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Almost all toddlers get frustrated, want independence, are keen to learn and don’t like being away from you. Knowing this will help you make the most of your relationship with your toddler.
Toddler holding mum's thumb
 

Toddlers: what you need to know

The word ‘toddler’ represents the ages between approximately 1-3½ years. It not only describes the unique way that toddlers walk, but also the mind-boggling rate of development and thought going on in their brains. By three years of age, a child’s brain will be 80% the size of an adult’s, with an enormous amount of development still to go.

Toddlers:

  • have feelings can sometimes be too much for them, but they often can’t find the words to tell you what’s wrong
  • are torn between their fear of being separated from you and their longing for independence
  • are just coming to grips with the idea that they can change the way the world works.
If you can help your toddler with all these things, you’ll be well on the way to having a great relationship.

Helping your toddler handle separation

  • Talk to your toddler about times when you’ll need to be apart. Children feel more secure if they know when they’re going to be left alone, where they’ll be, and when you’ll be back – especially if it’s all part of an identifiable routine.
  • When your toddler is going to another caregiver, let your child take favourite objects from home (a blanket, a toy). This gives children the feeling of taking their home life with them even though they’re somewhere else.
  • Make a book with family photos, pets and your house for leaving with your child at child care.
  • Speak to caregivers about standard routines and how special events are handled so they can continue these outside the home.
  • Play games that focus on concepts such as object permanence – peekaboo, hide and seek or dramatic play with animals and toys that disappear and then reappear. These games help your child understand that things still exist, even when they can’t be seen.
  • Ask your child’s caregiver to talk about you when you are absent. Remind your child that you’ll be returning.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of children’s development. Read more about separation anxiety.

Helping your toddler deal with frustration and emotional control

  • Teach your toddler words or gestures to use when your toddler feels frustrated or needs help.
  • Be clear when you tell your toddler what to do. For example, ‘It’s not your turn to play with the blocks yet. Let’s do something else now. Then we can play when it’s your turn’.
  • If your child is doing something you don’t like – particularly if your child is getting angry or frustrated – try distraction or redirecting your child into another activity. For example, if your child is fighting with someone over a Bob the Builder toy, start talking about Thomas the Tank Engine.
  • Help your child put feelings into words. For example, ‘You’re upset because you ripped your picture. Let’s paint another one’.
  • When your child gets going on a temper tantrum, try to stay calm. This makes your child feel safe. It also teaches emotional control by example. Also, try to remember times of the day or things such as hunger or fatigue that trigger tantrums. If you can make adjustments in advance, you might be able to reduce the intensity of the tantrum.
  • When your child flies off the handle, this behaviour is partly about  seeing what sort of responses your child will get. Your response can have a powerful influence on your child’s behaviour and ability to control emotions. If you stay calm and don’t give in to tantrums, you’re helping your child learn to deal with frustration.
If you’re looking for positive ways to deal with your toddler’s frustration and emotions, read our article on temper tantrums. You can also check out our behaviour toolkit for toddlers.

Supporting your toddler’s need for independence

  • Praise your child for bravery. Let your child know that you’re there to provide security when it’s needed. Encourage your child’s independence, and be there if when help is needed.
  • Allow your child to make simple choices, such as a banana or an apple for a snack, red or yellow shoes, or a book to read. Toddlers love making decisions. Giving choices is an excellent way to help build confidence in your child.
  • Let your child make mistakes – that’s how your child learns. Also, allow your child to experiment with things, such as moving around playground equipment in different ways. As long as children are safe, these experiences encourage curiosity and confidence.
  • Provide lots of guidance and initiate games of sharing and turn-taking.
  • Let your child help you with sweeping, making a snack, or other work around the house. This helps children feel ‘big’. At the same time, it’s important to keep up special rituals like a bedtime story to let toddlers know they’re still your ‘baby’.

Encouraging thinking, problem-solving and other skills

  • Show your child you’re interested in play. Let children decide what games they like.
  • Encourage make-believe play, which stimulates the imagination and lets children work through ideas.
  • If your child is talking or moving, doing things over and over again will help your child’s brain build pathways that strengthen skills. Taking the cutlery out of the drawer and putting it back, then taking it out and putting it back, and so on, will help your child develop motor skills. Re-reading the same books might get a bit boring for parents, but kids love the familiarity and sense of being able to predict what will happen.
  • Incorporate play into everyday routines so your toddler will get involved. Give your child chances to be physically, socially and emotionally involved in activities. Comment as your child’s abilities and independence develop: ‘Good work! You did that all by yourself’.
The relationships a toddler has with parents – and later with other children – are extremely important. It’s in these relationships that toddlers learn their social skills.
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  • Last Updated 20-05-2010
  • Last Reviewed 01-03-2010
  • Pope Edwards, C., & Liu, W. (2002). Parenting Toddlers. In M.H. Bornstein (Ed) The handbook of parenting, Vol 1, 45-72. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Thompson, R.A. (1998). Early sociopersonality development. In W.Damon & N. Eisenberg (Eds). Handbook of child psychology, Vol 3, (5th ed), 25-104. US: Wiley.