How Can You Bond With A Fussy Or Difficult Child?


Read a therapist’s strategies on how secure attachment will help your testy toddler.

Your toddler is fussy; they are a poor sleeper, picky eater and a testy two year-old. Your hope: this is just a phase… the terrible twos… something they will grow out of and you both will survive.

Parents looking for help during this time are ultimately seeking to learn how to support their child in three ways: socially, emotionally and cognitively. By supporting their kids in these three ways they arm their child with secure attachment which helps them to navigate through their terrible twos and come out peacefully on the other side.

As your child ages, what psychological development is going on in the background?
Attachment is the psychological connectedness between human beings. Secure attachment forms when an infant’s needs are met when they seek out a trusted caregiver. From changing diapers, to answering cries to comforting when they need to be held-- parents play the central role in helping children develop a sense that their world is safe, and from that secure base children can explore their environment and return back to their secure base (Bowlby, 1988).

Additionally, as a child grows, their parents act as a central figure helping the child to learn to regulate or manage their feelings. In parallel, Siegel (1999) notes that as emotional regulation occurs, child also learns to develop self-regulation autonomy. What this amounts to is that as parents teach kids that they can be self-reliant, children also grow in their ability to trust themselves and the world around them. It is believed that from the foundation of secure attachment with parents/caregivers that children also develop socially and emotionally.

As an infant develops into a toddler, the opportunities arise for self-control and managing frustrations. The caregiver allows the child to practice self-modulating behaviors, yet helps a child regulate when the situation is beyond their capacity. As a child grows, the caregiver's tasks shift to encouraging mastery, establishing behavioral boundaries, and offering corrective feedback on self-regulation efforts. Self-awareness and self-organization are believed to be the results of effectively moving through these emotional developmental stages.

How can you develop a secure attachment with your child if they are pushing you away, disregarding your boundaries or defying your rules?

It’s important to note that your child’s meltdowns may be more than defiant behavior. If your child has not adequately developed an ability to manage their emotions and self-regulate when the environment is too loud, intense or overwhelming, or they are stressed out or unable to communicate their wants they may meltdown and have a tantrum.

Parents will often see a tantrum as defiant behavior (and at times that may be true); however, for children, there’s much more going on. At the time of the tantrum, their brain is being flooded by peptides and hormones and their automatic nervous system is responding with an increased heart rate and elevated respiration. Essentially, your child can’t rationally think at this time. Liken this to a time when you were so mad you forgot what you are arguing about.

You can help your child during this emotional storm by returning to the fundamentals of attachment: non-verbal cures, touch, facial expressions, and vocal tones that teach them to regulate their emotions and behaviors and self-soothe.

1. Eye contact: Ever see your toddler eyeing you as they stand on the sofa and you ask them to stop. Watch as your child looks back to see if you are watching. They are looking for social cues and feedback and seeing how you will respond. A simple direct look in the eyes and a shaking of your head may be enough for your child to stop their behaviors.

Otherwise, let your child know that the sofa is not for standing. Use eye contact in positive ways too, such as loving gazes and looking your child in the eye as you speak to them; you’ll increase the feedback loop and strengthen your parent-child bond.

2. Holding, touch, and proximity: Non-verbal cues are powerful influences and can deepen your bond with your child. It also helps your child develop their own emotional self-regulation. Some children who meltdown and have tantrums are so emotionally overwhelmed that they need physical contact to help them calm down, such as a gentle touch or being held. Make time each day to be with, hold, or touch your child. Touch provides a secure base, and stroking your child’s hair or holding and hugging your child will help them develop a sense of secure attachment.

You can teach your child how to regulate their own physiological system by using pressure to push their hands together when they are feeling overwhelmed or stressed. If you have a child who has difficulty tolerating touch, eye-contact, and other sensory stimuli consult a professional.

3. Tone of voice: As with eye-contact, your child will often choose a defiant behavior and look for parental feedback. Your tone of voice will impact your child’s responses. Think of your child reaching out to pull the cat’s tail as you look them in the eye and firmly state, “Noooo”. You child is looking for the feedback and your tone of voice is another example of how a child regulates their behaviors and emotions. A sharp firm “NO” catches your child’s attention as they reach for a hot pot. A soft soothing voice when you are putting a band-aid on a fresh cut. A loving tender voice as you read bedtime stories cuddled in bed together. These are all ways your tone of voice influences your child’s regulation.

If your child is more defiant or colicky you can use your tone of voice to help them change their behaviors. Modify your tone of voice to reinforce your request or help your child calm and self-soothe.

4. Be the calm in the storm: Your child is looking to you for verbal and non-verbal feedback on their behavior. In the midst of a tantrum their rational brain may have shutdown and they are not able to think though their choices. Allow your child an opportunity to calm down before you try to talk to them and explain why their behavior is not appropriate.

Most importantly, keep your parenting cool. Just as a child develops and organizes their self-regulation through attachment by connecting with a calm secure base, a parent’s emotional disregulation (when you are really upset) can escalate your child’s emotional response. So if your child’s behavior gets you really upset you’ll likely escalate their tantrum if you are seething with anger.

5. Don’t shame or name call your child: As your child matures they may go through periods where they are wanting independence and freedom. They may run right past you to be with a friend or play on the playground. Then there are moments when your child may sob uncontrollably because they are upset. Know that it’s part of your child’s development and you can help them through difficult times when their behaviors becomes regressive, or they acting younger than their age.

Belittling your child, calling them babyish, or shaming them will only create emotional difficulties. Instead reinforce a securely attached parent-child relationship and acknowledge that sometimes things are scary, or make you upset, or sad. That it’s okay to feel these feelings and even mommies and daddies feel that way too.

Helping your child develop a secure attachment through tone of voice, touch, eye-contact, non-verbal communication will all help your child learn how to manage their emotions and behaviors. Use these five insider therapy strategies to help your fussy, finicky, testy toddler. No matter what age your child is, you can go back to some of the attachment development basics and help your child develop socially and emotionally to their full capacity.

Not sure if your child need more support? We can help! Schedule your Complimentary Child Support Consultation here:

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Sroufe, L.A. (2000). Early relationships and the development of children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 21(1–2), 67–74.