How parents affect child development, and how to build strong bonds

Mental Health

How do parents affect the development of children – and what simple steps can parents take to build strong bonds with their kids?

Before our children are even born, they begin to shape our lives in countless ways.

From profound changes in sleep, to stepping away from careers, to experiencing new depths of love and emotions we didn’t know were possible  – children impact our lives in a very big way from day one.

In the same way, parents have an enormous impact on the development of their children.

In fact, our psychological, physical and emotional wellbeing as parents significantly impacts the development of our children beginning in infancy, influencing their capacity to mature into healthy, well-adjusted adults, right into their senior years.

Nearly all parents have the intention, as their top priority, the wellbeing of their children; but sometimes life is really hard which makes it difficult to be the parent you want to be.

At Care for Women we believe in surrounding a mother with the help and support she needs to maintain her mental and emotional well-being so that she has the capacity to meet the needs of her children, right from day one. 

Because believe it or not, the first weeks of a baby’s life can have lifelong echoes. 

In this blog, learn about:

  1. How parents affect child development
  2. Early childhood experiences 
  3. Adverse childhood experiences 
  4. 5 simple ways to build bonds with your children 
  5. The myth of “easy” parenting and the importance of mom friends postpartum

The effect parents can have on child development

Child development refers to the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional skills that children develop through to their adolescent years. 

Children develop best in environments where they feel seen, safe, supported – and the foundation of being raised in such an environment leads to better long-term outcomes of success in adults.

Core ingredients of healthy child development include: 

  • Safe and responsive parents
  • Positive engaging interactions (in family life, be that work or play)
  • Adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise habits 
  • Age appropriate challenges to build competency and a sense of agency
  • Structure, routine, and clear limits are also  important for child development

The benefits of emotionally healthy parents on child development

Children raised in safe and nurturing homes with healthy relationships with their parents tend to grow up to have:

  • Better social, emotional and behavioural competence 
  • Better physical health and overall wellness
  • Better cognitive function 

On the other hand, adverse childhood experiences can lead to long-term health consequences in children as they grow up, including: 

  • Chronic health problems 
  • Mental illness
  • Substance use issues 
  • And more… 

Kate Middleton –  the Princess of Wales –  is a prominent figure in child development advocacy and has spoken at length about the importance of the early years in children’s lives

She, too, believes that motherhood wasn’t meant to be done alone – and that there really is truth behind the adage “healthy parents, healthy children.”  Check out this quote from her press coverage in Vanity Fair


“It really does take a village … it is not just about supporting children in the earliest years of their lives. It is also about building healthy communities in which they can grow. Because the healthy development of our children relies on healthy adults.”

Kate Middleton 


As parents, we have a significant influence over our children’s mental, emotional and physical health.

Early childhood experiences

Children can build strong connections with just one supportive and responsive caregiver.

A strong connection with such a caregiver can lead to the development of healthy attachment – a huge asset for any child growing up.

Strong attachment with just one stable caregiver helps children develop increased resilience and feel safe, even when living in an environment that may not be ideal.

Attachment is important because it lays the foundation for healthy emotional, psychological, and social development.

Beginning in infancy, attachment to caregivers (usually parents) provides emotional security and a sense of safety.

Children who form secure attachments are more likely to:

  • explore their environment and develop a sense of confidence,
  • better regulate their emotions,
  • have better social skills
  • and the ability to form healthy relationships.

Adults who have secure attachments often have more satisfying and fulfilling relationships, are better at communicating, resolving conflicts, and maintaining long-term relationships, are more adaptable and better equipped to handle setbacks and life changes.

Adverse childhood experiences and the impact on child development 

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic experiences that occur between the ages of 0-17 years. These may include:

  • Experiencing violence, abuse or neglect
  • Witnessing violence in the home or community
  • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide
  • Substance abuse problems in caregivers
  • Mental health problems in caregivers
  • Instability in the household due to divorce, separation, imprisonment, hospitalization

These experiences can lead to toxic stress – the body’s response to ongoing distress or stress, often when they don’t get enough adult support.

It is important to be aware of the effects that ACEs can have on children as they develop – not to increase your guilt, but to raise awareness in areas where you can have control and influence over your child’s experiences.

It’s not that we can (nor should) shelter our children from hardship, but rather we can learn how to shoulder their pain together with them and help them make sense of the pain so they don’t feel stuck and lost in the overwhelm.

Life is filled with hardship and suffering, but research reveals that when children have at least 1 supportive adult they can rely on where they feel seen and heard, it is a big protective factor for the child to help them overcome the adversity.

Just like you were a sponge soaking up the world around you when you were a child, so is your child. Be sure to get the support you need, as early as possible, so that you and your child can enjoy your relationship during these early years.

Bolstering maternal health in the first weeks postpartum

The first few weeks postpartum are critical for new moms in terms of physical recovery, emotional stability, and establishing a community of support. 

You have just been through a major physical, emotional and mental transformation. Your body is sore, with intense emotions – hormones are a roller coaster reshaping your perception of life. Hopefully, you are surrounded by well intentioned people who want to hold and snuggle your precious new baby. Yet, they may not be prepared to help you adjust to life, and heal and recover. 

Regardless of whether you are a mother for the first or fifth time, each experience is new and hugely transformative. 

Many medical professionals will say that two weeks of baby blues is “normal” – but that persistent feelings of sadness beyond that could be an early sign of postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression and child development

Maternal mental health plays an enormous role in the positive or negative outcomes for children and adolescents – even into the adult years.

Depression is one of the most commonly experienced mental health issues – it involves chemical imbalances in the brain and impacts a person’s state of mind. Depression for women in their childbearing years can have long-lasting impacts on child health and development: 

  • According to the Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development, the children of depressed mothers are more likely to face challenges with cognitive, physical, social and academic functioning throughout childhood and adolescence.
  • The children of mothers who struggled with postpartum depression are also more likely to have depression, anxiety, and conduct disorders themselves, as children and later in life.
  • Children of depressed mothers may be more likely to have worse physical health than children whose parents were not depressed during their childhood years. 

Postpartum depression can cause extreme sadness and despair, as well as high and low moods, shame, guilt, frequent crying, fatigue, and anxiety. 

I want to be absolutely clear here: I am sharing this information not to make any mother, or parent or caregiver, feel burdened or stressed. Again, depression is an incredibly prevalent mental health disorder often driven by chemical imbalances in the brain, affecting one’s overall mental state

My goal is to help everyone understand how vital it is to support new moms, so that new mothers receive the necessary physical and emotional help to ensure they have to make the initial postpartum weeks more manageable and less stressful.

How have ACEs impacted my parenting?

If right now you’re thinking that your own experiences as a child may be contributing to your struggles with parenting today, you might be right – and you’re not alone.

Adverse childhood experiences, like abuse, neglect and trauma, have an impact on the brain, and how your body responds to stress.

A high ACEs score also correlates with a higher risk of developing depression or anxiety and other serious struggles as an adult.

You can check your ACE score here. This may help you to understand yourself and where you may be struggling in your parenting journey (and why).

One big factor of why you might be struggling as a parent is that it is difficult to provide experiences such as, nurture, structure or support if you didn’t receive those things yourself as a child. It can be difficult to give something you didn’t receive yourself as a child. 

You may not have a (strong) framework to fall on. And because parenting is stressful, our brain prefers to resort to familiar coping styles when we are stressed, which can mean that we end up parenting in ways that we don’t want to parent.

There is no perfect parent, we all have wobbly and vulnerable areas; being aware of where you need for support isn’t a sign of weakness but rather a sign of awareness and strength. If you think you may be struggling with depression, anxiety, or other issues be sure to speak with your family doctor or a trusted mental health professional about therapy or medication to get the tailored support you deserve.

In the meantime, here’s some good news.

Research indicates that peer support groups decrease the symptoms of depression – which is why it’s so important to have a support system already in place before you have your baby, whenever possible! 

Social support is absolutely critical when you are a new mom, because it helps with reducing the risk of postpartum depression and anxiety too.   

However, support systems aren’t just about combating postpartum depression and anxiety, though they do play a pivotal role in that. 

They also serve as a beacon of strength for new mothers as they navigate the uncharted waters of parenthood. The reassurance of having someone to confide in during moments of struggle can work wonders in managing the pangs of loneliness, depression, and anxiety that can sometimes accompany this life-changing journey.

Cultivating strong, healthy relationships with your children can equally contribute to your own well-being as a parent. These relationships act as a two-way street, fostering not only your children’s development but also your own self-confidence and overall happiness.

So, without further delay – here are some of the best ways to build strong bonds with your children. (Bonus: you don’t even have to leave the house for these)

5 simple ways to build bonds with your children

So – we know now that parents affect child development, and that having a strong, healthy connection with our children can help them thrive.

But how do we build those bonds?

The good thing is – kids are pretty easy to please, since the thing they want most in the world is to be loved by you.

Here are our top five (and free), simple tips for developing strong connections with your kids:

  • Play with them. Children learn through play – from social skills and language development to understanding their place in the world – and you’re the one they want to play with! What better way to build a connection than to play a game?

If you’re super busy, set a 5 minute “I’m all yours” timer so that during those minutes, your attention is not on screens or other people. You’re in the moment with your child, playing the game of their choice. 

  • Make them laugh. Laughing makes us feel closer with each other – so what better way to build bonds with your children than to get silly, make faces, tell jokes, and play around. This is especially great for diffusing some tense situations – if you can turn your routine into something silly and fun, you may have less push-back from older kids!

Here are a few: for toddlers or older children put soap bubbles on your face while doing the dishes, pretend to be a blanket and drape yourself over them dramatically while being confused about laying on something with “lumps” and “bumps”, play peak-a-boo with your baby.

  • Physical affection. Physical affection like hugs, snuggles, high fives – even just smiling at each other – can increase happiness in children from childhood to adulthood.

Let your kids know they’re loved, even if you’re feeling low, by ruffling their hair, kissing their cheek, winning at them across the room, or smiling at them when they enter a room to let them know they are loved and adored.

  • Showing empathy. Empathy is the best way to show your kids you care – even when you’re the “bad guy” because you’ve had to enforce a limit. There’s nothing wrong with letting kids know you get it – following rules can be hard and frustrating work. Even though limits are essential and ultimately help children feel safe, you can still make kids feel heard by telling them you know how hard it is to have to listen to someone else’s rules.

A framework for empathic statements can be: “You were so ______ [insert emotional word: disappointed, angry, frustrated, hurt etc.] because _______ [insert reason: you loved that toy, what your sister said to you, you love playing your game, you reall wanted to go there.]”

  • Loving words. The words kids hear outside of them become their internal scripts over time. Our kids want to feel seen and heard, and they love to hear that they are loved (even babies love this!).

Make a habit of looking for the small wins and changes (e.g. “wow you worked so hard on that” “you are my determined little girl” “you are such a thoughtful boy”) with loving words (especially for older kids after tense moments – kids need to know they’re loved even when they make mistakes)


Set a timer for as long as you have available to play and be present (whether it’s 5 minutes or 20 minutes).

For as long as the timer is running, your focus should be on your child(ren) engaging in one of the above activities.

That means: no screens, no side-conversations with other adults, no distractions. Just you and your child. 🙂 It might feel hard and boring because what they want to do isn’t very stimulating for you, but it will be very positively impactful on your relationship. 

Even just 5-10 minutes once a day can make a huge difference in your relationship with your little ones.

A hiking mom watching her children explore nature

What is the criteria for being a "good mom"?

For our children to develop a secure attachment to us they need to experience feeling seen, soothed and safe. Renowned psychiatrist  Dr. Daniel Seigel, calls these the 3S’s of secure attachment

It is so easy for moms to heap on the guilt for having natural human emotions and experiences, such as being tired, worn out, wanting space, or feeling angry or disappointed. 

If I had to sum up the criteria for what all the books and research indicates about being a good mom is: show up with presence (much easier said than done), allow your humanity to come through, while being the adult to your children. Now before you roll your eyes and dismiss that as a cliche answer, allow me to elaborate because it can be very hard to put into practice. 

The more you push away or deny your lived experience of feeling tired, bored, sad, disappointed, angry, or lost, the harder living life will be.

Also Read: Get more information about the effects of mom burnout here. 

"Good enough" mothering

You don’t have to be all things to your children at all times. 

There are so many nights I have checked on my sleeping kids before going to bed myself, and felt a wave of regret for all the ways I wasn’t a great mother to them that day. 

It’s a common experience for many parents. What is important about this regret, or disappointment with how we behaved, is that it illustrates that we cannot be the parent we always want to be. The reality is that children will thrive without us being superheroes.

What they need is for us to show up with presence

And too many parents are not present. I’m not suggesting we need to be present all the time, that’s not realistic or developmentally necessary for children, but when we do talk to our kids, or answer their questions, or read them a story, or nurse them – too often we are distracted (often with technology) and it impacts our ability to attune to our kids. 

Children can thrive without many things in life, but not without a present parent. 

Accept your humanity. You aren’t perfect and you can strive to grow; it’s not an either/or situation but a both/and. 

The paradox is that when we accept our own humanity and lived experiences, it becomes easier to accept our children’s reality and accompanying emotions. 

This doesn’t mean you have to like your newborn’s cries or child’s anger. It simply means that your child’s emotions are varied and will come and go, and that instead of creating judgements around which ones are acceptable to you, you are able to accept they have a different reality than you. 

When we practice this daily, deep acceptance for how we feel (remember, acceptance is different than liking something) or what our children feel we can: 

  • Become less triggered and have more capacity to be curious about what is driving our children’s behaviour (are they hangry, tired, scared, disappointed, are they off their rocker because their brain is developmentally immature and needs help?)
  • Differentiate our reality from their reality (our child may be upset but we have greater ability to not be sucked into their vortex of chaos). For example, say something to ourselves such as, “My child is disappointed and having a hard time, but their reality is different than mine. I am not experiencing their disappointment.”

  • Reframe a hard situation – hearing crying or fighting can be highly distressing and exhausting but it won’t last forever.

When you learn to accept your humanity – which can be a long process of healing depending on your upbringing – you develop greater capacity to accept your children’s humanity and hopefully see your children for who they are, soothe them when they are in distress and help them feel safe.

If that sounds foreign or hard, perhaps spend time exploring your internal world with a trusted  loved one, a crew of mom friends, or a mental health professional.


What to do when you are struggling

I hope it’s clear that “motherhood nature” isn’t a fixed state or trait. Our motherhood nature can change and grow. 

I want to reiterate, work on letting go of perfection. There is a tension that all parents need to balance in striving to grow and become the best parents they can, while acknowledging their shortcomings. We all have shortcomings. You are a human not a robot, that is what makes you interesting. 

You have an attachment history that has deeply impacted you the person you are today; most parents are doing the best they can with the tools they have. 

Though we all struggle as parents, it’s so much worse to do it alone. We are wired to be in relationships with others and we need friends and seasoned mothers come alongside us for encouragement, guidance, and relief. 

If you are struggling, connect with social media accounts like Diary of an Honest Mom, The Good Mutha, Raising Yourself, or Lindsey Gurk to normalize your experience and hopefully feel a little less alone. 

If you are struggling, you are being a good mom by getting help; you are not weak. There are many resources available on the Canadian Mental Health Association.

If you are struggling as a parent from traumatic events you had as a child, check out Complex Trauma Resources to begin the process of healing. . 

Part of healing means making connections with a village of mom friends who have got your back, and who may be struggling with the same parenting challenges and life experiences that you are. If you are going to be a new mom and you don’t have a village of support around you, make sure you apply for care here

Put it into perspective: you are raising humans

Every difficult stage of parenting can feel like it takes forever. The first step to shifting your perspective is to think not about the difficulty of your present moment, but to consider the bigger picture.

Imagine yourself 5 years from now by asking yourself these question:

  • How old will your child(ren) be? 
  • How old will you be? 
  • What stage of life will you be in? 
  • Who will be in your life?
  • Who may not be in your life?
  • How would you like to have grown as a person?

One of the best pieces of advice my parents gave me was, “this too shall pass.” The stages of our children won’t last forever. The sleepless nights will one day be over. The behaviour of siblings chucking toys at each other will not endure. 

Being a mother is one of the hardest things you will ever do. It will change you – and it should. The experiences change you forever, in so many deep and meaningful ways. I believe if you allow it to transform you, it changes you for the better. 

Your motherhood nature will change as you change. 

Embrace the complexities and nuance, learn and strive to grow while honouring your humanity. And above all,  find other mothers who will walk-alongside you to be a source of strength and support. You were never meant to do it alone. 

Help us to support more mothers! Donate now to ensure that every new mom has a village of support around her when she has a new baby to care for. 

Written by Renae Regehr

Renae Regehr is a mom to 4 kiddos, co-founder of Care For Women and a Registered Clinical Counsellor who works primarily with children, youth and families who have been impacted by trauma and attachment disruptions.

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