Toddlerhood has two contrasting stages that can puzzle parents and caregivers. The first starts in the beginning of the second year, when a baby takes those first wildly staggering steps in an attempt to stand erect while moving unsupported. When he succeeds, joy reigns supreme!
The next stage comes in the middle of the second year. Babies begin to use their new thinking powers and may get grouchy as they figure out that parents and caregivers can no longer cater immediately to their every need. Without warning, the rules have changed: a child now has to wait a bit for dinner; an adult playmate may not be available on demand; a parent who has been a constant presence may be back at work full time.
- Great Expectations: In addition, the adults in a toddler's life now expect more mature behaviors. We want toddlers to use a spoon rather than dig into food with fingers. We insist that grabbed toys be returned to their rightful owners. And, most annoyingly, we ask that the toys be shared! Struggling to understand these new rules is hard work for toddlers. Some toddlers become more low key; others become more defiant. Both responses are attempts to cope with the sweeping changes from early babyhood — when any cry brought prompt, tender care.
- Emotional Swings: Toddlers' emotions will often seesaw wildly now. On one hand, they want to be on their own and grow toward more assertiveness, self-will, and independence. ("No!" and "Do it myself" become favorite refrains.) On the other hand, they're longing to still be cuddled and protected. The likely result is overwhelming frustration. For example, a toddler who wrestles with a puzzle piece but cannot make it fit will commonly react by sweeping the puzzle to the floor and throwing himself with passionate sobs into his caregiver's arms.
- Balancing Act: So what does a wise adult do during these rocky emotional times? First, offer reassurance, and boost the child's courage to try again. If adults do not provide new challenges in judicious doses, they may dampen the toddler's motivation to grow toward more independence.
In addition, offer toddlers limited choices ("Do you want apple juice or orange juice?"), and be as patient as you can be. Anger and indignation at what parents and caregivers may view as defiance and disobedience can crush a toddler's spirit. Adult fury leads to gray moods and loss of toddler joy.
At all costs, be careful not to shame toddlers. Check your words and take care not to call a toddler "bad" for having toileting accidents, saying "no," or being clumsy. When a toddler's struggle toward independence is ridiculed, scolded, ignored, or punished, the result is often rage or deliberate hurting of others. Make every effort to support your toddler with firm, calm words and gestures. Empathize with this difficult emotional stage. Offer a hug when he dissolves into frustrated tears. If you can't be there, make sure to leave a "blankie" or other self-soother with your child's caregiver.
If you work patiently with your child to face the difficulties in the drive toward independence, he'll learn how to calm himself, wait patiently, and cope with stressful social situations. Just remember that there's no quick fix: All new emotional learning takes time.