Dealing with a toddler is awesome, frustrating, overwhelming and magnificent, all at the same time. Children of this age truly are forces of nature. For all parents, but particularly working parents, raising a toddler can seem to be a second fulltime job, even when it is compressed into evenings and weekends.
Let’s look at some basic concepts about development between the ages of 1 and 3.The years between 1 and 3 are a time of explosive physical growth and psychological development. During this relatively brief interval, toddlers develop a strong sense of self and the ability to maintain relationships with others; the capacity to walk and talk; and the ability to utilize and control their body, mind, and environment in sophisticated ways.
The "terrible twos" are real enough, but isn’t it interesting that only adults have coined the phrase. For the child, they are a time of wonderment and excitement, as horizons broaden and the world becomes a place for exploration and amusement.
Parents play a crucial role in their toddler’s development, as do other substitute caretakers. However, it is important to recognize that no one is equipped to promote normal development as well as two biological parents who love each other and their offspring. Furthermore, because toddlers cannot develop without the physical and psychological interactions which we associate with the terms “mother” and “father,” all substitute caretakers can only hope to approximate these functions. You parents have an important job - raising the next generation! You probably weren’t thinking, during those few minutes of sensual pleasure, that you’ve taken on a life-time job. And the pay is lousy!
EMERGENCE OF A SENSE OF SELF:
Once the toddler begins to walk, at approximately1 year of age, the basic nature of his or her relationship with the world changes. During infancy, the interaction between parent and child was organized by tactile and visual contact, particularly in the context of feeding. But when the 1 year old begins to walk, their relationship is increasingly shaped by the toddler's ability to create a physical distance between them. As he or she begins to venture away, verbal communication becomes a necessary part of their relationship. In fact, experts have hypothesized that in the course of human evolution, walking became a major stimulus to the development of language. This new-found ability to walk, climb, and explore forces mother and father to repeatedly curb the child's initiative out of a concern for his or her safety. Increasingly, they must say "no”, shaking their heads from side to side.
These prohibitions cause frustration which the healthy toddler does not readily tolerate. Caught in a conflict between his or her need for physical and emotional closeness and the drive for autonomy and independence, the toddler solves the dilemma by copying the words and gestures of the parents. “No” becomes a favorite word and is repeated endlessly. “No, no, no” is usually accompanied by the determined toddler shaking his head from side to side. Once this imitation of the parental prohibitions is established, the stubbornness of the second and third years—some would prefer the word “independence” -- begins in earnest.
During these years, “No” wins the prize for being the smallest, most powerful word in the world, riviling in intensity and frequency certain four letter words that the toddler has yet to learn!
Separation and Individuation
As walking exposes the infant to deliberate physical separation from the mother, psychological separation and individuation begin to occur. Indeed, this psychological separation is inevitable and necessary if normal development is to proceed. Only a fair degree of emotional acceptance and empathy on the parents’ part is required. When parental acceptance is present, the toddler is free to explore the world while still feeling securely connected to Mom and Dad.
The todder’s determination to do it his or her way is a healthy expression of the drive toward autonomy. But the repeated resistance creates emotional as well as physical distance from Mom or Dad and precipitates various forms of more infantile behavior which we will consider shortly under the heading “The Terrible Twos”. At this time of vulnerable self-esteem, the toddler needs the consistent presence and the support of mother, father and other caregivers in order to cope with the characteristic fear of this phase, separation anxiety. Because of the struggle between wishes to explore the world and the still strong need for connectedness to Mom and Dad, toddlers consistently return to their parents and attempt to involve them in play, exploration, and the acquisition of newly acquired skills. When parents are available and actively participate with encouragement and enthusiasm, the toddler is emotionally refueled and ready to venture again, alone, into the ever- expanding world. Of course, for the parents, this is easier said than done when you’ve got money, sex, or a football game on your mind! So, even under the best of circumstances, both parent and child experience intervals of ambivalence and frustration as they repeatedly work through the intense feelings of reunion and separation.
The mother of 2 year and 2 month old Evan began crying soon after she entered my office. “I don’t know what to do with my son. He’s so stubborn”, she said. “He doesn’t listen and he’s so disobedient. I tell him to do something and he ignores me or says ‘no.’ He was such a calm baby and now he’s this uncontrollable hellion.” Once mother understood that Evan was attempting to assert himself and explore the world, now that he could walk and express himself through words, even if his favorite one at the moment was “no”, she was able to calm down. As I explained the role of negativism in her son’s development, mother relaxed. Over the course of a few follow-up sessions, once she fully grasped that Evan was not being willfully disobedient. Mother was able to enjoy his determination to do things his own way. He remained a handful, constantly in motion and needing nearly constant attention. However, “I don’t know what to do with him” changed to “That’s my boy!”
A Stable Sense of Self and Other
By approximately age 3, and sometimes before, the toddler has developed a capacity which is at the core of all interactions with others for the remainder of life, namely the mental ability to maintain memories and images of the parents and other important persons for extended periods of time in their absence. So equipped, the young child is capable of providing himself or herself with emotional sustenance and relatedness..Mom and Dad and other important persons are captured and maintained in memory and can be related to and manipulated through fantasy. This capacity sets the stage for more complicated involvement with others in later stages of development. During the preschool years, the ability to maintain these vital mental images is jeopardized by prolonged absences from the primary caretakers. As childhood progresses, this danger diminishes.
In adults, the ability to maintain mental pictures and memories of figures from the past, even after prolonged absences, is almost unlimited. For example, think of a special childhood friend or college roommate whom you have not seen for many years. The mental image of the person can be readily recalled along with associated memories and feelings. Meeting such an individual after an absence of many years (often at high school reunions) demonstrates the tenacity of such images (and is often shocking because of the discrepancy between the mental picture based on the past and his or her current appearance and behavior.). Of course, before you criticize, take a look in the mirror. Unfortunately, it works both ways.
By the middle of the second year, toddlers begin to think of themselves as separate beings and have a mental picture of their appearance. By the age of 3 and often before, a stable core of self identity is firmly established.
See Guiding Your Toddler's Development