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Expert Insights: Can Children Become Too Attached to Their Nannies? With Gary M. Barnard, PhD

December 4, 2012

by Michelle LaRowe
Editor in Chief

In my 15 plus years in the in-home childcare industry, one of the most common fears I’ve discovered parents considering hiring a nanny have is a fear that their nanny and children with develop too close of a bond and that their child will become more attached to his nanny than he is to his own mother. Recently I had a chance to catch up with Dr. Gary Bernard, a practicing child psychologist, and get his insight into the connections children form with their caregivers. Read on for what he had to share.

eNannySource: How important is quality childcare during the early years?

Dr. Barnard: The quality of childcare in the early years forms the foundation for security, trust, autonomy, self-regulation and much more.  This is the first responsibility of parents. The second is to choose partners wisely to help parents be successful in this most important journey. Early childcare providers (parents, relatives, nannies, teachers or others) can effectively bond with children and present, consistently, a loving and interactive set of behaviors that promote a strong, secure and healthy attachment.

eNannySource: How do you define quality childcare?

Dr. Barnard: Research on secure attachments suggests that the quality of interactions between the caregiver and child are more important than the quantity of interactions. So…the quality of childcare is directly related to the caregiver’s understanding and ability to be available to the child with an organized set of behaviors that are socially appealing and interactive so that the needs of the child are met. These behaviors include, but are not limited to, affection, smiling, play, and being very knowledgeable and attentive to the developmental needs of the child. Secure attachment promotes healthy exploration and self-confidence for the child. Quality caregivers know the importance of helping children to learn how to do for themselves, so they can later learn how to do for others.

eNannySource: What do you say to parents who are concerned that their nanny has bonded too closely to their child?

Dr. Barnard: I have never personally seen anyone “bond too closely” to a child. When a caregiver emotionally and behaviorally bonds with a child, it promotes healthy attachment to that caregiver, if the specific behaviors of the caregiver are appropriate and supportive of the healthy development of the child (wow―that’s a mouthful!). What am I saying? There is a difference between strong and healthy attachment and “parental alienation.” Most parents are going to recognize how a strong bond-attachment to a nanny is nothing to be threatened by…but they will also recognize when that bond-attachment is not healthy and may be more about the needs of the caregiver, which may tend to alienate the parent. When the caregiver is focused on the best interest of the child, they are able to reassure parents that they are mindful of the need to nurture a balanced and healthy attachment with the child. 

eNannySource: Many parents worry that their child will think that their nanny is their mom and love them more. What do you say to that?

Dr. Barnard: Assure parents that you are aware of these feelings and see them as a valid emotional response for a parent who is not with their children as much as they would like to be. These are natural feelings to have, so you are sensitive to them and you can reassure parents that you are well aware of your task…and it is not to take on the powerful role of “Parent.” In fact, it is to play the role of trusted partner and loyal employee with the most precious part of their business―their child―of course.

eNannySource: How can parents and nannies encourage children to form a secure bond with their caregiver?

Dr. Barnard: Parents and nannies can encourage children to form a secure bond-attachment with their caregiver by having respectful, direct and honest communication about what is working and not working. This isn’t much different than how co-parents, or parents and grandparents encourage healthy bond-attachments. You also model it. This requires that you spend some time together with the child as you interact with them in play, story-telling, reading, etc.  Associate fun and something positive with the time you share together. All kids get this!

eNannySource: How can working parents build secure connections with their children?

Dr. Barnard: Quality of time and shared experiences are the specific reasons for a child to form a secure attachment with a parent. The parent’s time with their children may be brief, but it can be of the highest quality. To reach that level of high quality parents must be completely available when they are with their children. They must develop routines and structures that support a “secure base” so that their children will learn healthy independence, while at the same time will know and trust that they are loved and will always have a safe way back to their parents love and support.  Lots of smiles, play, affection, interest, affirmation and respect will be some of the specific behaviors that need to genuinely and consistently be “front and center.”

eNannySource:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Dr. Barnard: All children need and thrive on the predictability of our honest belief in them and our unbreakable connection with them. That can never be reinforced too much in any relationship.

Gary M. Barnard, PhD, has been a practicing child psychologist for close to three decades. He has been a high school teacher and coach, taught university classes as an adjunct instructor/professor in child and adolescent psychology and developmental psychology, consulted with numerous school districts, conducted extensive clinical research as co-owner of Cerebral Research, L.L.C., and worked as both the clinical director of a child/adolescent unit in a psychiatric hospital and as the Chief Psychologist of a psychiatric hospital.

His book, Becoming a Power Parent: Seven Guiding Principles for Creating a Healthy Family, to be released in November 2012. He also has a weekly national radio show each Monday afternoon called the Power Parent Hour. You can follow Dr. B at www.thepower-parent.com .


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