Tips on Helping a Toddler Learn to Be More Independent
Helping a toddler ease into independence is all about helping the child break away from the mother in order to learn about their environment and about themselves; the mother needs to let her child go and learn how to maintain their connection over a longer distance. As with so many aspects of discipline, it’s a question of balance; giving the child enough slack to become independent, yet keeping the connection. A mother does not let her child go off entirely on their own, but she also doesn’t allow them to hang onto her skirt. Throughout the second year, parents may feel they are walking a fine line between being over restrictive and being negligent. One way carries the risk of hindering a baby’s development, and the other allows the baby to hurt themselves or others or damage property. Here are some ways of helping a toddler ease into independence.
Play “out of sight” games
Beginning around nine months or sometimes earlier, try playing peek-a-boo and chase each other around the furniture. As you hide your face with your hands or you hide your body on the other side of the couch, your baby has the opportunity to imagine that you exist even though you’re out of sight.
Helping a toddler by separating gradually
Best odds for a baby developing a healthy sense of self is for the baby to separate from the mother and not the mother from the baby. Discipline problems are less likely to occur when babies separate from their mothers gradually. While the baby characteristics inside the toddler remains connected, the toddler characteristics make the child feel more secure to go off on their own. The connected child takes a bit of their mother with them for comfort and advice during their explorations. It’s like having the best of both worlds — oneness, yet separateness. We learned to appreciate this similar feeling during our family sailing adventures. Because our sailboat was fitted with an electronic homing device that kept us “connected” to a radio control tower on land, we felt secure venturing farther out into the ocean.; Connection provides security.
The problem with many of the modern theories about discipline is that they focus so much on fostering independence that they lose sight of the necessity for a toddler to continue a healthy dependence. Try to achieve the delicate balance between maintaining the connection and encouraging self-reliance.
Keeping a toddler posted on your absence
Our 18-month-old grandson Andrew has very polite parents. Bob and Cheryl are careful to let him know when one of them plans to “disappear” into the next room. Because Andrew is separation- sensitive, he taught them to do this from a very early age. Especially important is saying “Good-bye!,” “See-ya,” and “Daddy’s going to work.” Encouraging the behavior allows Andrew to handle even his mother leaving because there have never been any rude surprises. Letting your toddler know when you are planning on leaving helps them know what the score is at any given moment. They can trust their parents to keep them in the loop.
Be a facilitator
Babies will naturally become independent, so it is not your job to make them independent, but rather to provide a secure environment that allows them to become independent. As your child is struggling for a comfortable independence, you become a facilitator. You are like a battery charger when the little dynamo needs emotional refueling. One moment he is shadowing you, the next moment he is darting away. How much separation can your child tolerate and how much do they need? How much closeness? The child needs to maintain the connection while increasing the distance. Toddlers who behave best are those that find the balance of attaching and exploring as they go from security to novelty. Your job as the facilitator is to help the child achieve that balance. That’s the partnership you and your toddler negotiate.
Substituting voice contact
If your young toddler is playing in another room out of your sight and starts to fuss, instead of immediately dropping what you are doing and rushing to their aid, try calling to them instead, “Mama’s coming!” Maintaining a dialogue with a toddler outside the shower door has prevented many a separation protest.
Shifting gears if separation isn’t working
Sometimes even a baby who was easy to leave suddenly becomes a toddler who is separation-sensitive. If your toddler isn’t taking well to your absences, you might try more creative ways of staying happy yourself that don’t involve leaving your child. What you may perceive as a need to escape may actually be a need for you to give yourself more nurturing.
Providing “long-distance” help
Exploring toddlers get stuck in precarious places. The protector instinct in all parents makes us want to rush and rescue the stuck child. Sometimes it’s good to encourage from the sidelines and let the young adventurer get themselves out of the mess. While writing this section, I observed 2-year-old Lauren trying to negotiate her doll buggy down a short flight of steps. Halfway down, the buggy got stuck and Lauren began to protest. Instead of immediately rushing to help her, I offered an encouraging, “Lauren, do it.” That was all she needed to navigate her buggy down the rest of the steps. Encouraging toddlers to work themselves out of their own dilemmas helps them develop a sense of self-reliance.
Watch for signs of separation stress
There are times when toddlers still need to cling, some more than others. On days when your usually fearless explorer won’t leave your side, honor his wishes but try to figure out why he is staying so close. Does he feel ill? Have you been distracted or too busy to attend to him? Has he had more separation than he can handle lately? Refuel his connectedness “tank” with some time together, and he’ll be off on his own again soon.
Helping a toddler by letting him have “just being” time
Take time to let your toddler just be with you, on your lap cuddling and talking at various times throughout the day. First thing in the morning is a favorite time for our Lauren to want this, especially if she’s slept in her own bed that night, or if Martha or I got up before her and we missed that snuggle time in bed. If I let her “be” until she called a halt, she charged herself for a nice long stretch of independent time. It’s not always easy for me to sit still long enough to let this happen, yet I’m always glad when I do.
Helping a toddler encourage relationships with other significant adults
Grandparents, family friends, any substitute caregiver you use regularly can help your older toddler learn to depend on adults other than their parents. Invite significant others into your child’s life so that as they separates from you, they learn to depend on a variety of people for help.
Remember, children’s behaviors are more challenging to deal with when they are making the transition from one developmental stage to the next. By easing the transition, you lessen the discipline problems that tag along.
Many child-rearing theories teach that a prime parenting goal is to get the child to be independent. This is true, but gaining independence is only part of becoming an emotionally healthy person. A child must pass through three stages on becoming a healthy person:
- Dependence Toddler: “You do it for me.” The infant under 1 year old is totally dependent on parents.
- Independence Toddler: “I do it myself.” During the second year, the exploring toddler with the encouragement of parents, learns to do many things independent of parents.
- Interdependence Toddler: “We do it.” This is the most mature stage. The child has the drive to accomplish a feat by themselves but has the wisdom to ask for help to do it better.
For a child to have the best chance of becoming an emotionally healthy person, they should be encouraged to mature through each of these stages gradually. Getting stuck in the dependent stage is as crippling as is being forced out of it too soon. Remaining in the independent stage is frustrating. Maturing into interdependence equips children with the ability to get the most out of others, while asking the most of themselves.
Interdependence means the parent and child need each other to bring out the best in each other. Without your child challenging you as they go through each stage, you wouldn’t develop the skills necessary to parent them. Here’s where the connected pair shines. They help each other be the best for each other.
Learning interdependence prepares a child for life, especially for relationships and work. In fact, management consultants teach the concept of interdependence to increase productivity. The ability to know when to seek help and how to get it is a valuable social skill that even a 2 year old can learn: “I can do it myself, but I can do it better with help.”
Throughout all stages of development, a child goes from being solitary to being social, from wanting to be independent to wanting to be included. In fact, going back and forth from oneness to separateness is a lifelong social pattern among interdependent people. You want your child to be comfortable being alone and with other people, and which state predominates depends on the child’s temperament. Interdependence balances children who are predominantly either leaders or followers. An independent individualist may be so tied up in themselves that they miss what the crowd has to offer. On the other hand, the dependent child is so busy following the crowd that they never gets a chance to develop leadership.
Learning to be interdependent ties in with the child learning to be responsible. When children get used to seeking help from other people, they naturally learn to consider the effects of their behavior on others. Truly happy and healthy people are neither dependent nor independent; they are interdependent.
Helping a toddler play alone
Part of self-discipline is the ability to enjoy playing alone. Before 18 months old, a baby will do this only in short spurts and will be eagerly checking in with their mother frequently; either physically come to her or find her with their eyes. Attachment-parented babies may prefer to be in touch with their mother almost constantly, and this is healthy. It seems as though allowing the baby to have their fill of their mother’s presence as an infant and young toddler prepares them for time on their own. They will know how to manage themselves and won’t need to be entertained as much as a baby who is not well connected.
The time between the ages of 14 and 18 months is very hard for mothers. The high-energy toddler wants to do everything, but they still need their mother involved “big time.” Mothers of 1 year old children need to gear up for this marathon spurt of giving, because the tendency is to think “Ah, now he’s 1 year old – I’ll be able to ease off.” You will eventually, but not yet. Hang in there through 18 months, then be alert for signs that your toddler is trying to make space between you. Some mothers might tend to hover and smother and continue to hang on, but remember, the 1 1/2 to 2 year old needs to become their own person. You will see these efforts more and more. At first you won’t believe your eyes. Your toddler will do what they see you doing. Girls especially will tend to doll babies, get out pots and pans, want to play at the sink, dig in the dirt with spoons. You name it – the possibilities are endless. They’ll want you to pretend with them a bit. It’s fun to be a dog or a lion, but they really only need you to get them started. Pretend tea parties or picnics where you gobble up everything your child hands you don’t require much involvement from you.
By 3 years old, a child’s imagination and creativity will allow them to be able to have fun with anything. Keep toys simple and basic – building blocks, balls, dolls and blankets, cars and trucks (no battery- operated ones). A 4 years old alone in a room with nothing to play with will figure out how to use shoes and socks as cars and people or as cradles and dolls.
By the time your child is 6 years old, you will have reached what one psychologist we talked to calls “planned detachment.” Your child will check in for breakfast, be out the door, check in for lunch, and be gone again. You’ll say “You’re looking well, Dear,” you’ll write a note to remind them of chores, and finally at dinner you’ll get to talk some. After dinner some card playing, singing, or other family-oriented activity reconnects you with the individual who used to stick to you like Velcro.