PARENT CHILD RELATIONS - Online
7400:360
School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron

Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.

NOTES ON PARENTING TODDLERS
To accompany Chapter 2
Statements from parents of toddlers:
 
"Someone said when you have a child, it's like two appointment books - his appointment book and yours.  And first you do everything in the kid's appointment book; and then when you're done, you do everything in the kid's appointment book again.  I wish I had known they weren't joking.  I knew that it would be a challenge, and in some ways I wish I had known more.  But in other ways I think if I had really known exactly how hard it would be sometimes, I might have been more reluctant or waited longer, and that I would really have regretted - not doing it."
 
"I wish we had - because he is our first child - more of a sense of the norms.  What is okay versus what is a problem and what is really bad?  Is this normal, is this just kids being kids?  He pushed someone at school three times; is this par for the course or is this a problem?  We don't know when we are reacting and when we are overreacting."
 
DEVELOPMENTAL STAGES AND TASKS OF TODDLERHOOD
As children move out of infancy and into toddlerhood, suddenly parenting takes a dramatic shift.  Where before there was a child who was completely dependent on the parent, couldn't talk, couldn't walk, - now there is a child with the ability to get around in the world, express himself with words and attitudes, and who is moving toward more and more independence every day.  This can be a very difficult time for parents as it is hard to know how much freedom to give the child and how much control to exert.  This balancing act that parents must engage in - being firm on some things, flexible on others, often leads to conflict between parent and child.  Many studies dealing with interactions between parents and toddlers have found increases in conflict.  One study conducted recently dealing with interactions between toddlers and their mothers found that when children were between the ages of 18 and 30 months, conflicts more than doubled.  Because toddlers are still limited in their language skills, and haven't learned to manage their emotions well, they often act out in negative ways when they are frustrated or tired.  In these notes we will look at the developmental stage of toddlerhood and some of the unique characteristics of it.
 
Erikson would put toddlers in the autonomy vs. shame and doubt stage. Freud would say that the child is moving into the anal stage, and Piaget would classify the toddler as being at the end of the sensorimotor stage and the beginning of the pre-operational stage.  Toddlers have increasing skills that enable them to explore the world in more complex ways.  Their motor skills enable them to cover more area and manipulate objects more effectively.  Their cognitive skills enable them to focus on properties of objects and develop ideas about how objects work and what will happen if they perform certain acts.
Their language and ability to form sentences increase communication with others.  Their understanding of people's emotional reactions enables them to get parents' help as needed and to control others' emotional reactions more effectively.
 
As their skills increase, toddlers develop a greater sense of self and independence.  They take pleasure and delight in their new accomplishments.  They express new emotions of pride, embarrassment, and shame.  They refuse to do what parents want if that conflicts with their goals. They gradually learn control of their behavior through internalizing rules
and standards.
 
As their independence grows, toddlers develop closer relationships with others and they are more physically affectionate with family, friends, and pets.  They become more concerned about others and are kinder and try to resolve angry interactions.
 
They take delight in complying with some adult requests and meeting a standard of behavior.
 
Toddlers are developing a greater sense of individuality; as this happens they develop a sense of gender identity that is proudly announced at about two and a half.  Their gender identity is initially based on parents' positive and negative emotional responses to gender appropriate activities.  The differential socialization of boys and girls means that activities are organized so that boys manipulate objects and explore the world more and girls express feelings, ask for help and give more help.
 
PARENT ROLE WITH TODDLERS
Toddlers who function well and have secure attachments most often have parents who are available, attentive, and sensitive to the child's individual needs.  These parents also grant the child as much independence as possible within safe limits.
 
Effective parents provide models of kind, caring controlled behavior and talk with the child to explain reasons for what is done, to understand the child's view of what is happening, and to let the child express him/herself.  Toddlerhood is a time when parents often find themselves frustrated because they are dealing with a little person who is beginning to understand that he/she can be a force in the universe.  As Erikson would say, the positive outcome of toddlerhood is a child who is autonomous and feels proud that his/her efforts have an effect on those around them.
 
It is important for the toddler to have opportunities to make simple choices (asking the child in the morning, "Do you want to wear your blue pants or your brown pants?") and to have positive feedback and encouragement from parents and not to be made to feel ashamed or bad about themselves.  When parents play with their toddlers and spend time with them, this increases the child's positive mood and desire to cooperate in routines and activities.  Giving a toddler orders is usually not the best way to get cooperation.
 
Parents of toddlers need to regulate the child's behavior effectively.  This happens when the parents establish an atmosphere of compliance (we are all part of the team, we all work together to make things happen, etc.), and act to prevent problems (it is easier to set up an environment that encourages good things to happen than to just deal with the
negative stuff when it occurs - takes some planning, but is worth it).  Parents also need to introduce rules that dovetail with the child's abilities (two-year-old can understand what bedtime routine is, for example, but can't just be told "go clean your room" - needs more direction than that).
 
With toddlers, parents need to get down on their level and check out safety of the home.  In the beginning parents tend to make rules dealing with safety; as the child becomes more developed in their abilities and thinking, rules expand to include how to behave during meals, putting toys away, table manners, dressing.  Toddlers are so much more mobile than non-walkers but still may not understand what happens when you put your finger in a plug - parents need to make periodic safety checks of the house.
 
With toddlers, simple reasoning can work to get them to comply - parents shouldn't give long explanations of why something needs to be done, keep it simple and understandable for the child.  Toddlers have limited vocabulary, but understand a lot more words than they actually use.  Spanking is not a good discipline method for any child, but especially
for toddlers.  They have limited memory and so while they may know this minute that they are being spanked because they left the yard, tomorrow (or even a couple hours later) they won't remember.  Spanking also sets up lots of other problems - distrust of the parent, desire for revenge, learning that the biggest person gets to hit to have the upper hand, etc.
 
Common situations and problems that occur during this stage of development include:
 
- Toilet training - one of the major developmental tasks for toddler/preschoolers.  This is one of those places where parents need to balance firmness with flexibility.  Once the child shows an interest in toileting and is aware of what is happening when he is wetting or soiling his diapers, it is a good idea to start the process.  There are many books  available to parents on how to toilet train a child, but most parents can help their child achieve independent toileting without a lot of books.  (When my first child was at that stage of development I bought a book called Toilet Training in Less Than a Day.  I ended up filing in under fiction on my bookshelf).  The important thing for parents to remember
when they are going through the process with their child is that it doesn't happen overnight, and that the child will have accidents, even when she seems to be pretty well trained. 
 
Kindness and understanding are important on the part of the parent, and parents shouldn't be too rigid and demanding with toilet training.  Sometimes parents have too much of a personal stake in their child being trained on a certain timeline (maybe a mother or mother-in-law has made comments about how early she was able to train her children - and I have sometimes thought that on this subject, there are many women who become middle aged and suddenly have a loss of memory on what it was actually like when they were potty training their kids.  My own mother-in-law was convinced that she had toilet trained all her kids by the time they were one.  The child doesn't even have complete control of the muscles that control bowel movements at that age, let alone being able to independently go to the toilet.  But I digress).  To finish this up, parents have a stake in their child learning to go on the toilet independently, but so does the child.  And in the end the child has a lot of control over this.  If parents approach this in a matter-of-fact way with the child and don't make it a personal pride issue, things usually go a lot smoother.
 
- Handling temper tantrums.  I am a firm believer in the idea that when negative or inappropriate behavior occurs (in children or adults), you should try to figure out the antecedents of that behavior - what is making it occur?  With toddlers and temper tantrums, we need to keep in mind what is happening with the child when the tantrum flares up.  Most of the time tantrums happen because the child is tired, or restless, or not feeling well.  In my Child Development classes I sometimes offer the example of a parent who has lots of errands to run in the course of a day - grocery store, drop off DVDs at the video store, stop at the mall to pick up some things that are on sale, stop at a friend's house to take some food because she's sick.  If the parent has to take her toddler along, it is only natural that the child will get tired, or bored and restless with all that running around.  Now an older child could use words to let the parent know that she's tired, etc.  But the toddler still has limited language skills, and isn't likely to be able to say, "Now mother, we have run all over town and I am REALLY beat.  We have to go home."  That toddler is more likely to finally not be able to handle it anymore and drop down in the middle of the video store and start screaming and thrashing around.  With toddlers, it is a good idea to do some advance planning before setting out on that type of day.  If the parent has to do errands and the toddler absolutely has to go with her, she should pack some nutritious snacks to keep the child's energy level up.  She should plan some time in the day when they can stop at a playground or the park and the child can run around and let off some steam.  She should also not try to cram in more things than the child can handle.
 
When the child has a tantrum, what usually happens is that the parent then must react to it and ends up getting mad and punishing the child.  Better to keep in mind the developmental stage the child is in and know what the child can deal with and not deal with.  The good thing about tantrums is, that if the parent handles things appropriately and effectively, tantrums should lessen as the child gets a little older.
 
- Developing appropriate discipline.  Again, here the parents need to be aware of their child's developmental stage and understand what the child can and can't do.  It is unreasonable to punish a two-year-old for having an accident in his pants when that is perfectly normal behavior for a two-year-old.  When a toddler is headed for something unsafe or inappropriate, smacking the child isn't an effective thing to do.  The child isn't going to learn not to do the unsafe thing when he gets hit.  With a toddler, it is better to redirect or distract the child to something safer.
 
 Thinking in terms of a toddler's developmental stage, there is also limited memory with children this age.  If the parent tells the child at 10:00 in the morning not to touch the knickknacks on the coffee table, the child will understand it and leave them alone.  But the next day, that toddler is probably going to head for them again because she won't necessarily remember that they are off limits (and bright, shiny objects are particularly attractive to young children).  As the child's long-term memory becomes more developed, she will be more likely to remember that.  When parents are thinking in terms of what type of discipline they should use with their children, they need to use methods that are developmentally appropriate and take into account the child's thoughts and feelings.  They also need to keep in mind that the purpose of discipline is to teach the child the appropriate way to behave, and to encourage self discipline in the child.
 
- Dealing with the birth of a sibling.  For many children the birth of a sibling happens during the toddler stage.  Parents need to keep in mind the toddler's feelings and thoughts, and be reassuring and loving with him.  Once the new baby arrives it is natural for people to come visit and make a fuss over the baby and sometimes forget the older child.  If the parents know someone is coming over to visit the new baby, they should make efforts to also make the older child feel special.  Making the older child part of the welcoming process for the new baby is important.
 
     Toddlers can help bring bottles to the parent for feeding, can help the parents with feeding, can get diapers and can sit with the parent and baby and stroke and pat the new baby.  Even though a new baby adds to parents' fatigue, they need to make extra efforts to help the older child feel special, by cuddling with her when the baby is napping, or having special time in the day just for the older child and the parent.  Parents also need to realize that there may be times when the older child says that he or she "hates the new baby," or that "the baby should go back."  These thoughts and feelings are normal, and rather than parents pretending that the child doesn't mean them, they need to help the child understand that even thought there's a new person in the family, they are loved just as much as ever.
 
     Reassurances about how much the parent loves the older child must sometimes be repeated or reinforced.  When parents are understanding and make efforts to spend one-on-one time with the older child and include the older child in the care of the new baby, their toddlers generally have a loving, helping relationship with the new sibling.
 
DEVELOPMENT OF SELF REGULATION
In the second and third years of life, children develop feelings related to self-awareness and self-evaluation - embarrassment, empathy, pride, shame and guilt.  The development of these emotions requires that children be aware of themselves and assess their actions in terms of some standard.  Therefore, their emotional development is closely related to the development of the self.
 
At about 18 to 20 months toddlers begin to make self-descriptive statements that may be neutral in tone - "I have curly hair," or may be self evaluative - "I’m a good girl."  Children show they have expectations about what ought to happen.  They look for recognition when they have done something well, and they look or turn away when they have not succeeded at a task.  They show distress and try to make repairs if something breaks, even accidentally.  They will look for adult approval or disapproval, but are still most concerned with their own pleasure and delight in what they do.
 
By their third birthday, children have internalized standards for accomplishment and show pride (big smiles, proud posture) when they succeed on tasks, particularly difficult tasks.  They also show shame (sad faces, dejected body postures) when they fail.
 
Affection also increases during toddlerhood.  Toddlers give love pats, strokings and kisses to parents, particularly mothers.  They are also affectionate to animals and younger children.  As soon as they learn to talk, toddlers talk about positive feelings such as being happy, having a good time, feeling good, and being proud.  They talk about uncomfortable things too, such as being hot, hungry, cold, sleepy or in pain.  Between 12 and 18 months, toddlers recognize themselves in pictures and videotapes; they smile at their images and identify themselves by pointing at their pictures on request.
 
By age two toddlers have an increasing sense of themselves as individuals, and use pronouns like, "I," "me," and "mine."  Toddlers first show control of self by following the requests of others, but they soon begin to inhibit their activities on their own.  For example, a toddler of sixteen months may reach for an object, shake her head, and say, "No, no."  By the time the toddler is about 24 months, he or she is able to behave according to social expectations even when a parent is not physically present to monitor what is happening.  This self-control phase for the child is different from being controlled because it includes representational thinking.  The child can remember sequences of actions, can recall the mother's comments even when not looking at her. By the time the child is three years old, he or she can self regulate.  A two-year-old has trouble waiting or delaying action and is not very flexible in adapting behavior to a social situation.  By three the child is able to wait or delay an action.
 
A two-year-old, for example, may very well run out into the street after a favorite ball, but the three-year-old knows to wait.  By three, the child has an internal set of rules, and the moral emotions of pride, shame and guilt.  Responsive and responsible parents appropriately regulate the child's feelings and establish daily routines that give the child a sense of how things happen and how people interact with each other.  Gradually, these routines and forms of interaction are internalized as rules that govern and direct behavior.  By age three the child has enough awareness of the rules that they can talk about ways of solving hypothetical "moral dilemmas" posed to them, such as how to get a band-aid for a hurt child when you have been forbidden to go into the bathroom.
 
PARENTS' ROLE AS AUTHORITIES
As the child's independence increases, the parents' behavior shifts.  There is less physical contact, less caretaking, and more verbal guidance and verbal feedback as to what is appropriate and correct.  The parent serves as a mediator between the child and the environment.  Parents intervene in many ways.  First, they encourage children's
cooperation by creating a climate in which children are more likely to comply because parents attend to their needs.  Children have fewer tantrums when parents are tolerant, consistent and fair in the rules they establish.  Defiance occurs most often when parents use high-power strategies like commands, threats, criticisms, and physical punishment to control children.
 
Second, parents can divert children's attention from tempting objects and activities; they can suggest interesting substitutes.  In this way parents promote the safety of their children and also discourage playing with things that are off limits.  Also, when parents play with their children, even for short periods of time (10-15 minutes), children are more compliant and have better feelings about themselves and are in a happier mood more frequently.
 
Common behavior rules for toddlers include the following:
 
Child safety:
     Not touching things that are dangerous
     Not climbing on furniture
     Not going into street
 
Protection of personal property:
     Keeping away from prohibited objects
     Not tearing up books
     Not getting into prohibited drawers or rooms
     Not coloring on walls or furniture
 
Respect for others:
     Not taking toys away from other children
     Not being too rough with other children
 
Food and mealtime routine:
     Not playing with food
     Not leaving table in the middle of meal
     Having a specific, logical amount of time to finish a meal
 
Delay:
     Waiting when mom is on the phone
     Not interrupting others’ conversations
     Waiting for a meal
 
Manners:
     Saying "please"
     Saying "thank you"
 
Self care:
     Dressing self
     Asking to use the toilet
     Washing up when requested
     Brushing teeth when requested
     Going to bed when requested
 
Family routines:
     Helping with chores when requested
     Putting toys away
     Keeping room neat
 
Toddlerhood is often referred to as "the terrible twos."  The child's favorite word seems to be "no."  Stubbornness and contrariness seems to be the order of the day.  However, we can also look at toddlerhood as a time of great discovery for the child, a time when he or she is becoming a real little person, with likes and dislikes and a burgeoning personality.  A toddler's language skills are increasing rapidly, and children this age are generally very loving and affectionate.  When my second son was about two and a half, he was happily drawing a picture at the kitchen table.  He stopped in the middle of what he was doing, looked over at me, gave me a big grin, and said, "Mom, I love your guts."  Then he ran over and gave me a big hug and went back to his picture.  Pretty endearing stuff.  And pretty typical of kids this age.  And keep in mind that, just as it is with infancy, when parents understand the developmental level of the child and understand why the child acts the way he or she does, they'll have a much smoother time raising their child and being the most effective parent they can be.  While it is challenging to parent a toddler, it is also very rewarding, and I've always found that the rewards greatly outweigh the difficulties.
 
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