Loving, warm relationships are critical to providing a structured and safe place for children. Without that, they are less able to deal with challenges as adults.

A structured and secure world

Te hanga ao tōtika, ao haumaru – a structured and secure world

Right from the beginning, babies are learning and developing. How this process unfolds, and the kind of adult they’ll become, depends a lot on what their ‘world’ is like – especially during their first few years. The job of parents and whānau is to make their child’s world safe and secure so they have the best possible chance to grow up healthy and happy.

Children need structure and security that meets their needs, but there’s also the bigger picture of what life is like in their wider family and community. When people become parents, many things change – like shifting from looking at the world from their own point of view to looking at it through the eyes of their baby. Doing this will help both parent and child navigate these early years more smoothly. It may help parents prevent or minimise difficult behaviours in their child or even see them in a new light.

Understanding and planning

Children’s behaviour is influenced by a number of things, including their environment. For example, at the supermarket, older children may want treats and younger children may want to touch the many brightly-coloured, interesting-looking objects.1 Knowing this, parents can plan ahead and turn the trip into an outing rather than a chore.

Simple things can make the experience more successful, like:

  • making sure the child (and parent) have eaten beforehand
  • having healthy snacks on hand
  • bringing a soft toy or book to play with
  • letting children help choose food from an early age (‘spaghetti or baked beans?’)
  • getting children to look for and hold onto items
  • talking with their child as they go (‘Oh no, I forgot Dad’s coffee – I better go back and get it.’)

These are examples of providing a supportive environment that, in the short term, minimises difficulties, and in the long term, helps with a child’s development.


Children learn a lot from watching others. One study found toddlers learnt 1 or 2 new behaviours every day, just by watching what their brothers or sisters did and then copying them. What’s amazing about this is that even when there’s a lot going on at home, and no one is setting out to teach, young children are learning anyway. In one study, children imitated all sorts of actions including sanding the walls, the haka and swinging poi.2

So it’s important that what a young child sees and hears is what parents want them to copy. In their eagerness to copy others (known as modelling) young children may also copy behaviours their parents don’t want them to.1 This is why children should be protected from seeing or hearing violence, whether it’s towards them or others. Parents actions influence their children’s behaviour as much as what they say.1

The bigger picture

Parenting can be a demanding job. Meeting the day-to-day needs of a young child can use up a lot of parents’ focus and energy. It’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening right now – perhaps baby is overtired and having trouble going to sleep or maybe there are tantrums.

To some extent, these challenges occur for most babies and parents. However, what else is going on within the family – and beyond – may also be having an effect on baby. Part of providing a structured and secure world for a baby includes being aware of other factors that might be affecting them. Despite what some people think, much research indicates that stresses in the wider family affect children, including babies.

If there are high levels of conflict or violence between adults,3 or the parents are struggling with depression4,5 or poverty,6 children often become unhappy, and their future can be poorer in a number of ways. Living in environments that are chaotic, stressful or frightening can lead to lasting fear or worry for children. This makes it hard for them to concentrate, learn and get along with others – even when they’re in safe places at a later age, such as school.7,8

Many children have fears for a time, commonly related to their developmental stage — for example, they may be afraid of the dark, or scared of monsters. These fears, which are a normal part of their development, will usually disappear as children get older. However, fear arising from highly stressful early experiences, such as those mentioned earlier, is unlikely to simply disappear. Without the right kind of support, these early experiences may continue to affect them throughout their life.8


While some short-term stress can be positive (when a child is well-supported), longer-term stress can negatively impact brain development, which might show up in a variety of different ways depending upon the individual child and the types of experiences they’ve had. When a person feels threatened, their stress response system releases stress hormones that circulate through the body and the brain. A young child’s brain is especially vulnerable to their effects.9

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies found links between various stressful or traumatic experiences before 18 years of age and many health issues in adulthood. The experiences studied included abuse, neglect, family violence and other family difficulties.10 Some of the effects seen in adulthood include increased rates of heart disease11 and hallucinations.12

Although not everyone was affected in this way, it shows the potentially lasting effects of what happens to children earlier in their lives. So, it’s important to support parents and children to address any difficulties they are facing.


The ACE studies also found that strengths in the family, including closeness and support, helped to reduce the chance of teen pregnancy.13

Much research supports the vital role that parents play. Children who have secure relationships with their parents are better able to explore the world and cope with challenges and are not badly affected by high levels of stress.

Loving, warm relationships (further described in the topic 'Love and warmth') actually help children regulate the stress hormones that their bodies produce when stressed.9

We should never underestimate the amazing powers of loving parents!


  1. Smith, A. B. (2005). Effective discipline and supporting change. Wellington, New Zealand: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
  2. Barr, R. G., & Hayne, H. (2003). It’s not what you know, it’s who you know: Older siblings facilitate imitation during infancy. International Journal of Early Years Education, 11(1), 7–21.
  3. Kitzmann, K. M., Gaylord, N. K., Holt, A. R., & Kenny, E. D. (2003). Child witnesses to domestic violence: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 71(2), 339–352.
  4. Ashman, S. B., Dawson, G., & Panagiotides, H. (2008). Trajectories of maternal depression over 7 years: Relations with child psychophysiology and behaviour and role of contextual risks. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 55–77.
  5. Wilson, S., & Durbin, C. E. (2010). Effects of paternal depression on father’s parenting behaviour: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 167–180.
  6. Gibb, S. J., Fergusson, D., & Horwood, L. J. (2012). Childhood family income and life outcomes in adulthood: Findings from a 30-year longitudinal study in New Zealand. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 1979–1986.
  7. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the brain’s “air traffic control” system: How early experiences shape the development of executive function: Working paper 11.
  8. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2010). Persistent fear and anxiety can affect young children’s learning and development: Working paper 9. Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Persistent-Fear-and-Anxiety-Can-Affect-Young-Childrens-Learning-and-Development.pdf(external link)
  9. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain: Working paper 3. Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2005/05/Stress_Disrupts_Architecture_Developing_Brain-1.pdf(external link)
  10. Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson , D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . . Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258. doi: 10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8
  11. Dong, M. X., Giles, W. H., Felitti, V. J., Dube, S. R., Williams, J. E., Chapman, D. P., & Anda, R. F. (2004). Insights into causal pathways for ischemic heart disease: Adverse childhood experiences study. Circulation, 110, 1761–1766.
  12. Whitfield, C. L., Dube, S. R., Felitti, V. J., & Anda, R. F. (2005). Adverse childhood experiences and hallucinations. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29(7), 797–810. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2005.01.004
  13. Hillis, S. D., Anda, R. F., Dube, S. R., Felitti, V. J., Marchbanks, P. A., Macaluso, M., & Marks, J. S. (2010). The protective effect of family strengths in childhood against adolescent pregnancy and its long-term psychosocial consequences. The Permanente Journal, 14(3), 18–27.