Thinking games to play with your toddler and young child
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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Toddler development & learning

Why is my toddler so independent?

The path to independence is uniquely slow in human beings. It's a long process, not a one-off event - ask any parent of a college student! As animals go we have the longest childhood of any species. Toddlerhood is the first time that our children become mobile and motivated to exert choice.
In Short
Toddlerhood is the first time that our children become proactive, and start saying NO a lot!

Toddlers need help to regulate their emotions.

They need to understand rules and boundaries in a way that makes them feel that you are on their side.

Toddlers can have separation anxiety. They need to develop coping skills so they know that when you say goodbye, you will come back.

Toddlers have strong impulses to explore and will often respond with anger and aggression if they are prevented from doing what they want.

Toddlers should be allowed to try, fail and improve at lots of new skills - putting on socks, baking, balancing, and so on. However, as they are not able to access risk they should always be carefully supervised.

As a parent, it’s quite a moment when you’re toddler first says an emphatic ‘No!’ The ‘no’ milestone should be celebrated and respected. This doesn’t mean giving in to every demand, but don’t see this as a continual battle of wills where all opposition must be quashed to avoid raising a brat. So many parents exhaust themselves and their toddlers by making huge battles out of everything. Choosing your battles will need to be a central pillar of your parenting style with your toddler.

  • Your toddler is incapable of absorbing a logical argument when she is upset.
  • Battles deregulate your toddler’s emotions further and she loses control.
  • Squashing your toddler’s opinion doesn’t broaden her understanding.
  • Battles are upsetting and tiring for both of you.
  • Constant battles can create unnecessary adversarial patterns.
  • Your toddler may withdraw if you battle with her.
  • Your toddler may amplify her behaviour and become more aggressive.

Try to remember that your toddler needs your help to regulate her emotions. She needs to understand the rules and boundaries in a way that makes her feel that you are on her side not in opposition to her. This is particularly important as she will need to feel that you are her secure base of unconditional love.

Separation anxiety and independence

Separation and independence develop in recognised stages from birth. Newborn babies do not even ‘know’ that you are separate from them. From around 6 months, babies begin to realise that their parents are separate from them and can leave them alone. This can lead to separation anxiety, where previously relaxed babies can become very clingy and frightened every time their parents leave the room. Separation anxiety is common from 8 months of age, but can still be very powerful in toddlers too.

If your toddler has separation anxiety or is ‘clingy’ it is important to respect their fear and help them to develop coping skills, and to learn that you will come back. This means saying goodbye when you are leaving, explaining you are coming back, providing comfort objects, such as a teddy bear, and of course leaving them with someone who cares for them and acts as their secure base in your absence.

Your exploring toddler

One classic characteristic of the toddler stage is wanting things their own way. Toddlers have strong impulses to explore and will often respond with anger and aggression if they are incapable of, or prevented from, doing what they want.

Toddlers are innately curious about the world around them and as soon as they are mobile they will seek out new experiences. This is an important process, taking them from helpless infant, to learning child, to independent adult. However, it can be very hard work for you as a parent, as toddlers are working to their agenda (exploring the planet) and their own timetable (now!) and do not care about your plans. We are all very familiar with toddlers who are becoming increasingly independent. They want to do things themselves, they want to choose where they go and what they do, and they are very loud and vocal about it! Toddlers soon learn to say ‘no’ and ‘me do it.’

They are not yet able to empathise with another person’s needs so can seem very single-minded and focused on their own agenda. This means they will run off to explore, or stay behind to investigate, or get angry if they are unable to explore. This is compounded by the fact that toddlers can’t yet express themselves fully and so become easily frustrated when their parents don’t understand what they want to do.

Imagine if you had just arrived on a new planet and kept being frustrated in your attempts to explore and understand this new world – it would be infuriating. This is how toddlers feel when you insist they ignore all the fascinating things around them and go with you quickly to do something they are not interested in. All children should be encouraged to develop their independence at a comfortable pace and you will need to build in time to accommodate this.

Common toddler independence dilemmas

There will be several flashpoints when you need to accommodate your toddler’s independence.

1. Travelling from A to B

Toddlers tend to see the journey as important as the destination so you will need to leave earlier than if you were travelling by yourself.

2. Learning a new skill

Toddlers will become less and less happy to be passive in your care. This emerging desire for self-care needs to be encouraged. It takes a lot of patience – as you will appreciate if you’ve ever been running late while your toddler insists on putting on her own socks or gloves!

3. Encountering a novel item

You may have seen hundreds of dishwashers, dogs and dandelion clocks but to toddlers they notice all the new things around them and are strongly driven to investigate them. Remember how you have felt when you have visited a foreign country and seen a Japanese toilet or a bidet (apologies for the loo-based examples but these are times when I have felt the fascination of a toddler with a novel item!).

4. Time management

Toddlers run to a very different clock to adults. Sometimes their clock is running at high speed as their attention flits from one thing to the next and they can’t seem to stay still. At other times their clock is running at slow speed. They are in the zone with something and experiencing ‘flow’ – they are utterly engrossed and time stands still for them – and for you!

I am not suggesting that your toddler’s agenda should run everything. Rather, that by understanding the reality of how your toddler’s emerging independence will play out during the day, you can manage your own schedule and expectations as well as your toddler’s.

Intrepid versus cautious explorers

Not all toddlers are the same. For every thrill-seeking toddler, there will be a toddler who is more cautious and finds new people and experiences stressful. This so-called ‘behavioural inhibition’ seems to be quite hard-wired and it is important to respond to their individual needs.

So shy, cautious toddlers will need lots of encouragement and to see their parents:

  • Picking up worms and bugs.
  • Getting dirty.
  • Jumping off things.
  • Meeting new people and engaging with other toddlers.
  • Getting stuck into new activities with confidence and pleasure.

On the other hand, some toddlers are so bold and impulsive that they will need more messages about being safe, slowing down, etc. If you have a bold and independent toddler, it is a good idea to take her to big spaces so that you can safely supervise her without micro-managing and stultifying her play. Soft play centres can be great as the areas have been designed to promote exploration and physical activity without the need for you to helicopter around her. When you are out and about it can help to choose locations where you have a big line of sight so that you can give your toddler a free rein. Good examples include:

  • Big, safe beaches at low tide.
  • Empty tennis courts in the morning.
  • Empty skate parks before the teenagers get up and descend on the place.
  • Big open commons, parks or fields with ‘nowhere to hide’.

Your role is to be your toddler’s secure base from which they explore the world. It seems counter-intuitive but children who have the securest bonds with their parents are more likely to become independent, resilient and confident. As a parent, this means being consistent, loving your child and spending time interacting with her.

Choose a safe environment to let them explore

Toddlers should be allowed to try, fail and improve at lots of new skills; putting on socks, baking, balancing, etc. However, toddlers are not able to assess lots of risks they encounter when they are out and about. Choose locations that don’t have dangerous traffic, large drops, deep water, etc. if you want to give your child freedom to explore safely.

However, toddlers also need to slowly learn to be safe in their environment. This means teaching them rules which are non-negotiable. If you choose your battles it makes it easier to have your list of non-negotiable boundaries. These rules might include:

  • If you are walking down a busy road your toddler needs to hold your hand or go in the pram.
  • They have to wear their harness in the car, pram and highchair.
  • All toddlers need to learn that ‘Stop!’ means stop. You can play games to help them learn the concept that they freeze when you say ‘Stop!’ or ‘Freeze!”

However, it’s best not to over-control their experiences. For example, rather than say ‘No don’t bite the lemon’ a child will have a safe but unpleasant experience by biting into it. Let them have lots of different but safe experiences.

Rather than rein in your toddler’s independence, it can be easier to try and choose a safe environment that allows her lots of freedom to play and explore. Children who constantly hear ‘be careful, be careful’ are more likely to become anxious. Make sure the environment provides lots of opportunities to take safe risks; balancing on stepping stones, jumping in puddles, picking up creepy crawlies.

Stubborn and ardent clinging to one’s opinion is the best proof of stupidity.
Michel de Montaigne

With a burgeoning independence can come an almost comical stubbornness in your toddler.

This self-destructive stubbornness is familiar to all parents of toddlers. Whether your toddler is adamant she doesn’t want a coat in the snow, insists that she wants to taste the vindaloo curry or insists on paddling in the freezing puddle in sneakers, it seems at these moments that all ‘social referencing’ of their parents’ behaviour and advice goes out the window.

I think a sense of humour is a vital tool for any parent of a toddler because toddlers are loveable and ludicrous in equal measure. You have to be in awe of their chutzpah and joie de vivre but at the same time help them as they learn about cause and effect.

Top Tip: If your toddler insists on having a lemon for pudding it’s fine to let them learn the sour lesson, and that your suggestion would have been more delicious. Obviously, if the choice is dangerous or hurts someone else you wouldn’t indulge it – but try to be charmed rather than exasperated by their tenacity.
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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.