In many ways, toddlerhood is a glimpse into the teenage years as your child battles you for independence one minute, and pulls you in with need the next. Your toddler wants to do things all by himself, as long as you’re there to watch. He wants to decide exactly what he’s eating for breakfast, but probably still needs you to get the milk out of the fridge for him. He definitely doesn’t want to wear his coat, but needs you to carry it for when he is cold.
Toddler independence is a tricky and even challenging stage for many parents. You may have considered yourself a gentle parent up until this point, but the endless toddler tantrums are leaving you feeling flustered (read: furious). Even the simplest of tasks can lead to a meltdown as your toddler tries to perfect the balance between having control and being helped and cared for. For our best tips on the days your toddler is driving you absolutely nuts, read our article here.
You want your child to grow up to be a strong-minded, independent force to be reckoned with, and yet, you can’t help but wish he’d just do as he was told right now. It’s a difficult time as you battle with your long-term parenting goals and sanity NOW.
Here are some things to bear in mind as you both negotiate and nurture the development of your toddler’s independence:
#1: Remind Yourself That It’s Not Going To Happen Over Night
Gaining independence is a process and not a quick one by any standards. Your toddler needs to build up the confidence, courage, communication skills, motor skills and understanding to take control of situations and tasks. This won’t happen overnight. Your toddler may be fighting for him independence one day and begging you not to leave the next. It’s confusing, probably even more so for him than it is to you. Don’t try to force your toddler into situations he’s not comfortable with, even if he was fine in the same situation only yesterday. Your toddler needs to feel safe and secure to be able to gain independence, so let him do things in his own time.
#2: There Are Bigger Things At Play
The slightest cold or upset can cause a regression in toddlers. All of a sudden you’re potty-trained, independent little chap is back to standing in puddles and crying for your help. It’s hard work, especially when you know that he was managing these things just yesterday. Toddlers are going through a lot though; there is so much change happening for these little guys. Trust that your child isn’t doing these things to control or manipulate you – he’s doing them because he’s learning while he’s growing. It could be the transition to a bigger big, changing room at nursery, or feeling scared after a run in with a bigger kid, leaving your child feeling a little clingier than usual. He may not yet have the understanding or language to explain all of this to you, but it’s on a temporary setback. Your toddler will be fighting you for his independence again in no time.
#3: Be Accepting
It might be (more than a little) frustrating to you that your toddler is now refusing to sleep alone and is back in your bed, and taking up more than his fair share of the room. You might feel a little embarrassed when your toddler demands to sit in a highchair at a restaurant instead of sitting on a normal dining chair. You might feel upset that you are once again on your hands and knees clearing up puddles of wee from the stairs, but don’t let these negative feelings show. Accept the changes, whatever they might be. Don’t try to shame your toddler into ‘growing up’, or accuse him of being ‘a baby’, just go with whatever he needs. The transition to toddler independence needs nurturing. By letting your toddler know that they are ok, they feel safe and secure to navigate this radical learning and growth curve they’re on.
#4: Help Him Communicate
One of the frustrating things about being a toddler is that your brain can handle more than your mouth. Toddlers have strong emotions, but can’t yet put them all into words. Can you imagine how frustrating that would be? It’s no wonder they have meltdowns when they don’t feel understood. To build his vocabulary, he needs to hear more of these words on a regular basis. Talk about your feelings and his feelings throughout the day. Talk about why you each feel the way you feel, and eventually he will gain the skills to communicate in this way too – and that will make things a lot easier for both of you.
#5: Embrace Emotions
It’s not just about naming them, you have to feel comfortable with the emotions you and your toddler exhibit on a daily basis. Toddlers experience strong emotions, and this can be very unsettling. When your toddler has a tantrum, it’s because these emotions have built up inside him. All of a sudden he’s on the floor screaming because he’s angry, upset and scared, and doesn’t know how to handle these strong feelings. Don’t shy away from this behaviour, instead show your child that you are not afraid of these emotions. Stay close, and name the emotions when it is appropriate to do so, tell him you hear him. By narrating these meltdowns you can help him to develop the skills to deal with his own emotions.
#6: Remember, You’re In It For The Long Game
Even the best parents have moments of weakness. After all, it’s so much easier to bribe or coerce your children into doing things than go through the rigmarole of negotiations. Whenever you can feel yourself leaning towards the easy way out, just take a moment to focus on the long game. By giving your child the space, power and support to assert himself now, you are helping him to develop a strong sense of self, and teaching him that his opinion matters. You are giving your child the chance to grow up to be an adult who questions things, and who isn’t afraid to argue for what he believes in. Most importantly, you’re raising a child who knows is emotionally intelligent. Sure, it’s not easy now, but you might get a mention in that future Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech!
#7: It’s Not About You
You’re tired, you have a headache, the house needs tidying, you have a mountain of paperwork to do and you just really don’t have the energy to argue about whether eating lunch is compulsory or not. You’re having a bad day – it’s ok, it happens to everyone! But (and it’s a BIG but) your toddler is having a bad day too. It might not be unpaid bills, work deadlines or the lack of clean clothes stressing him out, but he’s clearly suffering under the strain of something. And he doesn’t yet have the skills to process all of that stress, understand his emotions and control himself. Give him a break and model for him the right way to handle daily stress.
#8: Own Your Mistakes
In a perfect world, your toddler wouldn’t know what a raised voice sounded like. He would go from toddler meltdown to supermarket tantrum with only supportive and loving parents by his side. But, you know what, parents are human. You have bad days, illnesses, stress, appointments to get to, emotional needs and a whole bunch of other demands on your already depleted supply of energy. Sometimes you shout, say things you shouldn’t, or revert into a parenting style you never wanted to use. It happens. But when it does, make sure you explain it. Apologise for your slip up and explain why it wasn’t the right thing to do. Your toddler will learn a lot from you admitting your mistakes. This reminds them that you are only human, too.