Small children depend on adult caregivers to meet all of their needs in life from food and shelter to emotional support. Toddlers who know they can count on having all their needs met show a combination of confident independence and emotional closeness to the important adults in their lives. Parents can help their toddlers develop this pattern of secure attachment.
Picking Up Signals
The key element in building a securely attached relationship with your child is to consistently pick up on and respond to his signals, according to a guide on attachment by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Babies communicate their needs nonverbally at first, so parents need to pay a lot of attention to figure out whether the baby wants to eat, to be burped or just to be held. By the time the baby becomes a toddler, he has either learned that he can count on his parents to meet his needs or that he cannot. Of course, no one can figure out what a baby wants immediately every time, and a busy parent can't always pick a baby up immediately. Secure attachment doesn't depend on perfection but it does require consistent effort.
Although some toddlers do show signs of insecure attachment such as lack of confidence in social interactions or angry, aggressive behaviors, parents can help their toddler become more securely attached. A review of research on attachment by Florida State University's Harris Institute for Infant Mental Health Training examined several studies to determine which method of improving attachment was most effective -- improving the parents' ability to respond to cues, providing more support for the parent or teaching the parent to say more positive things about the child. A review of more than 70 separate research studies concluded that the most effective strategy for all children younger than 54 months in age was to help the parent become more sensitive to the child's signals. Children above the age of 6 months showed the highest levels of improvement.
Even in families considered to be at high risk because of problems with poverty, premature birth or other problems, the FSU Harris Institute research review found that parental sensitivity to a young child was more effective in improving attachment than any other approach. The research review also concluded that parents typically did not need extensive training to learn to become more sensitive to signals from their child, nor did they benefit from combined strategies addressing multiple aspects of parenting. Simply by learning to tune in to their offspring, parents could improve their child's sense of security and attachment.
Helping Your Toddler Communicate
If your toddler shows symptoms of insecure attachment such as excessively dependent or withdrawn behavior, he may not initially communicate his needs to you in a clear way. According to the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, the best way to approach this problem is to always talk to your child in an engaged, warm and caring tone of voice. Don't expect him to be capable of controlling his emotions at this stage. Encourage him to tell you what he needs so you can provide it. Be present to comfort and soothe him if he falls or bumps himself while playing. According to the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, your toddler's confidence and curiosity about the world should start to improve as he realizes that you will be there for him if he needs you.