Toddlers are amazing learners. They want to communicate with you – but get frustrated when they can’t find the right words. They want independence too – but don’t like being away from you. Understanding toddlers helps you connect with your child.
Toddlers: what you need to know
The word ‘toddler’ represents the ages between approximately 1 and 3½ years.
‘Toddler’ 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.
- want to be independent, but fear being separated from you
- have big feelings, but can’t always control them or find the words to express them
- are discovering 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 toddlers handle separation
Separation anxiety is a normal part of children’s development. But there are times when you and your child need to be apart – for example, when he goes to child care or is looked after by other carers.
Here are some ideas for helping your toddler handle separation from you.
Preparing for separation
You can talk to your toddler about times when you’ll need to be apart. Children feel more secure if they know when you’re going to be away, where they’ll be, and when you’ll be back – especially if it’s all part of a routine they know.
If your toddler goes to child care or has carers other than you, it’s a good idea to let carers and educators know about your family routines. They might be able to stick to your routines, which can help your child feel more secure when you’re not there.
Feeling connected to home
When your toddler is going to another carer, let her take favourite objects from home – for example, a blanket or toy. This can give children the feeling of taking their home life with them even though they’re somewhere else.
Another good idea is to make a book with photos of family, pets and your house. Your child can take the book to child care.
Learning that you still exist
Toddlers take time to learn that things still exist even when the things can’t be seen – this is called object permanence.
To help your child learn that you still exist when you’re not with him, you can play games like peekaboo and hide-and-seek, or do dramatic play with animals and toys that disappear and then reappear.
It can also help if your child’s educator or caregiver talks about you when you’re not there. And when you go, let your child know that you’ll be coming back.
Leading by example
Your child takes her lead from you, so you want to show your child that you aren’t worried about separation. You can do this by:
- keeping any worries about separation to yourself
- leaving quickly once you’ve said goodbye
- avoiding language like ‘Don’t be scared’ or ‘Be brave’
- not promising treats when you come back.
Helping your toddler deal with frustration and strong emotions
It’s normal for toddlers to have feelings that can sometimes be too much for them – they want to say what they feel, but they often can’t find the words. This can be very frustrating for them and can lead to temper tantrums and other challenging behaviour.
Here are some ideas to help.
Teaching emotion skills
If your toddler is getting frustrated, staying calm yourself will help to prevent your toddler’s emotions escalating. Toddlers feel better if they know that you’re in control.
It’s also good to help your child put feelings into words, by teaching him words or gestures that express big feelings. For example, ‘You’re upset because you ripped your picture’.
Responding to your child’s emotions
Face-to-face, eye-level communication can help your toddler feel that you’re talking with her, not at her. Try getting down to your toddler’s level by kneeling or squatting when you’re talking to her.
When 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.
When your child has a tantrum, this behaviour is partly about seeing what sort of responses he can get. Your response can have a powerful influence on your child’s behaviour and ability to control emotions. Staying calm and not giving in to tantrums shows your child how to deal with frustration.
Supporting your toddler’s need for independence
Here are some practical ideas for supporting your child’s developing independence and confidence by tuning into her desire to make decisions and choices:
Praise your child for having a go when he tries something new – even if it isn’t successful or doesn’t work out.
- Let your child make simple choices from limited options – for example, choosing between a banana or an apple for a snack, deciding on red or yellow shoes, or picking a book to read.
- Let your child make ‘safe’ mistakes – that’s how your child learns. Also, let your child experiment with things like how to move around on playground equipment.
- Encourage your child to help you with sweeping, making a snack, or other chores around the house, including putting away toys.
help toddlers feel ‘big’ and good about themselves. 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
Using play to learn
- Play with your child, and follow your child’s lead by letting her decide what games to play. If your child wants you to choose, encourage games that involve turn-taking and sharing.
- Encourage make-believe play, which stimulates the imagination and lets children work through ideas.
- Incorporate play into everyday routines – for example, playing in the bath, or singing a song while packing away toys.
Building brain pathways
- Give your child the chance to repeat favourite activities. This helps your child’s brain build pathways that strengthen skills. For example, taking the cutlery out of the drawer and putting it back, again and again, helps your child develop motor and problem-solving skills.
- Reading the same books over and over might get a bit boring for you, but kids love the familiarity. You can build your child’s thinking skills by asking, ‘What happens next?’
- Aim for no screen time for children under two years, and no more than one hour a day for children over two years. Toddlers develop best through physical play with hands-on experiences.