Between the ages of one and three years your toddler’s world is growing rapidly. This is a time of many changes for toddlers. The most important learning for your children in these years is that they are separate, independent people. Many of the troubles that some parents experience with their two year olds are because children are struggling with learning to feel independent. At the same time they are still babies in many ways and need a lot of parental support.

IT IS NORMAL FOR CHILDREN OF THIS AGE:

  • To want to say “no”.
  • To get cross and rebel sometimes.
  • To want to make some choices for themselves.
  • To find it hard to cope with change.
  • To want to feel very secure and safe but at the same time to try out new independence.

Sometimes when they are on the way to learning self control children will say “No! No! No!” to themselves while they do something that is forbidden. They are not deliberately being disobedient. They are on the way to learning what they must not do, but haven’t quite got there yet.

All of this is saying “I am a separate person, I am ME!”

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

Your children may need you to help them learn to be independent and feel good about themselves. At the same time you don’t want them running wild or have a life that is full of battles. Life for the toddler is full of frustration so the smoother parents can make it, the better it is for all.

Make your home safe and enjoyable.

  • Make your house as childproof as possible.
  • Have only a few rules. It is better to put your good things away than to always be stopping a toddler from touching them.
  • Make interesting changes every now and again, for example a pile of cushions to climb over, a cardboard box tunnel to crawl through, a cubby house under the card table.
  • Make sure that there is a place and space for your child to explore and run every day.
  • If children have to go somewhere in the car or wait in a waiting room, take some toys to keep them busy.

Learning to be independent.

  • Make up fun games where your child can practise saying “No”, for example “Does Daddy sleep in the bath?” “Does the cat say moo?”
  • Don’t give your children a choice if there isn’t one. For example if you have to pick up an older child from school, don’t ask your toddlers if they wants to come, say “We’re going to the school in the car now”.
  • If there is something they do not want to do, try to make a game of it. You could say “See if you can race me to the bath” or put a few drops of food colouring or bubble bath or a boat in the bath to make it more attractive.
  • Give simple choices, for example with food and clothes. “Do you want to wear your blue shirt or your red shirt, today?” (Some young children find it very difficult to make choices for a while and may need you to choose for them.)
  • Be positive. For example instead of saying “Don’t slam the door” say “I know that you can shut the door quietly, let’s see you do it”. Then give praise for learning a new skill.
  • Give clear messages to your young children. If you just say “No”, they may not know what you mean. Tell them exactly what you want them to do in simple words. For example “Don’t turn the knobs on the TV, they will break.” Give them something else such as an old radio to practise with. (You may have to physically move them away from the TV, or put the TV out of reach).
  • If your children refuse to come with you and there is no time to use any of the above methods, pick them up and carry them, don’t threaten to leave them. This is very frightening for young children.

Help children learn about feelings.

  • Label feelings for your young children so that they learn that feelings are something that you can talk about. For example you could say “You’re feeling sad because Daddy had to go to work”.
  • Separate feelings from behaviour. For example you might say “I know you feel cross but you must not hit. When you feel cross you can tell me”. Your children will not understand all of this at first but it is very important learning.
  • Read stories that show children with different kinds of feelings – angry, happy, sad, afraid etc.
  • Begin to help children understand the difference between their own feelings and other people’s. For example you could say “It hurts Jenny when you hit her, let”s touch her very gently and make her feel better”. It takes many years to learn this well but you can start when your children are very young.

Fighting fears.

The world can seem very fearful to children of this age, because there are lots of things they don’t understand yet.

They don’t understand:

  • That you will come back soon – because they don’t understand time.
  • That they can’t fall down the plug hole in the bath – because they don’t understand size and space.
  • That they can’t lose parts of their body if they are hurt – because they don’t yet understand their bodies are all part of them.
  • That the monsters in their dreams won’t get them – because they don’t yet understand what is real and what is not.

Helping young children with fears

  • Fears about cuts and bruises. Put a band aid on sores and hurts even if you don’t see the need for it.
  • Fears about going down the plug hole. Let the children bath in a baby bath for a while, or at least don’t pull out the plug while they are still in the bath. Let them use a potty instead of the big toilet.
  • Fears about nightmares. If they have a nightmare tell them that “It is only a dream”. Comfort them.
  • Fears of monsters. Tell them that there are no monsters. Don’t look for monsters under the bed, because they may think that you believe there are some there to look for.
  • Fears of separation. Let your children have their comforter or dummy when they need it. They help children to deal with fears. Children usually need to keep them until they are three or four years old.
  • Fear of the dark. Stay with your children to reassure them. Perhaps use a night light. Let them sleep in the same room as a brother or sister or parent for a while. Let them know that you understand, and you don’t think they are silly or babyish. Keep to bedtime routines, for example the same number of kisses goodnight or the same story.

If fears are really interfering with a child’s life talk it over with a counsellor who works with children.

SPECIAL NOTE: It is never useful to force children to face their fears. Mostly they grow out of them, with lots of support and understanding.

This article appeared in an issue of The Department of Community Services (DoCS) Parenting Magazine. Copyright® Parenting SA, Government of South Australia 1996-1999.

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