As your toddler develops and begins to experience the freedom to walk, talk and play, the need to express his independence is natural. The word “no” is often a common occurrence because he sees that choices exist in his little world.
A toddler’s independence doesn’t have to result in a constant tug of war, though. Instead of getting frustrated over the tantrums and “mine” attitude, foster his independence by promoting it and encouraging him to complete tasks on his own.
The Toddler Transition
Children who are two years of age are learning for the first time that there are other people in the world, but they don’t quite see them as separate from themselves, says Dylan Glanzer, who is a mother of two, has her masters in early childhood education and owns Parties by Miss Dylan and Company.
“They are still quite egocentric, but at the same time, they are beginning to understand that they have their own will, hence the need to say ‘no’ or ‘mine’ to everything,” says Glanzer.
Toddlers often get frustrated because they want to make choices and do things on their own, but there are still many tasks they are unable to do at such a young age. “They need help and resent it, so adults need to understand and sympathize with their plight,” says Glanzer.
The Teaching Trick
To avoid frustration from your little one, empower him or her through teaching. “We need to teach them to do as many things for themselves as possible so they can experience the satisfaction of doing something on their own,” says Glanzer. “We can help them by not engaging in their struggle as a direct threat to our parental authority – it most certainly is not.”
Begin teaching your little one to embrace his independence by offering choices whenever possible. Instead of telling him to sit down for breakfast, involve him in the preparations. Using phrases such as “would you like to help me set the table or stir the pancake mix?” offers your toddler a choice while still reiterating that you expect him to help with household tasks.
Instead of picking out your toddler’s clothes for the day, help him set out a few options and avoid wincing as he mixes and matches a purple shirt with green pants. “This way, when there is a choice, it may be less of a battle,” says Glanzer.
Avoid battles when you are in a hurry to get out the door, too. Questions such as “Do you want to put your coat on first or your shoes?” indicate that both tasks must be completed while still giving your child the power to choose.
The key, though, is to offer only two options. “Too many or open-ended choices will add to the toddler’s confusion and overwhelm,” says Glanzer.
The Self-Care Movement
The best way to facilitate your toddler’s independence is by helping him develop his self-care skills.
Dr. Fran Walfish, California-based psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child, recommends encouraging your child to complete the following tasks on his own:
- Dressing (Putting on shirts, socks, pants, shoes)
- Brushing Teeth
- Picking Up Toys
- Bathing and/or Wiping Down Body
Your child will most likely need your assistance at first to care for himself, but it’s important to allow him to try, stand by and only help when asked. If his shirt is on backwards, is it really the end of the world? Foster his independence by praising his efforts instead of fixing the shirt. Use this opportunity to teach your child about hygiene, personal care habits and health risks so he sees the value of taking care of himself.
The Independent Play Session
Many toddlers want to exhibit independence and even control when playing, but this can be a challenge when other children are expressing the same need. According to Glanzer, it’s important for parents, nannies and caretakers to show toddlers how to play with another person.
“I went to so many play dates with mommy groups when my kids were little and was a little surprised that the parents expected to be able to enjoy their time together and just let the kids play,” says Glanzer. “I was the only one on the floor with them trying to help them share or work out conflicts. This is why understanding child development is a huge help in raising children.”
To avoid disagreements during play sessions with others, Glanzer recommends putting away any of your child’s most favorite toys. “Tell your 2 year old that their friend won’t get to play with those toys, but the rest of the toys are for sharing,” she says. “They understand much more than they can ever communicate and good advice is worth repeating over and over to your little one.”
While your toddler is learning how to share and exhibit independent behavior, take the opportunity to show him the value of choices, consequences of behavior and the responsibility that accompanies independence.
“There are hundreds of opportunities for your toddler to practice independent play and activities throughout the day,” says Walfish. “The key is for mommy to catch those moments, reinforce them with praise and capitalize on them by expanding your child’s self-reliance.”