Your toddler’s independence can come as a major challenge to what you thought you knew.
One of the continual trials of parenting is adapting to your child’s ever-changing needs. Just as you’re getting the hang of one stage, you’re thrust into the next.
When your child reaches toddlerhood, this is especially jarring. As a baby, you were everything to your child. You were his manager and constant monitor, and did so much for him. As such, when your toddler wants independence, you’re bound to be reluctant to hand it over.
The “callousness” of toddler independence
2 year old Ava has developed a great bond with her mother, Mia. She trusts her completely, and knows that mother knows best.
All of a sudden, Ava no longer wants mommy’s help. She wants to get dressed by herself. She wants to eat by herself. She most definitely wants to play be herself.
Mia feels a sense of betrayal. When she tries to help Ava get dressed, Ava shouts “No!” In light of their great relationship, this independence almost seems callous.
The frustration of toddler independence
Ethan has recently turned 3. His dad, Pete, loves helping Ethan explore this brand new world. He helps him out with everything.
But Ethan wants to be an independent toddler. He tries to climb by himself, play by himself, eat by himself. And Pete wants Ethan to gain independence. It’s just that Ethan is so bad at it!
It takes Ethan ages to get dressed. Ten minutes later, Ethan has messed all his food on his clothes and needs to change! Pete’s time with his son has become so frustrating.
The importance of this stage
Back in 1958, Erik Erikson developed his theory of psychosocial stages. At each stage, the child faces a crisis. If they successfully complete each stage, they will develop a healthy and strong personality.
The stage which toddlers go through is that of autonomy vs. shame & doubt. The child is discovering his or her abilities. He’s discovering he can do things without his parent’s help. He is discovering his independence or autonomy.
But this independence comes with a challenge we are all familiar with. Failure. When a child fails at a task, s/he feels shame and doubt. “Can I do this?”
The response of the parents is crucial but also complicated. If the parents respond with frustration and control, the child will lose faith in his abilities. He’ll feel shame for not being good enough. If the parent helps too much, even in a friendly and affectionate manner, the child will doubt his ability to complete the task on his own.
On the other hand, if the parents give the child too much independence, the child will feel abandoned. He’ll feel the need to do everything himself, and will find it hard later in life to ask for help.
While independence is vital, it should not come at the cost of developing healthy, mutually supportive relationships. No one can truly go it alone, and this is as important a lesson for a child to learn.
Finding a balance
It is difficult for parents to give their child the “right” amount of autonomy. Especially after infancy, when the child is mostly dependent, it is hard to give up the control you’ve had. Your child’s newfound autonomy might leave you feeling betrayed and unneeded.
It might also leave you frustrated, as you watch your child struggle to do things you could so easily help with.
Furthermore, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some infants will strive towards autonomy by themselves. They need to know that their parents are there when they need them. Others might not want to try at all. They need to be encouraged by their parents towards independence.
Acknowledging our own needs
It is hard to find the balance, but the first step is to recognize the difference between what you need and your child needs. You will feel a sense of abandonment – that is inevitable. And you will sometimes feel frustration.
The key is to not let this blur your understanding of your child’s needs. Acknowledge your own feelings, and find a safe space to express them. That could be with your partner, friends, or even activities that help you let off some steam.
My book, The Enigma of Childhood, addresses many of the crucial concepts and practical advice on how to join the journey into the depths of your child’s emotional development, recognize his needs and his crises, and also address your own childhood experiences.
Once you learn not to get caught up in the tidal waves of emotion, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what to do. You will make your own judgment on when your child needs more space, and when he needs encouragement and help.
With this balance, your toddler will begin his journey to a healthy independence.