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Parenting -- Relationships with toddlers: ideas and tips

Key points

  • Warm and responsive relationships with parents are key to toddler development and wellbeing.

  • Relationships with toddlers change as they develop independence, language and strong feelings.

  • Strengthen relationships by listening and talking, doing everyday things together, and giving positive attention.

Relationships and toddler development

Warm, stable and responsive relationships are fundamental to children’s development and wellbeing.

When you have this kind of relationship with your toddler, they feel safe and secure. A sense of security gives your toddler confidence to explore the world and learn. And as your toddler explores the world, they learn how to think, understand, communicate, behave, show emotions and develop social skills.

Relationships with toddlers: what to expect

Children develop quickly in the toddler years. As your toddler develops, you’ll probably find your relationship with them changes.

Your toddler is learning that they’re a separate person. Your toddler will want to be independent – for example, they might want to feed or dress themselves. Your toddler might also be less willing to be talked out of things once they’ve made up their mind. At the same time, your toddler might fear being separated from you and not want you to leave them with other people.

Your toddler’s ability to use and understand language will develop very quickly. This language development means you can share more activities and games. You can also start working on social skills like sharing and turn-talking. For example, you can play with a ball and say ‘Roll the ball’ or ‘My turn now’.

Your toddler’s emotions are developing too. Your toddler will have strong emotions but won’t always be able to control them or find the words to express them. Tantrums can happen when your toddler is overwhelmed by strong emotions like frustration. If you can tune into your child’s feelings, you might find that you can sometimes stop tantrums from happening. And tuning in is always a good way to build your relationship.

Toddlers are learning that they can do things that make other things happen, like chasing a seagull to make it fly away. You might find the time you spend with your toddler is a lot more active than it used to be. But if you’re around while your child explores, they’ll feel safe and have the confidence to try new things.

* A strong parent-child relationship is about more than just having fun together. By tuning in to your child’s feelings, praising your child and helping them find words for big emotions, you can help your child learn and develop.

Building strong relationships with toddlers: tips

Children of all ages need parents and caregivers who are warm and responsive, who pay them attention, and who make them feel safe. Here are ideas to help you keep building this kind of relationship with your toddler:

  • Give your toddler plenty of positive attention. This can be as simple as getting down to your toddler’s level and gently putting your arm around their shoulders when they show you something in the sandpit.

  • Make time to share fun activities and play together. For example, toddlers love dressing up, playing with big empty cardboard boxes and running around in the garden or park. It’s best just to follow your toddler’s lead with play.

  • Read together. Regular reading with your toddler creates a special time for bonding. It also stimulates your toddler’s imagination and helps your toddler learn about the world around them.

  • Share regular family meals. Family meals can strengthen your family relationships and your child’s sense of belonging. Family meals are also a chance to practise talking and listening.

  • Support your toddler’s developing independence by letting them make decisions. For example, you could ask your toddler to choose between 2 healthy snacks or between 2 t-shirts when they’re getting dressed.

  • Tune in to your toddler. If you see your toddler is getting frustrated or upset, help them understand their emotions and also comfort them. For example, ‘You’re upset that you dropped the banana. It’s OK. There’s more banana in your bowl’. Understanding emotions is a key part of self-regulation, which is important for all your toddler’s relationships.

  • If your toddler is having trouble separating from you, talk to them about times when you’ll be apart. For example,‘I’m going to buy food for the fridge. Nanna is here with you, and I’ll be back for your nap time’. Children feel more secure if they know when you’re going to be away, where they’ll be, and when you’ll be back.

  • Think about your child’s temperament when you plan to spend fun time together. For example, if you have a toddler who likes quiet play, you might find it works better to stay home and finger paint instead of going to a busy play centre.

* It’s important to look after yourself. Even spending a few minutes each day doing something you enjoy like going for a walk or reading a magazine can make a big difference to how you feel about the time you spend with your child. Looking after yourself is good for you, so it’s good for your relationship with your child and their development.

Ref: DePasquale, C.E., & Gunnar, M.R. (2020). Parental sensitivity and nurturance. Future of Children, 30(2), 53-70.

Fields-Olivieri, M.A., Cole, P.M., & Roben, C.K.P. (2020). Toddler emotion expressions and emotional traits: Associations with parent-toddler verbal conversation. Infant Behavior & Development, 61, 101474.

Health Nexus. (2012). Building resilience in young children: Booklet for parents of children from birth to six years. Best Start.

Lamb, M.E., & Lewis, C. (2015). The role of parent-child relationships in child development. In M.H. Bornstein & M.E. Lamb (Eds), Developmental science: An advanced textbook (7th edn, pp. 535-586). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Powell, B., Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., & Marvin, B. (2014). The circle of security. In C.H. Zeanah, Jnr (Ed.), Handbook of infant mental health (3rd edn, pp. 450-467). Guilford Press.

Wagers, K.B., & Kiel, E.J. (2019). The influence of parenting and temperament on empathy development in toddlers. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(4), 391-400.

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