Social and Emotional Development in Toddler Years
I can’t count how many times a mother comes to the office in tears because she feels that she has run out of tricks in her bag to deal with her toddler. Feelings of frustration, bewilderment and guilt come hand in hand with surviving the toddler years. One of the major dilemmas for parents is how to balance discipline with freedom, and create limits. Parents are left to follow their hearts, gut feelings and of course, their children’s cues to guide them.
Social and emotional development involves three major areas: the home, school/daycare, and the neighborhood. Of all of these, the home is the most influential in a child’s life: it is here that parents and children establish a secure foundation from which to venture forth confidently. The challenges that face a toddler include acceptance of limits while maintaining autonomy. Toddlers learn how to rein in aggressive impulses and interact with a growing circle of playmates and adults. Success in attaining this goal is based on prior emotional development, occasionally using images of trusted adults to give them security in times of adversity or stress.
Many parents find their toddler perplexing and difficult to understand and children of this age have rapid, frequent shifts between clinging dependence and defiant independence; between sophisticated-sounding language and infantile helplessness, and between pure joy and uncontrollable rage. These confusing behaviors can put a toll on the parents’ confidence and patience. Your pediatrician can offer you guidance emphasizing realistic expectations for behavioral and emotional development as well as acknowledging parents’ feelings of guilt, anger and confusion. A lot of moms and dads are hesitant to raise such concerns during their doctor’s visit because they feel embarrassed or assume that this is not an appropriate topic for discussion.
Toddlers, in general, need leadership. They need clear, realistic, firm but gentle guidance as well as praise and support when they are due. Sometimes, the best way to lead is simply to serves as a good example. Watching parents clean up spilled food or, even better, allowing him to help (when old enough) is an effective teaching tool. The old-fashioned message of “do as I say, not as I do,” is being rejected by many modern parents with whom I speak. Modeling the behavior that you hope to elicit from your child is the best way to teach the lesson. And remember that your commitment to establishing order, discipline, and responsibility should be modeled with or without your toddler’s participation. In other words, even before your toddler is old enough to clean up after herself, she will watch YOU creating an environment that is orderly and has limits. Eventually, she will want to mimic this herself.
The first step in emotionally bonding with your toddler is to acknowledge, understand, respect, and meet their needs. Toddlers love to play and experiment and they need their parents’ votes of confidence. For instance, allowing a child to occasionally make a “mess” within acceptable boundaries during playtime allows him to feel worthy as well as trust your leadership and guidance. When limits are set, children respond, not out of fear or because they were threatened with punishment, but because they want to reciprocate the care and love that’s been given. Again, there must be a healthy balance between empowering your child by allowing him free expression, and saying” no” when the child wants something that may pose harm to himself and others, or is unhealthy or simply not feasible. Your toddler can handle accepting the limits of reality as long as he knows that you understand his feelings and love him unconditionally. Another pearl of wisdom I share with parents is that toddlers are not much different than we are in many respects; after all, what adult doesn’t like to have their feelings acknowledged and accepted, even if they are irrational?
It’s wise for parents to master the art of ”trusting and waiting.” Try to trust your ability to teach and lead and wait for your children to model your behavior at their own pace. Children respond best to modeling and following leaders as opposed to control. Look at the long-term goal for your child’s sense of self over momentary convenience. Enjoying your toddler for who he is and not what you want him to be is key. Parents have to separate their own emotional needs from what their child feels and needs. Lastly, embrace your child’s uniqueness as well as your own. Your toddler is his own person with his own motives and individual qualities. Every stage in a child’s life has its own purpose and we simply need to acknowledge and respect their needs fully during every stage, allowing them to mature and move on to the next phase.
*The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the writer.
Dr. Pearl Cenon
A pediatrician in private practice in New Jersey for over 15 years, Dr. Cenon (we like to call her Dr. Pearl) also has two children of her own. Dr. Pearl’s husband, Kevin McDonough is also a pediatrician and they work together. She writes basic posts about topics that interest many parents, from skin care and nutrition to seasonal issues, such as allergies and colds. Her kind, approachable tone in each blog post will have you looking forward to the next one.