Toddler Development: Tips for Navigating Their Emotional World

Many new milestones mark your child's transition from infancy to toddlerhood. Learn tips for dealing with tantrums, lots of 'no,' and a world of discovery.




Sometime within a few months of his first birthday, your baby will learn to walk without help. When he does, he leaves the more placid phase of infancy behind and is renamed a "toddler." After taking his first independent steps (often to his own astonishment), it may be days, even weeks, before your toddler-in-training trusts the upright position to really work for him. He'll crawl when he is in a hurry, then walk, crawl again, creep, walk a bit more.

What matters most is getting to a goal — reaching an intriguing toy or smiling parent. We might say true toddlerhood begins when the act of navigating upright becomes a goal in itself. You spot a "Look at me; I'm doing it!" expression; and soon your former baby is ready to walk across the continent, unless you stop him. He is positively gleeful, so joyous about the mastery of this new way of moving that he puts aside fears of being away from his home base. Once walking becomes routine, the independent guy often has a jolting realization that being safe requires at least one of his special people to be close by. For a while he will toddle only within sight of this person, then return for a "refueling" — often bearing a gift discovered on his travels.

During this busy transition time, you'll notice some major developments in your child's social and emotional skills.

Negatives, Tantrums, and "No!"
More than at any other phase of development until early adolescence, toddlerhood is marked by an ongoing conflict between the urge for autonomy and an equal desire to be safe. That may be why toddlers (and 12 to 15-year-olds too!) have the reputation of being negative, contrary, grouchy, or any other term used to convey their parents' bewilderment and consternation about their children's puzzling behavior. One moment your little one is demanding independence; the next, she is clinging. This core conflict may largely explain the tantrums and power struggles — often associated with toilet training in toddlers and personal grooming in young teens. "Whose body is it, anyway?" both groups of children seem to be asking.

A limited command over language, especially in early toddlerhood, often causes frustration. When your little one can't make her compelling needs and desires known, she may resort to temper tantrums. Psychologist Alicia Lieberman points out in her wonderful book, The Emotional Life of the Toddler, that there are four other factors contributing to the "upheavals between parents and toddlers": disagreements about "what is safe and what is not; about the toddler's desire to have it all; the opposition and negativism that accompany this new sense of personal will; and the temper tantrums that may follow when the parent says no."

  • What to do: While your toddler seems determined to impose her will, she is also very eager to please you. So pile on the praise when she endures frustration or does a good job at anything at all. In Lieberman's words, "This wish for approval is the parent's most reliable ally in the process of socializing the child. Appealing to it is far more effective and much healthier than threats of punishment."

Pride and Power
This is, as I suggested, an exuberant age — a time of wonder, exploration, and discovery; and most of all, a time when your child delights in his growing personal mastery. He finds he can make things happen: not only cause the jack-in-the-box to jump, but make Mommy smile or frown. He can point to what he wants with grunts and real words mixed with gibberish, early attempts at language. When you respond, two-way communication happens and becomes a window into the real world and a step toward further mastery.

  • What to do: Join your toddler in play. Tune in to what he is feeling and tell him you are doing it. Become a play partner, allowing him to remain in command of pretending. Show your respect and admiration for his accomplishments, for his creativity and originality. Respond to the ideas he is trying to express with both gestures and words: "Oh, you want more juice! Here's some." Try to put his intentions into words: "Ah yes, you want a hug. Me, too!" As he grows, he'll use these skills to communicate with peers and teachers.

The New World of Pretend
At this age, your child begins to express ideas and feelings through true imaginative play. The dolly falls down and cries; the kangaroo "Mommy" comforts her. Your toddler will begin to share her feelings and start to solve problems through such play. She will also start to use words to express her feelings too. "Mommy up!" means please pick me up.

  • What to do: Be there; be attentive and responsive. Show that you understand and enjoy your child's budding signs of reasoning. When you comply with her request for a kiss or a cuddle, you encourage further communication and a sense of feeling understood.

Lots to Say
From about 18 months on, language growth is dramatic. In the last year and a half of toddlerhood (from 18 months to age 3), your child delights in naming everything and in forming short phrases, then more complex sentences. Some toddlers are more inclined toward action than words, but virtually all love to talk, as well as tell and hear stories. They are getting ready for the calmer life of a socially engaged preschooler.

  • What to do: Support your child's efforts by listening and responding to his words. Have patience with his endless requests to know "what dat" or his retellings of a recent incident. Satisfy his thirst for new words with books, songs, and everyday conversation.
Social & Emotional Skills
Independent Thinking
Self Control
Listening and Speaking
Age 1
Age 3
Age 2
Child Development and Behavior
Communication and Language Development
Games and Toys