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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 6 – preschool

Emotional development and attachment in toddlers

Bonding is a process that continues throughout toddlerhood and childhood. A secure attachment between a toddler and her parents forms the foundation of her emotional development, brain development and resilience.
In Short
Bonding for humans is a process during which parent and child develop a deep emotional attachment.

A toddler’s brain is immature, so the experiences they have to lead to a multitude of new connections in the brain, whether through love, interaction or talking to your toddler.

Evidence suggests that a lack of love, laughter or stimulation may impair both emotional and cognitive development (that is, the way a child thinks).

Toddlers can feel the full spectrum of emotion, from desperate sadness through fury to joy in a matter of minutes. Part of your job as a parent is to help them to control and regulate their emotions.

A toddler’s self-esteem is built and strengthened from birth by having a warm, responsive, sensitive and loving bond with his or her parents.

Why is it that our earliest relationships with our parents leave such a lasting mark? A loving parent is not the norm in the animal kingdom. All animals produce babies but very few animal parents dedicate years to caring for their young like we do. For instance, sea turtles lay hundreds of eggs and offer them no care other than a sandy nest. The fragile hatchlings are left to scramble down to the sea alone and very few survive to adulthood. Mammals developed a different strategy that saw their babies kept safe inside mum’s body.

However, even by mammalian standards, we human parents are extremely loving. When our ancestors evolved big brains and stood up on two legs to walk, giving birth became more difficult and our ancestors compromised by giving birth to tiny, helpless babies. This is why our babies need love and lots of care – they’re born with a brain that’s still developing, and which grows fivefold from birth to adulthood.

We usually only have one baby at a time and we love and care for them intensively, for not just days but many years while they grow to full adulthood. We literally teach them everything they know.

So humans have evolved a deep, loving intertwined bonds with our children. Unlike geese, we don’t attach, bond or imprint instantly on our parents at birth. Bonding for humans is a process during which parent and child develop a deep emotional attachment.

Love, attachment and brain development

Can the love and nurture we experience as babies and toddlers really affect our brain development, our potential, and our future?

Your toddler’s brain has over 100 billion special cells called neurons, each one of which can connect to as many as 7,000 other brain cells, and like other human brains, it’s the most complicated object in the known universe.

But a toddler’s brain is also immature. The experiences a toddler has lead to multitudes of new connections in the brain. So love, interaction and talking all promote your toddler’s brain development.

Neurobiologists have suggested that so-called epigenetic effects may explain the mechanism by which parental love affects the brain. A lack of love also has a long-term effects across generations.

Epigenetic effects describe inherited changes in gene expression (our reaction to stress, for example) that do not change the underlying DNA sequence. This results in a change in phenotype (e.g., expressed behaviour) without a change in genotype.

Toddler in red shirt walking assisted by his father.

Evidence in animal studies that indicate the importance of loving nurture

Studies of mice parents show that ‘loving’ mothers who are attentive and lick their babies (and the babies of other mice were who transferred to their litter by the scientists) permanently change the behaviour and gene expression of their offspring when they grow up. What’s more, ‘loved’ female mice become better mums themselves when they have babies.

It’s good news all the way for the ‘loved’ mice. They also turn out to be:

  • More intelligent than those that have been ‘neglected’
  • Less aggressive
  • More sociable.

What’s more, these powerful effects stretch over at least two generations. So a ‘loving’ grandmother mouse may actually influence the genetically expressed behaviour and attributes of her grandchildren. It seems that these changes may be caused by chemical alterations in the genes and hormones in the brains of the baby mice.

The effects of nurture and neglect of children

These powerful effects are likely to affect humans too. Evidence from Russian orphanages of the most neglected babies seems to indicate that a lack of love, laughter or stimulation may impair the development of not just the child’s emotional development but cognitive development too. Parental love is more important than we ever imagined. Similarly, the neurons of children who have suffered stress without a loving caregiver to act as a buffer have fewer connections to other neurons.

Emotional regulation in toddlers

Toddlers can feel the full spectrum of emotion, from desperate sadness through fury to joy in a matter of minutes. Part of your job as a parent is to help them to control and regulate their emotions. This is because they do not yet have the mental hardware to do this for themselves. Toddlers’ emotions are like a central heating system and you as the parent work as their thermostat. Sometimes they need cooling down and sometimes they need warming up. Don’t worry that this requires complicated skills – it doesn’t. Regulating your toddler’s emotions can be as simple but as powerful as:

  • Reassuring her when she is frightened
  • Calming her down when she is angry and has lost control
  • Cheering her up when she feels sad.

As your toddler becomes a preschooler and then a school-aged child she will begin to increasingly internalise the ability to regulate and manage her emotions and to understand where they come from. (See the chapter on positive discipline for more of an explanation of how your toddler can learn to regulate and understand her emotions).

Your toddler’s self-esteem and secure attachment

A toddler’s self-esteem is built and strengthened from birth by having a warm, responsive, sensitive and loving bond with his or her parents. This secure attachment is the foundation and bedrock of your toddler’s self-esteem, self-worth and resilience.

While a sense of being loved helps to promote your toddler’s self-esteem, a study published in 2015 warned against fostering narcissism in your child. Research published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 reported the findings of a study that followed 565 children in the Netherlands. The children whose parents told them that they were ‘more special than other children’ and ‘deserve something extra in life’ were more likely to score highly for narcissism than the other children in the study. In contrast, those children who were told they were loved by their parents demonstrated higher self-esteem but not narcissistic attitudes. This study suggests that love and warmth are more effective at boosting your toddler’s self-esteem than telling them they are special.

These parents had a ‘Messiah complex’ when it came to their children and were more likely to praise their child’s extraordinary talents and unique skills rather than hard work.

The way that you talk about your toddler’s attributes, behaviour, body and personality now will begin the narrative that they hold inside themselves of who they are.

Praising effort

This also backs up the idea that it is better to concentrate on praising your toddler’s efforts rather than their ‘abilities’. For example, if your toddler is persisting at a new task, praise the persistence rather than the ability. So get into the habit of saying, ‘Well done – you keep trying to climb up those stairs, don’t you?’ That way, your toddler learns to understand, from an early age, that you appreciate and praise her persistence, her tenacity and her willingness to practice (which is a crucial aspect of all learning). It’s hard not to gush about your child’s abilities, especially if they’re gifted at something and doubt themselves, but try to rein it in a little. They may have natural talent but the reality is that even for the David Beckhams of this world, a huge part of their success is hours and hours of practice. In fact, in Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book ‘Outliers’, he explains the theory that most maestros in their field have dedicated 10,000 hours (over 10 years of their life) to practicing.

Praising effort teaches children with natural abilities that they have a role in honing their skills and the things they love to do, which is both true and empowering.

References and further reading

Brummelman et al (2015) ‘Origins of narcissism in children.’ PNAS 2015 112 (12) 3659-3662

Gladwell (2008) ‘Outliers: The Story of Success.’ Penguin

Masterpasqua F (2009). “Psychology and epigenetics”. Review of General Psychology 13 (3): 194–201.

Nelson (2007) ‘A Neurobiological Perspective on Early Human Deprivation’ Child Development Perspectives 1 (1) 13-18

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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.