Establishing a Healthy Connection with a Toddler: 5 Fundamentals for Strong Attachments
A strong, healthy attachment is the foundation for a toddler’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. When toddlers feel loved and securely attached to their parents, they thrive. A healthy attachment relationship with your toddler is essential for their emotional development and future relationships. It lays the foundation for their ability to trust others and develop a strong sense of self. It also provides a secure base for exploration, learning, and the ability to regulate emotions through co-regulation.
A healthy attachment relationship is one of the most important things you can provide for your child and toddlers are at a stage in their development where attachment bonds are so important for their sense of security. A strong attachment can have a positive impact on a toddler’s behavioral responses to stress and change. A secure attachment provides a child with a sense of trust, love, and comfort that then promotes confidence to explore, play, and navigate the world independently.
These are the foundational elements needed to thrive and grow into resilient and confident adults. Emotional neglect, detachment and shaming of your child can have a negative impact on their socio-emotional development and lead to insecure attachments. When we lack emotional attunement, mirroring, and gentle guidance in our early years, this can often contribute to the risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal as we get older.
How to Establish a Healthy Connection with a Toddler
So how do we establish and maintain healthy relationships with our toddlers in these formative years? There are five fundamental parenting principles that will help you establish a healthy attachment relationship with your toddler:
- Genuine and Direct Communication
It is important in these early years to meet your child where they are at developmentally. As caregivers, we want to make sure that what we are communicating to our toddler is clear and direct. This means that we are describing exactly what it is that will happen or is happening or that we want to happen. For instance, instead of asking, “Do you want to take a bath now?”, we can be direct and state “We are going to head downstairs now to take a bath.”
These descriptions and statements are delivered in a gentle, but clear way so that your child understands the boundaries. It is ok to provide choices within these boundaries. Following the example above this might look like: “We are going to head downstairs now to take a bath. Do you want the rubber duck or the boat to join you in the tub today?”. In this example, your child now understands the direction, but also has a sense of power in being able to choose their bath toy.
- Awareness of Our Own Emotions
Awareness of our own emotions as parents is essential to creating a healthy relationship with our toddler. When we can stay emotionally present with our child, we can provide a safe haven for them to feel safe and comfortable with us. To build emotional awareness, it is important for us to practice mindfulness- this means being present with our thoughts and with the tension and changes in our body.
This means acknowledging when we are feeling ashamed, angry, sad, hurt, embarrassed, numb, frustrated, excited, calm, and so on. By recognizing and acknowledging how we are feeling in a moment, we can then decide how to cope in a healthy way without projecting that onto our children or escalating the situation further.
- Being a Solid Object
Respond to your child’s need for connection when they become emotionally dysregulated by reminding yourself that the best thing you can do is be present and calm in each situation. This is especially important during moments of ‘crisis’. Your child is looking to you to model how to handle a challenging situation. For your child, the crisis is not having the toy they want right away.
For you, the crisis is a 2 year old screaming and throwing themselves onto the floor while you are being asked to console them, while you yourself are being triggered. Allow yourself to validate the emotion out loud. Say to yourself, “I am feeling overwhelmed right now. I am going to take a deep breath.” You can also remind your child while they might be having a tantrum that you are there for them while they are experiencing whatever emotion it is- anger, hurt, disappointment, frustration or sadness.
- Invitation for All Emotions
As parents, our job is not to make our children happy. Our job is to help our children navigate the range of healthy and appropriate emotions needed to respond and engage with the world around them. This is not to say that to feel happy and joyous is wrong or not an important part of our lived experience.
Rather, this is to say that there are times when the feeling of happiness may not fit the facts of a situation. When we are told that we are not allowed to play with a toy we have been looking forward to playing with all day, it is appropriate to feel anger, frustration and sadness.
When we invite all emotions to the table, this allows our children to recognize how they are feeling and how to manage those emotions in a healthy way, rather than suppressing them or denying that they are there. Our emotions provide us with important information regarding what we need and it is fundamental to establishing the components of communication.
- Establishing Each Person’s Role in the Family
It is important that your child understand your role as the parent. It is important that your value be understood as being the person who provides safety, security, boundaries, love, support, responsiveness, attunement and authentic care. While we want to play into our toddler’s need for independence, growth and self-reliance, it is also important to be clear with our values and limits.
Your child will come to recognize that you are safe when you provide them with a space to be heard and validated. This is not to say that your child will always get what they want or ask for. Rather, this is saying that you are role-modeling respectful interaction by maintaining a sense of calm and confidence when establishing healthy boundaries.
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