True Attachment Parenting vs. Helicopter Parenting

WikiWorld comic based on the article "Hel...

You may have read my little rant about a particular radio personality who was bashing Attachment Parents. Since then, I’ve cooled off a bit and had some more time to reflect on the issue. The issue being that many people misperceive what Attachment Parenting is. Crunchy people, like myself, have a tendency to gravitate towards the philosophy but many don’t understand the foundation of it. In fact, many people incorrectly assume that Attachment Parenting is “child-centered parenting.” Have you heard of “helicopter parents?” They’re the ones that obsess over every little thing their babies/toddlers/teenagers do. They’re the ones that make you want to throw-up. I’ll be honest, as a control-freak in recovery, I’m doing my best not to become one.

There is a way to avoid becoming a “helicopter parent.” Keep yourself in check. Most of the time, parenting goes awry when we let our own issues get in the way with what’s best for our kids’ development. Margaret Mahler researched the characteristics of a secure attachment in children. She concluded that kids need to be allowed to be dependent and then develop autonomy when they are ready. Here’s a quick summary of Margaret Mahler‘s theory of psychological development:

Birth- 1 Month: Normal Autistic Phase

Baby is in their own little world, aware only of what he needs. It is of utmost importance that mom is available to meet these needs in a loving way.

*Note: I’m going to use “mom” a lot, assuming that she is the primary caregiver.

1 Month- 5 Months: Symbiosis

Now Baby is waking-up. He’ll need to be fed promptly, given a safe sleep environment, engaged with, and made comfortable. When these needs are met, the baby develops a basis for security and confidence. Baby can’t yet understand that things, including people, exist when he doesn’t see them.

5-10 Months: Differentiation, Sub-Phase One

Baby begins to understand that things exist separate from his view. Baby also begins to understand that he is separate from mom, which can be frightening. This is usually when separation anxiety begins. If you give your baby consistent access to you, they will mature to the next phase.

**That sounded a lot like Attachment Parenting, right? Well the next step is where things get tricky…**

10-16 Months: Practicing, Sub-Phase Two

If you don’t want to be a helicopter parent, it starts here. Babies become much more mobile at this stage and are ready to explore their world. Yet, they still aren’t ready for total separation. You’ll often get a sense of ambivalence from the baby… Do you want to be near me or not? Truth is, they’re not sure. They want to explore but they also need to know that mom is still available. In this phase, well-meaning parents may be tempted to do things for their children because they can’t tolerate their baby’s frustration. “Can’t reach that toy, baby? Here ya go!” This is the beginning stages of being a “helicopter parent.” If a baby gets a balanced amount of autonomy and reassurance, they will move to the next phase.

16-24 Months: Rapprochement, Sub-Phase Three

If the previous stage was confusing, this one is maddening. The ambivalence of a toddler can be quite frustrating for moms. At this point, the child is very aware that they are separate from mom which is still frightening but also exciting. Toddlers seem to be very explorative when they are with their moms but a little withdrawn when apart from them. They’re still not totally sure that mom will reappear.

24-36 Months: Consolidation and Object Constancy

At this point, toddlers finally understand that their moms exist separate from them and that they will return (object constancy). Separation anxiety begins to fade which helps the toddler to explore freely and confidently apart from mom. It is important that moms give them this opportunity.

* * *

When we as parents don’t give kids the opportunity to become autonomous we do them a horrible disservice. Building a secure attachment requires that we tend to their need to be dependent until they are ready to be autonomous. It’s a delicate and trying task… I’m pretty nervous about it! It’s important that we keep ourselves in check. Often it’s our own issues that make us keep children dependent or try to push them into autonomy too soon.

For me, I tend to get freaked-out when I realize how dependent Luca is on me. Sometimes I just wish he could do his own thing and not need me so much. I have to keep myself in check because this time period of utter dependency is SO short in the grand scheme of things. I’ve learned from sitting with clients who had parents push them into autonomy that it can backfire. Children who were not allowed to be dependent, and to be assured that their every need will be gladly met, often develop major relationship issues later on. So, thankfully I went through a lot of my own therapy to deal with this issue, ha!

*For more on how our own issues get in the way of parenting, and what to do about it, read this parenting must-have Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel.

Cover of "Parenting From the Inside Out"

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

When Your Baby Displays “Stranger Danger”

The Madonna-Whore Complex and Me

The Myth of “Me-Time” or I Want My Cake

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10 thoughts on “True Attachment Parenting vs. Helicopter Parenting

  1. have four children. Think I over did the attachment so they would not leave my side, for years!! Nearly grown up now and guess what … they seem normal. Your right time is so short however when they are young some days can be sooo long.

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