Home HealthTopics Health Centers Reference Library Research
Join us on Facebook Join us on Facebook Share on Facebook

Mental Health

Children's Attachment to Parents



I noticed my 19-month-old very recently started to prefer going to his dad `all the time` for comfort and closeness. Previous to this it was always mom (myself!) who was his preference for these things. I just wanted to check that this is normal and healthy if he has a good relationship with both of us - i.e., will children alternate between parents for comfort at this age?

On the other hand, if it's a sign that there may be an attachement issue for him, I`d definitly like to address it ASAP.

Many thanks for your help.


If there is one thing all of us can count on as parents, it is that our children are changing constantly! I want to start with complimenting you and your partner on having established a trusted and loving relationship with your son that he can count on. We know that young children can and should establish close ties with more than one caring adult in their lives, and that this is a socially and emotionally healthy achievement for any child. 

However, it is easy for us mothers to feel some level of disappointment when we have to share our role as mainstay comforter and caregiver with others. Your discomfort is just a call to do what you are doing, seeking to understand how your child and his world are changing.

One of the major changes occurring in toddlers of your son's age is the wonderful discovery that he is a capable person separate from his parents, especially his major caregiver, which even today is most often the mother. This marks a giant step forward in the child's cognitive development and demands a similar giant step forward for parents in recognizing and supporting the beginning steps toward independence and self-identity that start in the second year of life. Toddlers are all about exploring and establishing who THEY are and what their likes and desires are, separate, of course, from those of their parents; hence that favorite word of the toddler, "No!", even when they mean "yes".

Another likely behavior of this age is called "rapprochement,"  reconnection. It means coming back to a period of clinging to a parent as in earlier ages, to help the child cope with:

It's actually a "middle ground" to seek this reconnection with another trusted caregiver rather than the primary caregiver, the mother. It just feels a smidgeon more independent and acceptable to cling to someone who is not the "attachment figure of infancy."

The other truth about dads is that many of them play in a more vigorous and rough house manner with their now vigorously explorative toddlers than do many mothers. It may also be that your son is simply enjoying the company of a fellow explorer, who may allow him a little more independence in exploration into the scary than many mothers are comfortable with allowing. Since he is driven to explore and learn at this age, he also may be taking advantage of the differences in parenting style between men and women because it better matches his developmental drive.

Toddlerhood is a very challenging time of life for many, if not most, parents. It is essentially the "first adolescence." How parents interact with their toddler children, providing necessary limits and safety based on knowledge of the child's immaturity and vulnerability, while also supporting the development of independence and a sense of self as capable and lovable, is really the foundation for their child's mental health throughout life.

I highly recommend reading about the toddler years in sound books such as those offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics on their website bookstore, www.aap.org, and books such as Penelope Leach's Your Baby and Child Birth to Five, available at any good book store. We can never learn too much about our children and the many challenges their growing up poses to their loving parents. It is the most wonderful and challenging job any of us will ever face.

Keep up the great work!



For more information:

Go to the Mental Health health topic, where you can:

Response by:

Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University