You’ve heard of the terrible twos and threes. What seems like overnight your sweet, precious baby turns into a willful force of nature that takes every opportunity to test boundaries (and your patience). There’s no doubt that this stage of parenting can leave us feeling unprepared and at war with ourselves – on the one hand we want to enforce boundaries and instill character in our little ones. On the other hand, we just want it to be easy and less like wrestling a drunk elephant.
Changes in your toddlers’ behavior at 2 and 3 years old is a necessary developmental stage. This is when their little minds are creating connections at a rapid pace. What might feel like a confusing, frustrating time for parents, is actually an exciting opportunity to develop a strong and well-adjusted human being who has the strength of character to develop to their optimal potential.
So, how do we go about parenting in a way that develops strength of character?
Your toddler’s role in life
Erikson (1959), a revered developmental psychologist, defines the stages or crisis that occur at specific times of our life, the first being Trust vs. Mistrust (0 – 18 months) followed by Autonomy vs. Doubt from 18 months to 3 years.
In the first year of your little one’s life, their ‘work’ is to learn trust. They come to learn that they are at the center of your world, and you can be trusted with their whole little being. They are also learning a sense of self and trust in others. This is a wonderful time of bonding and attachment that starts to change at around 18 months.
Moving on to the toddler years, a new role emerges – where the primary goal for your toddler is to develop a sense of autonomy. You will probably recognise this shift in priorities as your little one resists help – opting to do things ‘on their own.’ This need for independence, self-sufficiency and self-governance is what drives them. And almost every toddler challenge can be traced back to this one issue – the need for autonomy vs the doubt that niggles at the back of their minds as they navigate the toddler years.
Your role in the toddler years
As much as your little one’s role is changing, so is yours. Of course, you are still their source of love, affection and comfort but you now have the responsibility of helping your toddler develop autonomy.
Understanding the stage your toddler is in goes a long way in helping you modify your behaviour, and to not see their behaviour as overtly negative. The guiding principle is this: if a toddler is overly controlled or consistently criticised or has no boundaries, he will develop doubt.
Ultimately the way to develop your toddler’s Autonomy is through Supported Independence. This is the secret to parenting that encourages autonomy and the development of character.
In the toddler years, you may have the following goals as you support your toddler to develop autonomy:
1. To allow your toddler to take control (autonomy) over feeding themselves and how much they eat
2. To ensure your toddler knows how to read his own sensory load and make adjustments if he is becoming over stimulated
3. To settle himself to sleep at bedtime and resettle in the night
4. To recover from frustrations without resorting to temper tantrums
5. To develop self-control when faced with choices
These might sound like crazy, unattainable goals for the toddler years, but be assured that they are possible. The keys to nurturing these goals are:
• Reflective parenting – or teaching your toddler to read his own cues. Tell your toddler how he is feeling and reflect the state behind the behaviour – for instance if he is having a meltdown because he is tired, don’t say, “You are naughty” rather say, “You are feeling grumpy because you are tired.” This helps him to identify his emotions and will help him monitor his own behaviour later.
• Less controlling and punitive parenting – If you are consistently trying to control your toddler and punish him as he experiments and learns along the way, he will eventually doubt himself and stop trying to be independent. Or he may end up fighting with you all the time which is not a great emotional start to your lifelong relationship.
• Firm and clear boundaries – We know that toddlers explore more and develop confidence quicker if the boundary is clear. Get down on your toddler’s level and be clear about what the boundary is and reinforce it.
• Give your toddler the narrative – Talk to your toddler – a lot. Verbalise what he is doing, how he is feeling, how you are feeling and what the boundaries are. By speaking these thoughts aloud, they will become the words he hears in his own head when you are not there and that is the start of self-regulation through self-talk.
Implementing these tools will empower you as a parent to help your little one make the most of their toddler years. Not to mention, make it easier for you to understand their cues and survive the wild, wonderful whirlwind that is toddlerhood!