AUTHOR: Kristin Reinsberg, MS, LMFT

Attachment and Exploration: The Toddler Years

As your young infant grows and becomes more mobile, a wonderful and complex event takes place—the world begins to expand immeasurably. No longer is your baby confined to spaces in which she could only scoot, crawl, or wiggle! As she masters her balance and learns to walk, she transforms into a little explorer. Much to your chagrin, she hurries off to investigate new areas that were once out of her reach. And although you may try desperately to contain your toddler’s enthusiasm, making attempts to keep things out of reach or out of sight, your little one is driven to continue her search and discovery mission!

You may have witnessed your toddler rushing from place to place, laughing and smiling, beaming with confidence, when suddenly, something unexpected happens: A new neighbor walks in, a dog barks from across the street, a door slams loudly. Within moments, your confident explorer is rushing to your side, seeking reassurance and comfort. This wide-open world is thrilling, yet it is also filled with seemingly endless threats and dangers when viewed through the eyes and mind of the young toddler.

In this new, larger world, your toddler’s attachment relationships continue to assert their significance. The willingness to explore his environment, to feel safe and reassured that someone will be there when scared and uncertain, is rooted in the expectations that your young child developed as an infant through attachment.

A secure attachment provides the “home base” from which a child ventures out and explores new environments. This secure base enables the toddler to feel supported, confident, and ready to explore. And, when she becomes scared or uncertain, she knows that she can return to her caregiver where she will receive the warmth and support she needs in order to feel safe, competent, and ready to go out in the world again! Over time, the young child begins to internalize the support and nurturance she receives from this relationship. She develops a sense of competence and an ability to manage her own worries and fears when her parents, her “secure base,” are not immediately available

Bowlby, John (1956) “The growth of independence in the young child.” Royal Society of Health Journal, 76, 587-591.

Bowlby, John (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. London: Routledge.

Lieberman, Alicia (1993) The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.