Before we have our kids, we might imagine having an instant, all-encompassing bond with them. We imagine the soft snuggles and a huge rush of love for this tiny little person we have welcomed into our lives. In reality, bonding between parents and children can take work. This is because our children’s needs shift as they develop, and we must adapt our parenting strategies as they grow.
Parents need to adapt when bonding with children, or there may be conflict. Without adapting, we may rupture that once-airtight relationship. As children mature, they need independence, but they also need to rely on us for support. Through their growth, this balance tips because of the inevitable changes of childhood. Your skills and responses might need to transition alongside your child’s.
Many parents are conscious of how bonding and attachment are vital for a child’s wellbeing. Secure attachment is about attuning to your child’s needs and responding appropriately 1,2. Securely attached children are more confident, have stronger and more positive relationships overall, are better at problem-solving, believe they can achieve, have a higher sense of self-worth, and are more resilient 1,2,3.
Tips for Bonding With Children at Every Age
Spend time watching and listening to your child, and be patient with yourself and them. You’re learning a new language, and your infant is grappling with being in this big, wide world where their needs aren’t always instantly catered to. Although babies’ cries are meant to trigger us to action, try not to panic. Take your time to pick out what sort of cry it is or what that facial expression means. Just try to rotate through and meet their basic needs; hunger, thirst, warmth, connection, sleep, toileting/hygiene. It builds a stronger bond every time you successfully meet your child’s needs (even if it takes a little while to crack the code initially).
Tap into their sense of wonder.
They can watch how the sun’s rays move across the floor forever. A hanging toy above their crib might be absolutely enchanting. Try and catch where their attention is focused and enjoy the wonder with them. We have seen it all but remember that everything in your child’s environment is brand-new for them. They will want to spend time learning about it all. Just slow down and be present with them.
Narrate while you go about your day.
Your child has been able to hear your voice since they were in utero, so it will be comforting to them. They’re more capable of understanding language before speaking, so tell them what you’re doing as you care for them. It helps with early conversations about consent and privacy. It also allows them to understand what’s happening and feel more secure and trusting.
Give them choices (safe and appropriate ones, of course).
This age is all about testing boundaries and wanting to be more independent. This could be letting them choose their clothes, snack, book, etc. It can reduce the power struggles and help them to feel more acknowledged by you, as you’re showing respect for their growing personality and preferences.
They thrive on repetition; it helps them feel safe and secure.
So, strap yourself in, mama . . . this might mean reading the same story 47 times in a row or watching the same episode every day of a particular TV show or movie. Try to find something new each time, or read aloud with a different voice to help keep yourself entertained. Our little people are struggling with so many new things that accessing something they know is a comfort for them.
Validate their big feelings.
Toddlers don’t always have the most common sense. I know when my daughter was a toddler, she would have a meltdown over the color of her cup. Or the fact that I had dared peel a banana for her (despite her not yet being able to do it herself). So don’t always stress about fixing it or making it better. Focus on naming their feelings and offering comfort when they’re ready. This acknowledgment shows you understand where they’re coming from and increases your child’s bond with you.
Well, that’s what we call them in my house. If your child is escalated or heightened, it’s essential to co-regulate as they are still learning to regulate themselves. Skin-to-skin is something we think only matters in infancy 4, but pulling them in close and laying their ear against your breastbone works wonders like when they were babies. Their bodies will start to sync to yours when they can hear the rhythm of your heart and breathing, so pull them into an embrace and ask them to listen to your heart. Make sure you’re taking deep, calm breaths. Very soon, their body will sync to yours, and they will calm down.
“Watch me, Watch me!”
This seems to be the call of childhood. They’re growing increasingly confident in their physical skills and want you to wonder at them and share in their joy. Yes, my daughter has asked me to watch her attempts at doing a cartwheel 64 times in the last 30 minutes . . . and yes, it’s hard to stay enthusiastic and patient. However, try and see this as their attempt to connect with you. They want you to share in their mastery and achievements. This goes a long way to increasing and cementing that bond between parents and children.
Your child may be getting ready to learn how to read, or perhaps they’re already skilled at independent reading. But don’t stop storytime. Try and incorporate reading into your night-time routine, whether you read to your child or they read to you. The first and last five minutes of the day are some of the most important. So, snuggle down and enjoy a story together.
Get them to teach you something.
They’ll feel so proud of themselves for sharing a skill with you. You can demonstrate your interest in what they are doing (which helps with your bond), and it will increase their self-esteem and sense of well-being.
Keep the communication open and try to suspend judgment.
Teens can become increasingly secretive, but this is when we need them to be the most open. It’s the time in their lives when they start navigating challenging social situations and peer pressure. Try to use car journeys to check in or mandate family dinners to ensure there are always opportunities to communicate. Also, try to be curious rather than judgmental. Remember to enforce the idea that while you might not always understand or accept certain behaviors, nothing they do will make you stop loving them.
Get them to help set rules and consequences.
As teens, they want more independence and to be considered mature. So, instead of you setting rules, get them involved. Get your teen thinking about what your family should and should not accept in terms of behavior. Also, ask them to consider the consequences if they don’t align with these expectations. It means you get to sidestep being the bad guy because they have had input and are more likely to buy into the rules. It also shows your respect and acceptance of their increased need for independence.
You can still mandate family time, but give your teen more say in how you spend that time together.
Not only will they feel a sense of maturity, but if you get them to plan a catch-up, it gets them thinking about others in the family. This keeps them feeling connected and aware of others’ needs. It also allows you to demonstrate your awareness that their needs are changing, which helps cement your bond.
Although our children’s needs evolve as they grow, we can easily get stuck in parenting habits or ruts. Re-adjusting your skills or strategies doesn’t make you a bad parent; it just means that your child’s needs have changed. It’s okay not to be perfect, but it’s important to be open and aware of these changes so you can meet your child where they are. Showing them that you see and hear them can go a long way toward bonding between parents and children.
Bowlby J (1979). The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London: Tavistock Publications.
Waters E, Kondo-Ikemura K, Posada G, Richters J (1991). Gunnar M, Sroufe T (eds.). “Learning to love: Mechanisms and milestones.” Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. 23 (Self–Processes and Development).
Marvin RS, Britner PA (2008). “Normative Development: The Ontogeny of Attachment.” In Cassidy J, Shaver PR (eds.). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. New York and London: Guilford Press. pp. 269–94.
Moore ER et al. 2012. Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants.