priority than the people involved. "Those people who take the other 7 principles to extremes, at a detriment to themselves or their families, are not practicing Attachment Parenting, or at least not doing it well." Not very kind to the human beings involved, and extremely defensive. I was attempting to address WHY they're having difficulties rather than just judging them as wanting and pointing them to a number.

  2. I really liked this post-some interesting points. I never practiced attachment parenting I couldn't, I have worked full time since he was 6 weeks old and dropping him off at daycare would have resulted in too many meltdowns if I let him get too attached to Mommy. Today my son is a thriving 4 year old because my husband and I learnt early to let him try things on his own and let him play independently. That gives us a chance to talk when we get home from work and stay connected. It hurts sometimes when my son says "I am alright I don't need you" but I know he is okay.

    1. Yes, Tracylynne, I hear you on that. My son wouldn't have let me attachment parent him; he was far too independent, and I think that's a good thing in many respects. We remain very close today- he's 28 now.

  3. Another great post Annie! I think there's a happy balance between the two extremes which works well.

    Best wishes, Kate

  4. Distance matters. In every context and respect, whether in intellectual discourse or financial analysis or aesthetics. We need to take a step back and see the big picture, & appraise what really is good for our children in the long run, since they will interact with the rest of the world, and not just within the four walls of our humble abode. We raise them for tomorrow.

  5. Hi, Aunt Annie. Thank you for sharing this post - it's validated my thinking. My philosophy has always been that if I'm not good myself, I'm no good for anyone. There's so much pressure with parenting these days but I do believe at the end of the day, that comes from within and that we're becoming more and more self-absorbed as a society. As Hilary Clinton puts it, 'it takes a village!' and we must bring ourselves to trust.

  6. Hi Annie-
    Thanks for the great posts! I would love to read more puppet scripts that you use with children.....I'm about to use your crocodile teeth script next week--SO EXCITED!!!!

  7. My son, 5, often doesn't want to be left alone. We have a 3 yo and 18 month old too. I clearly did a lot of things with him and spent time with him as a toddler, but I don't think that I hovered in the "be careful" sense. I did spend a lot of time playing with him though. Early on we were probably a bit permissive, which was a mistake from trying to parent gently (and he does not handle boundaries very well now!) but for a long time around age 3-4 he seemed anxious at night when we would leave his room. Now if he needs to finish a bath, but everyone else is done, he shows the same behavior which is basically begging for someone to stay with him. What is the proper way to handle this and boost his confidence?
    Which brings me to another question, somewhat related. He seems like he needs to build confidence, but how do you do that with a child in his position? It feels like everything makes it worse. Since we were a bit permissive (and sometimes too authoritarian as well) and we are now stating and enforcing boundaries, he is often having to be separated from his siblings (we stay with him) because his first line of defense when he is angry is to be aggressive and hurt people or destroy things. So we end up taking him to his room, and sometimes have to physically restrain him so that he doesn't 1) hurt us or break belongings/walls, and 2) turn the above into a game. This feels "wrong" but also seems like it is *proving* to him(self) that he is "bad", which is not our intention. One thing we have done properly is that we never used "good/bad boy" sayings and such. We did at one time spank occasionally - that hurts to say. Anyway, it seems like it's a self perpetuating cycle. The behavior requires separation, which in turn makes him feel bad and thus the behavior continues? We are also trying to slowly integrate jobs into their routine so that they acquire a sense of belonging and importance to the family unit, but he is not taking to that very well either. One of his jobs is to carry down his wet sheets in the AM, but often he begs for me to do it. (He still wets the bed daily, but diapers or pull ups have not been able to contain it. We use pads, but often from tossing and turning, they are displaced and the sheets get wet). He is also to clear his plate after meals. Honestly, that's about the only responsibilities he has at the moment.

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  9. Also, I seem to have major problems with implementing, and to a certain degree, completely grasping this kind of parenting. I don't understand why I get hung up on such a seemingly simple and common sensical thing. BUT, I feel like it's natural for me to become overbearing when setting boundaries. I try not to make rules for the sake of it, but I feel like every 2 minutes I am restricting them on something. When I offer acceptable alternatives, say, to throwing things in the house (grab a small, soft object, roll the ball, or go outside to throw), they always act like I am "bossing" them and refuse, then attempt again to do what I said I was not going to allow. Seems like these situations are endless and constant, and that I this is all that is being said in my house, which perpetuates the cycle. Why am I feeling either permissive (if I ignore) or authoritarian (if I address it) no matter what I do?
    I guess what I am asking is how do you set boundaries (constantly!) without it discouraging the child?

    1. Wow, Simply Complex, this is indeed both simple and complex!

      The simple thing here is that with three children of 5 and under, it is completely normal to feel like everything's crazy and out of control at least some of the time. It's normal to feel like you just can't get it right, because you have 3 little ones with totally different needs all making demands on you. Try to be a little bit kinder to yourself! Are you looking after your own needs? Are you taking some 'time outs' for you? If not, that is the absolute first thing I would suggest you organise. Find yourself a babysitter you trust, and get away for at least a few hours on your own or with your partner on a regular basis. To be a good mother you have to meet your own needs for sanity as well as your child's needs.

      The complex bit is that your 5-year-old is probably saying one thing and meaning another. Without being right there, it's hard to interpret his apparent 'separation anxiety'. Is this an expression of wanting more time with you and resenting those time-consuming siblings? Possibly. Is there something else happening in your lives, or in his life, that's making him feel unsafe and insecure? I can't tell, but any major changes such as a new carer or moving house or even overhearing mum and dad arguing can prompt these behaviours. I would be less inclined to look backwards and blame shortfalls in your parenting, and more inclined to look to the very recent past. When did this start? What else was happening? The fact that he's still bedwetting is also a bit of a sign that he's processing something upsetting.

      The sheets- I would take away that job and do it yourself. It's possible that he's feeling embarrassed by wetting the bed all the time. There is a certain shame to carrying your soiled sheets to the washing machine every single day. Break that cycle at once.

      Another possibility, in the presence of two young siblings, is that your son is desperate for more control. How much choice does he get in what happens in everyday life? Can he choose his chores, or do you allocate them? Does he choose where he goes to play, what he plays with, what he eats etc? At 5 he needs to be feeling a sense that he is powerful and can make decisions. You may be getting flack because of that.

      As for the constant testing- that is pretty normal. No childcare method will give you instant magical success with this! The main thing is to be confident in yourself and stand firm. How much outdoor play is your son getting? He may need to be outside before a ball is provided. Also, have you made your house child-friendly, or are you constantly worrying about him breaking your precious stuff? Put your precious stuff away! Make life easier for yourself. This is no time for 'Home Beautiful'. It has to be 'Home Flexible'.

      So if you are saying 'no' all the time, you need to find a way to say 'yes' much more often. Change the environment. Let the children play outside more, where they can get rid of that excess energy, and rearrange your house so it's child-friendly. Try not to sweat the small stuff. Decide in your own mind what matters.

      Also, you need to 'catch' him doing good things- no matter how small- and praise him for it to increase the positivity in the air. Make sure it's deserved, but the action just has to be a tiny step in the right direction, eg 'thank you for playing next to your brother without hurting him, X. I love it when you are so peaceful.'

      In this blog you'll find a post on anger management for preschoolers, which I think you could use with your boy. You'll also find much about sibling rivalry. Just use the search box in the right hand margin.

      If the anxiety and bed wetting persist despite your every effort, take him along to your doctor and see if he/she can shed more light. Hope this has helped!

  10. Thanks a lot for great Child care information.

  11. I actually came to your blog via an old post on gifted preschoolers - which has been very helpful, thank you - and this one piqued my interest as someone who identifies with the tenets of attachment parenting.

    Whilst I agree with the sentiment of the post and think that balance is important for one's own sanity, I just wanted to leave a note re: carrying an 18 month old around, weight, strain on the back etc. I still carry my (large) 20 month old around occasionally. He is heavy, but does not feel heavy. Because he has been carried since birth, my body is 'trained' to lift and support his weight in the same way that a weight trainer who frequently trains will gradually be able to lift heavier weights. Baby doesn't just wake up one morning a stocky 15kg, it's all very gradual.

    Anyway, that was all :)

  12. We need to take a step back and see the big picture, & appraise what really is good for our children in the long run, since they will interact with the rest of the world, and not just within the four walls of our humble abode.

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  13. Your blog is so useful and informative to us working within the early years and childcare field. Keep up the good work. Thank you. I have also liked you on my Facebook page at and intend to keep following. Thanks. I currently work within the childcare field as a childminder, my childminding website can be visited at and I am therefore inerested in anything childcare related. I am totally fascinated by how children learn.

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