Parents: The Essential Tether

Children’s needs shift as they travel across the developmental stages from infancy, middle childhood, adolescence, and into young adulthood. Throughout these stages, parents may need to adjust their strategies accordingly and remain firm but flexible. Parents serve as their children’s secure base from which they could explore the world around them, providing safety and comfort as children’s capacity to explore the world gets bigger and wider. It is also through this attachment that children can learn about relationships, as well as means to regulate their emotions.

Why is this important? As the base for exploration, it is important for the parent(s) to remain secure and grounded. Let’s look at the developmental context of the child within the family: development can be influenced by factors within the child and/or parent (e.g., individual temperament, physical and mental health, etc.) or factors within the environment (e.g., socioeconomic status, relocation, divorce, remarriage, school, etc.).  I like using the analogy of a tether ball when looking at how these factors affect one another. In tether ball, the pole is securely fastened to the ground, which then has a rubber ball attached by a rope to this pole. Once the ball (child) is in play, its travel distance (area of exploration) is determined by the players, wind, etc. (environment), length of rope (attachment), and how securely attached the pole is to the ground (parent). The game is fun because there is a lot of movement and interplay across these factors. If the rope does not extend and remains too close to the pole, then it would be difficult to play tether ball. It would also be difficult to play tether ball if the pole kept moving as the ball goes into play.

It is important for the pole (parents) to remain securely fastened to the ground in order to maintain structure and create boundaries. Parents manage the tether for the ball (child) and encourage further exploration and independence by extending the length of the rope, or showing closeness and support by welcoming the retraction of the child’s exploration. When therapy is sought after, families often identify ways in which they want their children to change for the better.  Strengthening the “tether”, or parents, so that they are strong and grounded is also an important part of a successful outcome.


Lay, K., Waters, E., Posada, G., & Ridgeway, D. (1995). Attachment security, affect regulation, and defensive responses to mood induction. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 60(2-3): 179-196.

Waters, E. & Cummings, E. (2000). A secure base from which to explore close relationships. Child Development, 71(1): 164-172.

Waters, E., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., Merrick, S., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: A 20-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 71(3): 684-689.

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