Healthy Parent-Toddler Relationships

mom and daughter            With babies, the route to a secure bond between parent and baby is relatively clear: it’s the baby’s job to let his or her needs be known, and it’s the adult’s job to respond as quickly, lovingly, and effectively as possible. But what happens when those sweet babies become demanding toddlers? How does the nature of the parent-child bond shift, and how does it stay the same? What actions continue to support the parent-child bond, and what ones no longer serve it?

One thing that becomes clear is that responsiveness, while still necessary, is no longer enough.  If we continue to try and do everything that our child wants, as quickly and effectively as we can, we don’t end up with secure, loving children.  Instead, we end up with children who are either little dictators, or who are fearful or anxious; either way, they tend to lack that super-important quality of resilience: the ability to bounce back when things don’t go their way.

So, what’s missing? In order to answer this question, I decided to look at the research. First I delved into the what research had been done on Attachment in the toddler years.  However, I didn’t find much on children over 18 months of age (except those being followed in long-term studies that started when they were infants or very young toddlers).  So I broadened my search, and looked at parenting styles.  There is quite a bit of research on this, although most is not focused on toddlers.  However that research is important so it’s worth mentioning here:

The Effects of Parenting Style on Children

In the original study by Diana Baumrind in 1966, she observed families and identified three styles of parenting: authoritarian parenting, which is high on structure and low on warmth. On the other end of the spectrum is permissive parenting, which is high on warmth, but low on structure. And in the middle is authoritative parenting, which is high on both warmth and structure. These authoritative parents held high expectations, while also giving their children lots of emotional support.  It turned out that children with authoritative parents did better in many different ways. (Later research identified a fourth style of parenting: uninvolved parenting. The fact that you’re reading this makes me suspect that you’re not one of those parents!)

Baumrind’s work on effects of parenting style was interesting and relevant, and there are tons of parenting books written from this perspective.  However, most of those books suggest reasoning with your child, talking about their feelings, and convincing them to do what you want.  But while those techniques may work well with older children, I have not found them to be very effective with toddlers.  So how do we go about being authoritative with toddlers?  What does being high on warmth and high on expectations look like in in the parent-toddler relationship?  So, I turned to the research once again.  This time, I wanted research on toddler-specific actions that help or hinder specific interactions. So next I started looking at research that’s been done on adult-toddler interactions: what makes them smooth or rough? Enjoyable or challenging? Successful or unsuccessful? It turns out that there are lots of studies that focus on this very question. The trouble was that not only have researchers come at the topic from dozens of different angles, but almost every single researcher calls it something different. And they don’t use nice, user-friendly words. In talking about what’s happening when things are going well, one researcher calls it “contingent responsivity,” while another describes it as “affect attunement,” a third dubs it “reciprocal responsiveness” a fourth, fifth and sixth label it “social contingency,” “interactional harmony,” “dyadic synchrony,” respectively. And this is only a smattering of the research out there! Small wonder that these ideas have never made it out of academic circles.

The Mutually Responsive Relationship

While none of those terms seemed particularly approachable, I noticed that there was one idea that kept turning up again and again, even though it was described differently: the interactions that went smoothly between parents and toddlers, and relationships that were strong and healthy, were steeped in reciprocity. Not reciprocity as in constant negotiations, “I’ll-give-you-this-if-you-give-me-that,” but reciprocity as in parent and child each caring and being responsive to the other. In academic-speak, interactions were “bidirectionally coordinated,” meaning that each party accepted the influence of the other.

As I said before, in a parent-infant relationship, it’s the baby’s job to communicate her needs to the adult, and it’s the adult’s job to meet those needs as quickly and fully as possible. But in a healthy adult-toddler relationship, no longer is it the child giving all the cues and the adult doing all the responding. At the same time, neither is it a “children should be seen and not heard” model. One researcher, Grazyna Kochanska, coined a description of this type of interaction that I liked so much I adopted it for use in this book: she said that things go most smoothly when adult and child are mutually and daughter It’s possible for adults and children to be mutually responsive (or not) in a given interaction, and the more interactions we have this way, the closer the relationship gets to being mutually responsive overall. Our goal in parenting our toddlers, then, is to develop mutually responsive relationships with these emerging (and often powerful) individuals.

While we adults can choose whether to be responsive or not to our children, the other side of it can feel more tricky, as in, “How do I get my toddler (or preschooler) to be responsive to me?” This can seem especially impossible if we’ve fallen into a pattern of behavior where our children are making frequent unreasonable demands, or throwing tantrums left and right. We parents have been practicing being responsive to our children for months or years, but our children have had much less practice in being responsive to us. How do we change that balance, and help children become responsive?

The short answer is that being responsive is a skill, and we can teach children how to do it.  We do it by having high expectations, and then helping our children follow through.  We don’t make our help punitive; on the contrary, we make it as fun and enjoyable as we can.  We are teaching our children to be responsive to us.  And how do we make doing what we’ve asked enjoyable? That’s what this website is all about!

The Book Is Out!

Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love

Click on the title for more info and to purchase.


  1. I love this! Only, because I’ve created some bad habits, I think I need more of a long answer instead of short. Do you have a book or resource suggestions for creating mutually responsive relationships? My oldest is 2.5. Thank you!

    • Hi Keri, Thanks for your comments. The good news is that I’m writing a book! The bad news is, it won’t be published till a year from now. There is a real lack of books on this type of parenting that focuses specifically on the toddler years; so many of the books are for kids of “all ages” and suggest discussing and reasoning, which aren’t very effective with two-year-olds since that part of their brain is not well developed yet. One general book I do like a lot is “The Soul of Discipline” by Kim John Payne. For a toddler-specific book I like Janet Lansbury’s “No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.” I’m also available for one-on-one coaching calls and I *may* be looking for some test readers for my manuscript draft…

  2. Very much looking forward to your book being published. It sounds like the book I have been looking for to help with my parenting journey of my almost 3 year old. I haven’t found much reading that sat right with me and have felt I have been floundering around a bit looking for a little beacon of guidance that I felt confident with. Would love to know when it gets published. Thank you!!

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