6.1 A Secure Parent–Child Relationship

What Is It?

Throughout 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 less dependent on their parents and 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.

A secure relationship provides a foundation from which the child is able to:

  • focus his/her attention and regulate his/her 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 be able to use it;

  • practice new postures and ways of moving; and

  • learn basic rules of his/her culture. In the first three years, children learn their culture’s and family’s rules for how to participate in relations, 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 (Revisiting and Updating the Multicultural Principles for Head Start Programs Serving Children Ages Birth to Five).

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 this time of transition and, possibly, repairing of their relationship with their child.

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, perhaps the first such relationship they ever experienced. Helping the parent become aware of the different ways people may behave and feel in relationships is one step in the parents’ building new relationship skills to use with their child. The home visitor may “woo” the parent with phone calls or consistent home visits, celebrating parent birthdays and important events with attention and small mementos. 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 intimacy.

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 him 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/she likes about this child or finds challenging?

    • This establishes you as a supportive, nonjudgmental 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, to be this child’s parent.

  • Use open-ended questions or statements to open up communication. “How is being a parent the way you had imagined it?”

  • Use parents’ input and observations to inform your decisions about the child and the family. “I can see what you told me about Reza wanting to be so helpful with the baby.”

  • Support parental competence.

    • Encourage and support the family in their strengths. “You seem to know just when she’s starting to get tired and just what to do to help her.”

    • Attribute the child’s progress to parents’ efforts. “I see how you help him look at the book by pointing and asking questions.” “It’s so important to have you watching as she plays. You make her feel safe and that lets her play and explore. She always knows you’re keeping her safe.”

  • Lead families to reflect on their child’s behavior and better understand it. “What is she telling you when she starts by answering ‘no’, then says, ‘yes’?”

  • Recognize and acknowledge parent efforts, trial and error, discoveries, and strengths. Ask what the parent has tried that has worked or has not worked.

  • Gently redirect the interaction when the family interaction with the child is not going well. “Gee, Lorrie, when you tell Junior to build a house, he might not know what you mean. He wouldn’t be thinking about blocks as houses yet. That’s going to come later. Maybe you could just use words to describe what he’s doing, like, ‘Okay, Junior. You got the little block on the big one.’”

(Adapted from *Boosting School Readiness through Effective Family Engagement* [National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement])

Experience It

Secure Relationships Video Clip

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


  1. What do you observe?


    Various answers could include:

    • Home visitors talking about their program’s policies.

    • Home visitors talking with mother.

    • Mother shaking rattle for child, smiling, and laughing.

    • Child attending to rattle and reaching for it.

    • Home visitors and mother talking about their relationship and what their work together has done for Natalie.

    • Natalie sitting in the infant seat and her parents singing at group socialization.

    • Natalie and both of her parents playing at the group socialization.

  2. What do the home visitors do to support a secure parent–child relationship?


    Various answers could include:

    • Encourage the 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 that their culture and language are important and supported in raising their child.

    • Enhance parents’ confidence in Nathalie’s development, encouraging the development 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.

  3. How might the home visitors continue to reinforce a secure parent–child relationship?


    Various answers could include:

    • By encouraging the family to continue to participate in group socializations, so Nathalie and her family can interact with other children and adults, sharing fun, social times together.

    • By encouraging the parents to hold Nathalie and engage in face-to-face activities, such as reciprocal communication and games such as peek-a-boo and patty-cake.

    • By supporting the parents in using everyday experiences (diapering, feeding, etc.) to spend more time talking with Nathalie and continue giving Nathalie opportunities to develop her social–emotional skills.

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


    Various answers could 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.

  5. What developmental domains do you observe Nathalie and her family engaged in?


    Various answers could include:

    Physical Development and Health

    • 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 at each other.

    • Nathalie’s mother kisses her.

    Cognition and General Knowledge

    • Reaches for toy and grasps it.

    • Uses eye–hand 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

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.

This Center on the Social Emotional Foundations of Early Learning (CSEFEL) module focuses on promoting the social and emotional development of infants and toddlers through the use of parent child groups. The model that the module is based on is called Parents Interacting with Infants (PIWI), but includes 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 on parent child groups, it also discusses how the model applies to home visiting.