Home Visitor's Online Handbook

A Secure Parent-Child Relationship

Father and son sitting on the floorThroughout the first five years of life, children draw on a secure relationship with their parents as they learn and develop in every way. Older children, while involved in a wider variety of experiences, still draw on the security of their relationships with their parents to develop confidence in meeting new people and situations. This sense of security develops when adults are able to pay attention to the child's actions and interests and accurately identify the child's needs. Additionally, the adult is able to respond to those needs effectively, and both adult and child experience the overall interaction as essentially pleasurable and mutual.

Secure relationships provide a foundation from which children are able to:

  • Focus their attention and regulate their reactions
  • Develop effective strategies for being with other people
  • Comfortably and safely explore objects, surroundings, and experiences with people
  • Listen for the sounds, patterns, and meanings of the home language and use it
  • Practice new postures and ways of moving
  • Learn basic rules of their culture

Mother and child sitting on the floorIn the first three years, children learn their culture's and family's rules for how to participate in relationships, what behaviors are unacceptable, and how their families expect them to learn. Over the next years, they will continue to learn their gender roles, relationships with those who are older or younger, and other culturally rooted ways of thinking, learning, and living. 

Parenting is a hard but rewarding endeavor! We all come into that role with varying strengths, supports, and challenges. Even people who come to parenting with a natural inclination to be sensitive and responsive may find themselves tired, anxious, depressed, or distracted by other pressures. Home-based services are particularly well-suited to help parents through these times.

Parents who have not experienced warm relationships may not even have warm feelings toward their child, however much they would like to. Sometimes home visitors are able to help parents overcome these obstacles that are a result of their own childhood experiences. Home visitors are in a unique position to provide a consistent, warm, responsive relationship to the parents. Helping the parent become aware of the different ways people may behave and feel in relationships is one step in building new relationship skills to use with their child. Crediting the parents for the small steps they exhibit in the emerging relationship with the home visitor and with the child will help to support the parents' competence and confidence in their experience of connection.

How To

You can support the development of a secure parent-child relationship in the following ways:

  • Observe and describe the child's behavior.
  • Use positive or neutral descriptions.
  • Be specific, clear, and objective: "His eyes follow you wherever you go." "He really pays attention to your voice."
  • Elicit behavior through use of an age-appropriate toy or object: "What if you gave her a minute to try to work at that puzzle? Let's see what might happen. I think just having you sitting with her helps her concentrate."
  • Avoid interpreting, judging, or giving advice.
  • Listen actively.
  • Summarize what the family says and repeat it back in your own words. This shows the family that you hear and understand what's important to them.
    • For example, is the parent telling you what he or she likes about the child or finds challenging? You might respond, "It sounds like it really throws you when he says, ‘No!' "
  • Establish yourself as a supportive, non-judgmental presence: "Yes, it's very hard when you can't comfort your baby."
  • Avoid interrupting with an agenda of questions. 
  • Encourage sharing about the child.
  • Invite parents to share their perspective on the child's behavior and development. They are the real experts on their child. Try to hear what it is like for this person to be a parent, and to be this child's parent.

Experience It

This video clip shows a family with their 11-month-old daughter, Nathalie, who was born prematurely. See the mother and child at home and the mother and father with Nathalie at a group socialization. This home visiting program assigns two home visitors to each family.


What do you observe?

Answers may include:

  • Home visitors talking about their program's policies
  • Home visitors talking with the mother
  • Mother shaking a rattle Nathalie, smiling, and laughing
  • Nathalie attending to the rattle and reaching for it
  • Home visitors and mother talking about their relationship and what their work together has done for Nathalie
  • Nathalie sitting in the infant seat and her parents singing at group socialization
  • Nathalie and both of her parents playing at the group socialization

What do the home visitors do to support a secure parent-child relationship?

Answers may include:

  • Encourage parents to help the baby develop new skills, which engages parents in positive interactions with her
  • Offer home visits and group socializations in the family's home language with bilingual/bicultural home visitors so they will feel their culture and language are important and supported in raising their child
  • Enhance parents' confidence in Nathalie's development, encouraging the progress of their attachment, which could have been hindered by Nathalie's premature birth
  • Encourage parents' enjoyment of Nathalie by engaging in shared positive interactions, such as playing, reading, and singing

How might the home visitors continue to reinforce a secure parent-child relationship?

Answers may include:

  • By encouraging the family to continue to participate in group socializations so they can interact with other children and adults, sharing fun and social times together
  • By encouraging the parents to hold Nathalie and engage in face-to-face activities, such as reciprocal communication and games like peek-a-boo and patty-cake
  • By supporting the parents in using everyday experiences (e.g., diapering, feeding, etc.) to spend more time talking with Nathalie and giving her opportunities to develop her social and emotional skills

How would brief interactions like this one, repeated over time, develop a sense of security in a child?

Answers may include:

  • By increasing parents' confidence that Nathalie's prematurity will not limit her potential and that it will enhance their attachment through shared successes
  • By enhancing Nathalie's experience of closeness with her parents through shared pleasure and positive interaction
  • By supporting Nathalie and her parents in valuing their shared language and culture

In which developmental domains do you observe Nathalie and her family engaged?

Answers may include:

  • Perceptual, Motor, and Physical Development 
    • Rolling from back to front and from front to back
    • Grasping the rattle and the book with one hand and with two hands
    • Sitting with support
    • Pushing herself up and holding her chest off the ground
  • Social and Emotional Development
    • Nathalie smiles several times—when the home visitor comes in, when her mother talks to her, at the rattle, and when the group is singing to her
    • Nathalie and her mother babble back and forth to each other
    • Nathalie's mother kisses her
  • Cognition and General Knowledge
    • Reaches for toy and grasps it
    • Uses hand-eye coordination to reach for rattle and books
    • Tries to get toys out of reach
    • Uses problem-solving in turning over to reach the rattle
    • Shows initiative in trying to reach toys
  • Approaches to Learning
    • Focuses on toys
    • Persists in turning over to reach the rattle
    • Pays attention when father shows her the book
  • Language and Literacy
    • Focuses on book
    • Shows interest when mother squeaks book
    • Babbles
    • Singing in Spanish

Learn More

Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Simulation: Boosting School Readiness through Effective Family Engagement Series
A strong relationship between families and Head Start staff is essential to promoting healthy child development and positive learning outcomes. Strong relationships are rooted in trust and comfort, which you can build by being genuine, sincere, and curious about them and their goals, and by supporting them as they work toward those goals. There are a number of communication techniques you can use to build relationships with families. While these techniques are especially relevant to the first visit with a family, they can be applied to all interactions with families.

Parent Training Modules: Parents Interacting with Infants 
This Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) module focuses on promoting the social and emotional development of infants and toddlers through the use of parent-child groups. It is based on the Parents Interacting with Infants (PIWI) model, but includes both infants and toddlers. PIWI has been successfully used in community-based and early intervention programs with a diverse range of parents and children. While the primary focus of the module is parent-child groups, it also discusses how the model applies to home visiting.