The toddler is a human being between the ages of about 2 and 5 years. This is a very dynamic phase. By 2 years, the toddler is walking and starting to talk. Exploration is of high interest as is saying “no.” The early part of this phase is often referred to as “the terrible two’s” because the toddler is not only getting into everything around the house but is practicing the very, very important skill of refusal. The toddler is beginning to experiment with his or her individual will power and control of situations. The toddler is working, even at this early stage, in developing a sense of autonomy and initiative, purpose and direction. The toddler’s ability to walk allows a departure from mother’s constant presence (and control). The toddler is expanding, growing and maturing. These are fundamental needs of the toddler beyond the biological basics of food shelter and clothing. Certainly, safety continues to be of considerable importance. However, the growing mind of the toddler requires moving into new territory, new sensations, new experience, and their will naturally be risks involved.
Some of the things parents can do to encourage and support this stage of development include:
- “baby proof” the house so as to allow safe explorations without the need of constant supervision and having to stop the toddler from exploring.
- Allow the toddler to struggle and sometimes fail. You’d be surprised at the resilience and determination of a toddler. For example, if a toddler is trying to climb up on the couch, do not go and pick up the toddler and put him/her on the couch. Let the toddler do it on their own. The parent can observe and be present just in case, but the toddler must be allowed to try, struggle, fail, retry and achieve. This is very important for the development of autonomy and initiative. If a toddler’s sense of autonomy is thwarted, shame and doubt can develop. Impulsivity and compulsion can be symptoms of a weakened sense of autonomy. If initiative is thwarted, ruthlessness or inhibition can develop as compensation.
- Allow the toddler to refuse. Certainly not all the time. But, it is important for the toddler to have the experience of having some control and this is often gained by refusing.
- Set up choices and honor a toddler’s choice when not harmful or totally inappropriate. For example, you can present two different cereals for breakfast and the toddler can choose amongst those two. Do not provide a set of choices and then disallow what the toddler chooses.
- Play. The toddler’s world is highly imaginative; pure basic fun play is very important at this stage. Although parents can play with the toddler, solitary play time is also important. Colorful building blocks and the other age appropriate items are useful but not necessary as a toddler will be happy with pots and pans, blocks of wood and various household items as well.
- Toilet training should be accomplished during this period. There are many good publications about healthy toilet training which do not undermine the toddler’s autonomy and sense of control but actually enhance it.
- Parents should pay particular attention to their own speech and behavior as toddlers are excellent mimic and will imitate much of what their parents say and do. This is not to say that parents need to be perfect. In fact, it is much healthier for a toddler to observe and internalize parents that are genuine and authentic than fake. However parents need to be “on the same page” when it comes to rules, regulations, discipline, chores, etc…so there is uniformity.
At this stage, he toddler is still very much in need of a stable structure and routine. Much of the toddler’s autonomy and initiative is built on the premise of an established structure. If there is no base structure, all the initiative that would go into developing autonomy goes into finding the structure. You can view the toddler as a blind person reaching out with their arms and hands trying to find the walls of the room. Once they know where the walls are, they can move freely within the room. The toddler will test the limits, try to push them. The toddler is seeking those walls within the room which are solid, not moveable. Once those unshakeable walls and rules are known, the toddler, now moving into childhood, will feel safe and secure, able to experiment with their own initiative and autonomy.
The primary model for the toddler has shifted from the mother as the exclusive parent to both mother and father, in a traditional nuclear family. In single parent homes, the toddler will model the single dominant adult. There is no doubt that a single parent household provides less modeling and interactive observations. However, in our modern day, that’s just the way it is. The nuclear family too is somewhat limited in that the toddler only internalizes one set of adult interaction. In more traditional and indigenous cultures, toddlers observe, model and internalize the behaviors from a much larger group of adults
Regardless of what has occurred during the toddler phase, the next developmental stage arrives with its own set of needs, challenges and crisis.