Expert Tips for Connecting With Your Toddler


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By Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

In March, Dr. Michelle Deering shared a guest blog, which outlined strategies for connecting with your teen. Here's part four of that series.

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As a child moves from infancy to toddler age, the human experience of being a volitional entity apart from his or her caregiver comes more into play. This dynamic — of separating ("disconnecting") to explore and discover the outside world while still needing parental connection for a sense of security — is what factors into a phase that society has dubbed as the "terrible twos."

This phase "terrible twos" is really only terrible if you are expecting to be able to connect with your child in the same way as when he or she was an infant. However, if you can see the toddler stage as your son or daughter exploring the realm of independence, then this lens will help you find not only a balance between providing structure, guidance and discipline, but also new moments and ways to connect. How you navigate this toddler stage of discovering independence — separateness from you — will inform and influence how you navigate the teen years.

In a previous guest blog, I mentioned that it's important to make observations about the flow of your family and of your teenager in it. Not understanding the lay-of-the-(teen)-land will lend itself to your stepping on emotional and interpersonal land mines. Similarly, when it comes to your toddler, it's important to understand the following lay-of-the-toddler-land. Your toddler is wired to test you in the realm of your: (1) unconditional love for him or her, (2) commitment to consistency in words and actions, and (3) provision of a secure "home base" to which he or she can return after encounters with the world outside of themselves and the home life you've built for them. These three “realms” are like a three-legged stool. Your toddler needs you to make connections in all three of these areas to stand steadily and develop optimally.

Most parents have item No. 1 in spades; they love their children. This love is what drives parents to give so much of themselves, time and resources to their children regardless of their own feelings or their kids’ actions. From a parent’s perspective, this is what makes their love unconditional. However, from a toddler’s perspective, this “love” can sometimes seem to have “conditions.” For example, think about a time when your toddler did something way beyond what you’d either told him or her to do or not do. Maybe his or her fascination with the toilet and the “lonely” fecal matter in the toilet bowl prompted your child to add more tissue paper to keep it company. Or maybe he or she took one of your directives literally — to not hit his or her sibling. So instead, your child kicked his or her sibling. Your resulting immediate reaction to these situations may be experienced by your toddler as, “…mom (or dad) doesn’t love me” or “they only love me if I’m doing exactly what they say.”

If what or how you communicate with your toddler consistently conveys “I (only) love you if/when/as long as …,” then your child is likely experiencing a love that — to him or her — seems to have conditions; that he or she has to do or change things (about him/herself) to earn your love.

To “unconditionally love” your child means that there are no requirements placed on him or her to elicit from you either feelings of love or a commitment from you to attend to his or her overall well-being. How you connect and communicate with your child regarding your love and commitment to him or her is not only integral to your child's sense of self, but also has to be intentional, consistent and uncoupled from association with anything that he or she does (or doesn't do). In the long-term, this will help your child better value himself or herself based on an unchanging parameter — “my parents love me/who I am”— and be less swayed by the upcoming peer pressures to change the essence of who he or she is in order to “fit in.” Your child won’t have to make such changes because he or she will already know your love is ... unconditional.


Dr. Michelle Deering, Ed.D., is a North Carolina-licensed clinical psychologist (LP, HSP-P), nationally board certified sport psychologist and professional speaker. She is founder and CEO of Curative Connections LLC, a premier consulting firm in Apex that provides keynote addresses, tailored consultation and sport psychology services to organizations, teams and athletes. She specializes in life transitions (middle school to high school to college and beyond), trauma, sport injury recovery and peak performance issues; and she gives inspirational keynote addresses on life strategies that connect people to their personal and professional goals. For more information, visit CurativeConnections.com.

Photo by Nancy Jo Photograph

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