The independence of an 18 month old
“No, no, no…” It’s not uncommon to hear that from an 18-month-old flexing his muscles to let you know he’s in control. It seems like only yesterday that he was so complacent and easy-going: feedings were always fun. He smiled if you smiled. And those belly laughs made you laugh… Where did all this go?
Once a child begins to walk, they develop a sense of independence where it seems like life has no boundaries. This behavior and the desire to explore is very impulsive and unthinking. Therefore, and rightly so, they investigate everything. They want to see how things work, how things taste, and they want to explore cause and effect – ie if I shoot it, what will happen?
Learning boundaries is very difficult for toddlers because it limits their desire to learn. This is where we parents step in to help keep them safe. However, where the lines are drawn for the boundaries is where the difficulties often arise. Some boundaries are very clear. For example, we would never let a toddler run down the street. Other limits, however, can be a little more arbitrary and vary depending on our temperament and our degree of compulsion and caution as parents. Additionally, the temperament of the child also comes into play in the conflict of where to set boundaries. Add to that our emotions as parents, how busy our day has been, and how much frustration we’ve had at work, and you can see where we can have a recipe for a blast at home.
The key to helping a toddler through this phase is understanding where and when they need to learn self-control.
Toddlers feel positive emotions when they accomplish something, like climbing on the couch without any help. Once up, they smile, go down and try to go up. And then another smile appears on their face. These are good opportunities for them to see us approve of their accomplishment. It creates trust and they learn that they can get that from us. Moreover, in the moment, it will lead to cooperation and attention from them.
On the other side of the coin are the negative emotions where there can be frustration because they couldn’t complete their task. Despite multiple attempts, your toddler sees the same negative result over and over again. As T. Berry Brazelton, American pediatrician, author and developer of the Neonatal Behavioral Rating Scale (NBAS), explains, negative feelings need to surface with positive emotions. Even we as adults regularly experience this conflict of positive and negative emotions. It is with this permanent conflict that children must learn to live and, in doing so, learn to control themselves.
These battles where toddlers feel positive and negative emotions can bring some insecurity. What started as stranger anxiety around 6 to 9 months of age has now turned into separation anxiety. Your child feels the need to move on and explore their surroundings, while always looking over their shoulder to make sure you’re still there. Temper tantrums are likely to occur if you momentarily disappear from the picture.
In addition to the dynamics of positive/negative emotions and security/insecurity, there is also your child’s temperament. A willful child can display a lot of passion, which can create difficult days.
Here are some suggestions to help guide your 18-month-old:
- At best, avoid arguments with your toddler. As a parent, you should always try to stay in control. When you come to a time of day when a decision needs to be made, rather than asking what your child would like to do, give them an option of two choices to choose from. For example, at breakfast you might ask “Do you want cereal or pancakes?” They will feel satisfied when they choose an option, and you are satisfied because you can live with either option.
- When an adverse situation arises that could cause you to lose your temper, take a deep breath, exhale, and say nothing. Not reacting right away and pausing can defuse a situation that could otherwise quickly escalate and drive you both crazy. In a very factual tone, acknowledge the situation and move on to another option. Toddlers have short memories, which gives you the ability to focus on an activity.
- Take advantage of your child’s desire to grow like you. “Can you help me pick this up?” or “Can you help me put this away?” will likely add to their satisfaction of behaving like an adult. And of course, the compliment and gratitude that will follow will bring them a big smile!
- Learn the technique of ignore to minimize negative behavior. If your child does something that has little consequence, look away and let him learn from his mistakes. Once you see they’ve learned their lesson, you can reinforce that lesson with a simple factual statement.
- Know when to intervene if you feel his behavior is escalating into a tantrum. Temper tantrums should be approached calmly and rationally by offering a “choice”. If your toddler is really upset, gently remove him from the situation and engage in a different activity. Assess whether their predicted needs have been met i.e. feeding times, nap times, sleep or bedtime to get back on track.
- With the same factual tone, let them know they’re doing a good job. It’s a good idea to praise your toddler’s work and try to avoid using “good boy” or “good girl.” Instead, “I like the way you store the toys, thank you!” can bring a smile to their face. Children need to know that they are accepted and loved as they are, even if they sometimes make mistakes. But they are there to learn, and we can approve of this process!
As you prepare for your little one’s next health check, take a look at The AAP HealthyChildren.org 18 Month Article to give you an idea of the questions you would like to ask during this visit. Also, take a look at the Ages and Stages Questionnaire for 18-month-olds to see where your child is developing. And finally I found this Today’s parent, 18 months very educational article by helping to deepen knowledge about parenting.