If you’re in the midst of parenting a toddler, I salute you. It’s not an easy job, and there’s definitely no guide book or summer break. If you’re parenting more than one toddler, I empathize with your plight and I pray for your sanity and your sleep!
We all come to the role of parent from a variety of places. Sometimes it is joyful. Sometimes it is excruciating. Sometimes it is the most wonderful thing we can imagine, and sometimes we just need a break. And we almost always have questions about how in the world we’re supposed to do it successfully.
If you’ve ever wondered what the heck you’re doing as a parent, I’m with you. My goal with this series of blogs is to give you a few developmental insights and attachment tips to help you along your journey. While none of these blogs are meant to be an exhaustive how-to manual, I hope they will give you some food for thought and maybe even some direction for further research if you are interested. The blogs are divided into the following four categories:
1. Five ways to CONNECT with your toddler
2. Five ways to CORRECT your toddler
3. Five ways to PROTECT your toddler
4. Five ways to PREPARE your toddler
Today’s topic will focus on CONNECTING with your toddler. Be on the lookout for the other three blogs as they roll out within the next few weeks.
Why start with CONNECTION? Think of it this way: Connection (or lack thereof) is the foundation upon which all relationships are built. It is the bedrock that affects virtually everything that goes on above it. My first house had terrible foundation issues, and the slab was ill-equipped for the clay in our area. As a result, my bedroom floor dipped like a spoon, and my walls were buckling and crooked. Unless the foundation is eventually given special attention (again), that house will eventually become an unsafe place to live.
Relationships, including parent-child relationships, are much the same way. We must pay special attention to the foundation since it is the bedrock for all the interactions that occur on top of it. Even the most secure connections require regular maintenance in order to remain solid and stable.
With that in mind, here are five ideas for how we can regularly maintain the bond between parent and child. These ideas are meant to be practical and hopefully represent activities that can be fun and meaningful for toddlers, mommas, daddies, and any other significant person in the lives of these little ones.
1. ROCK OR SNUGGLE THEM. One of the most important ways in which secure connections are formed is through physical affection.
I don’t want to bore you with too much weird psychological research, but you need to know about one set of studies done decades ago. A famous researcher named Harry Harlow conducted studies in which he separated infant monkeys from their mothers a few hours after birth. Instead of the loving touch of their mothers, these monkeys were given surrogate “mothers” made of either wire, wood, or soft terry cloth. The fake mothers were outfitted with nipples for nursing, and all the other physical needs of the monkeys were met. These studies were intended to assess the impact of loving physical affection. As you might imagine, the surrogate-raised monkeys’ behavior was quite bizarre and often anti-social. They clutched themselves, rocked back and forth, and struggled with “excessive and misdirected aggression.” When some of the monkeys became mothers themselves, they tended to display either indifference or physical abuse toward their offspring.
My point in sharing this strange study with you is to let you know just how fundamental the role that loving physical affection plays in creating healthy individuals. Just like these monkeys, we also develop deep dysfunction without it. When you hold and snuggle your children, you are not spoiling them, but giving them one of their essential needs for survival! So, by all means, make it a point to regularly cuddle, snuggle, hold, rock, and otherwise dote on your little ones. They need it for proper emotional and social development, and you might also find that it helps you feel more emotionally connected with them as well.
2. SPEND ONE-ON-ONE TIME WITH THEM. Giving your full attention to a child helps them feel important, cared for, and attuned with you. Many of us have more than one child, so this will take a little planning. Stick with it, and you might find that it helps reduce tantrums or other problematic behaviors.
It is important to remember that children do not throw tantrums because they are willfully hostile toward us. Often their tantrums are because they have unmet needs that they do not have the developmental skills to express, including the need for connection. If it seems that they are “just trying to get attention,” you may be right! They may need to feel connected with you, but do not yet have the developmental ability to ask for it appropriately or wait patiently.
3. PLAY WITH THEM. Developmentally speaking, young children express themselves and process their emotions through play much more than any other medium. Sure, they have a few language skills, but play gives them the best outlet to work through their emotions and developmental tasks at this age. Play is the language of toddlerhood.
Play is also a primary way in which young children form bonds with others. One of the best ways to help a child feel connected with you is to simply get on the floor with them and do whatever they are doing. No need to direct the play or suggest activities. In fact, it is better to let them lead the play themselves. Just join them wherever they are, doing whatever they are doing. It will help them form bonds with you, and will let them know that you enjoy being with them. Since we spend so much time redirecting and correcting our toddlers, making sure to have times of unadulterated fun helps balance this out. It reminds them that we are more than disciplinarians. We are family!
4. PRAISE THEM. As I just mentioned, we spend a good bit of time redirecting and correcting our toddlers. It’s part of the job description as a parent. If they receive a lot of correction with only a little praise, however, this begins affecting how they view themselves and their relationship with you.
It has been said that “the way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice.” As a therapist I have often found this to be true. Every child has something that is praiseworthy. If we can’t identify it, we might have simply become blind to it. Try to be intentional about looking for their positive qualities and successes. When you see them, tell them! And do it often!
A marriage researcher named John Gottman has found that happily married couples in long-term relationships tend to have five positive interactions for every negative interaction with one another. I realize that marriage is a different subject than we are discussing today, but I’d be willing to bet that his findings generalize to parenting as well. If we want happily connected toddlers, it is important to be mindful of the general tenor of our relationship with them. We want our relationships to be dominated by positivity and connection-building interactions. Since correction is necessary quite frequently, be sure to give them a firm foundation of praise to help build toward that 5:1 ratio.
5. TALK TO THEM ABOUT WHAT THEY / YOU ARE DOING, even if you think they don’t understand. You can do this by mirroring back their behaviors as if you are a radio announcer for a sporting event. “Oh, you’re pulling that train across the floor,” or “I see you stacking those blocks!” These kinds of interactions let your child know that you are paying attention, and that you are interested in what they are doing.
You might also want to describe your own behaviors to them. “Mommy is putting the groceries in the basket,” or “Daddy is wiping the counter.” This brings them into your world and helps them to feel like they part of what you are doing. They don’t mind if it’s just mundane, everyday activities… everything is new and interesting to them, and they get to do it with YOU!
In the next blog we will address how to CORRECT your toddler while maintaining this connection you are working so diligently to build. Hopefully these five examples of connection have gotten your own ideas flowing about how you can bond with your toddler. There are obviously many more ways to connect. How many others have you found?
By Matt Thames, M.A., LPC