by Patricia Shimm and Kate Ballen, Barnard College Center for
This article is an excerpt from Parenting Your Toddler: The Expert's Guide to the Tough and Tender Years by Patricia Henderson Shimm and Kate Ballen, copyright © 1995, published by Perseus Books.
The key issue of toddlerhood is separation. From feeding himself to saying goodbye to refusing to walk one step farther, a toddler is constantly working on becoming a separate, independent person. Even his new oratorial skills which seem to center on the words “no” and “I do it,” show that he’s striking out on his own.
A baby literally can’t tell where her parents end and she begins physically or emotionally. Starting at around the age of one the separation process begins as your child first crawls, then stands on her own two feet, and finally moves out from your sphere of protection.
Separation can be as bittersweet and difficult for parents as it is for toddlers. In the parent groups, mother and fathers remember how they felt during their own separations from their parents, for example, when leaving home for college, getting married, or moving away. Parents often wonder whether their toddler is having trouble separating because they find it so painful to let go of him. One of my friends, who is now a grandmother, recently remarked “From the moment you have your child you spend the rest of your life learning to separate from him.”
No child suddenly wakes up one morning and says “Wow, this is who I am,” but instead defines herself gradually by testing what she can do and how grown-ups react to her budding self. One moment she may say she wants to do everything herself and then a second later she clings to you for dear life, plaintively insisting that Mommy and Daddy do everything for her. This constant swing from dependence to independence occurs because at the same time that a toddler wants to be near her parents she also yearns to explore the world.
Even what seems the smallest request on the part of parents can set off a major power struggle. Power struggles are common with children this age because they are a toddler’s way of finding himself. One parent complained that her son was becoming a finicky gourmet all in the name of discovering himself. “He wants his toast buttered, so I butter it, then, of course, he doesn’t want it buttered. I take it away and give him another piece. He throws it on the floor and says, “No toast.’” Dressing can be another opportunity for a toddler to try out her newfound independence. Says one father: “I would give her what I think are her favorite clothes because we are already late for a birthday party. She would then insist on putting on a pink striped shirt, pink plaid pants, and smearing pink lipstick on her lips. I pretend she’s not my child when we are on the street.”
In order to define who he is, a toddler needs to do things for himself, by himself, and in his own way. The more he does for himself with the understanding support of his parents, the better he’ll feel about his own autonomy.
As you go through the ups and downs of your child’s attempts at independence, remember that separation really is a celebratory event. By the end of toddlerhood most children settle into their own skins, accepting themselves as independent from you. Also, it may help to keep in mind that you probably won’t get all this high drama again until adolescence. By then, you’ll be an old pro at identity crises.
So Long, Farewell
Every child generally has her own style of reacting when her parents leave her. She may sob hysterically and have a real tantrum; she may withdraw into a corner, looking down at the floor and barely answering even the most cheerful, loving voice; she may pull down every toy from the shelf and hit anyone who dares to look at her possessions; or she may lie down and go to sleep.
When you return home you’ll probably hear from the caregiver that your child was soon able to enjoy play. The problem is, of course, that when you walk through the door he very well might start whining and screaming just to let you know that he’s missed you. After all, whom else can he take it out on? Or you may find that, much to your delight and surprise, he runs gleefully into your arms crying” Mommy, Daddy” and then resumes playing with gusto.
However, because of the intensity of this separation period, there are going to be days when you return and nothing seems to have gone right. Your caregiver may report that your child hardly stopped crying and that the words that usually comfort her, for example, “Mommy and Daddy always come back,” fell on deaf ears. When your toddler suddenly has a dramatic change in his personality, try to look at the last few days of your life and child’s life to solve the mystery. Most of the time you’ll be able to figure out why he is out of sorts.
Sometimes a child’s difficulty separating has very little to do with the actual parting. She really could be upset about something else. Everything affects a child during this time.
Parents have to make an educated guess when their child suddenly can’t stand being away from them. For example, if your independent, bubbly daughter starts sobbing every time you step out of her sight, what is going on? Is the new baby’s cuteness winning everyone’s heart? Have you been out at night more often? Is she overtired? Is she getting over a cold? Were you preoccupied with phone calls? Were you away over the weekend? Are you and your partner more tense and angry than usual? Says one mother: “I kept thinking about every possible reason. Maybe she didn’t like the baby-sitter anymore, maybe she had a bad day in the park. The one thing I didn’t think of was that my husband and I weren’t getting along. We were incredibly tense and probably the worst thing was that we weren’t even admitting our disagreements.”
Making Good-byes More Palatable
Contrary to what common sense tells you, it’s been our experience that it isn’t a good idea to prepare a toddler way in advance when you are going out, or, for that matter, telling your child too far in advance of any change in your schedule. This just seems to make toddlers more anxious rather than prepared. (Of course, when your child is older you’ll prepare him well ahead of time.)
About a half hour before the baby-sitter arrives, try saying very directly: “Dad and I are going out to dinner. Lucy is going to stay with you. We’ll be back after you go to sleep. We’ll come in and kiss you.” In other words, give your explanation clearly, succinctly, and without any guilt.
If possible, have the baby-sitter arrive at least thirty minutes or so early. When parents spend time with the sitter, it helps a toddler feel that the sitter is safe and usually makes the transition from mother and father to caregiver much smoother.
When you are ready to leave, make the good-bye short and sweet. Tell your child where you are going and when you’ll be returning. Hours don’t mean much to a toddler, so let him know in child time (after his nap, before Sesame Street) when you’ll be home. “Mommy and Daddy are leaving to go see Grandpa. We’ll be back after your nap.” At the Toddler Center we have found that it reassures a child to top off the good-bye with the loving mantra, “Mommy and Daddy always come back.”
Try not to hesitate when you go out the door even if your child starts to cry. A toddler’s anxiety only escalates if her parents seem ambivalent. Good-byes are easier when the parent is decisive and calm. For instance, it doesn’t help a toddler when her parents get caught up in the emotional frenzies of good-byes like this: “I’m going now. Let me give you another kiss and hug. I’m not going to cry. I don’t want you to cry. Are you going to cry?”
When parents can’t accept the fact that their toddler has very passionate feelings about separating, the child often senses their discomfort and acts out more. Says one mother: “My son is the only one in the playgroup who screams every time I leave. I can’t help but cringe with embarrassment. Sometimes, even though I know it is horrible, I wish every other child was screaming.”
It can be wrenching for loving parents to understand that children are allowed to have a hard time and feel sad emotions. If you smooth over every difficult situation for your child, how will he gain the experience to learn to cope by himself? In order for your child to develop into an autonomous individual, he must at times endure separations from his mother or father.
But no matter how hard it is to face your child’s sadness, don’t ever sneak out without saying good-bye. It’s important for your toddler to trust you, even if it means that by telling her the truth she’ll be upset. For instance, if you are going out alone with your spouse for a social evening, don’t pretend you are going to work because you feel guilty about enjoying yourself. If you can be honest, it will help your child rely on you throughout her life.
How to Help Your Toddler Separate
Set Limits. Limits help give your toddler some balance in her difficult world. Without these boundaries a toddler can feel scared and confused about what she can and can’t do. Although it can be upsetting to have your child angry at you when you say no, it helps her to figure out where her world stops and her parents’ begins.
Sometimes parents believe that their child will become more confident if they give him the freedom to make most of his choices. But this well-intentioned plan usually backfires. The parent who can rarely say no, who can’t stand tears, and who says yes to virtually everything can make her child fearful of his power. If parents are afraid of having someone angry at them, and therefore a separate person, it becomes all the more difficult for a child to feel that he is his own person. He may have trouble saying no to anyone else because he has rarely heard his mother or father say the N word. Says one mother: “I feel like I’ve always been so understanding with my three-year-old. But instead of being confident, she seemed the least assertive in her circle of friends. She was like a slave doing anything her friends do. Now that I’m setting more limits she is beginning to voice her views left and right.”
Parents need to decide what they can live with during this period. Dozens of times every day a toddler tries to separate by asserting himself. Yield some power when you can.
Give Your Toddler the Chance to Grow Up
Taking an active step in shaping your toddler’s world makes her feel happy and competent. It is important to be sensitive to a toddler’s need to grow up.
Parents can help their toddler become more independent by giving him the experience of playing by himself. Try getting him used to playing by himself in his bed or room. When he wakes up in the morning, don’t rush in at the first squeak. Give him some time to talk to his stuffed animals or to sing a song. When he’s busy directing his puppets, don’t feel that you have to run in and become a star actor. Instead of investing in an antique toy chest that requires the strength of a weight lifter to open, set up his toys on low shelves so he can pick and choose himself.
Playing alone is not a punishment. When your toddler is happily playing next to you, make yourself available but not overly accommodating. For instance, keep yourself mildly preoccupied by reading a newspaper. But when you do play with your toddler, be there for her. If she has the sneaking suspicion that her parent’s mind is elsewhere she’ll only cling and demand more. A toddler will rarely want to play alone if she doesn’t get the attention she needs when she is with her parents.
The more a toddler knows about his routines and is allowed to participate, the more he’ll be able to do things by himself. Put a step by the sink so that he can wash his hands. During bath time let him have his own washcloth while you wash him down. Even allow your toddler to brush his teeth by himself, though you will probably want to have a go the second time around. Include finger foods at meals so that he can feed himself. Remember, you have to count on every routine taking twice as long once your toddler is involved.
When Parents Push Their Toddler Too Hard to Be Independent
Just as some parents overdo keeping their child tied to their apron strings, many parents push their toddler to grow up too quickly. You may know that it’s good for your child to be separate, and therefore exaggerate a good thing.
You may put your child in too many playgroups, push him to use a fork before he is physically able, or leave her alone at a playdate or a birthday party before she is emotionally ready.
Remember, a toddler does not separate any faster if parents push. In fact, she could become less independent if her parents don’t respond and accept her needs.
It can be hard for parents not to be angry or embarrassed when their child seems to be the only one who rarely ventures more than an inch away. You may feel like saying: “Look, Melanie doesn’t need her mommy, nor do Tom, Becca, or any of your friends. Why are you being so clingy?” But parents help their toddler get more comfortable by articulating and accepting his feelings. For example: “It can be pretty scary at a party with all these people, but I bet you can have some fun. Let’s walk over to that table with all the crayons.”
If there is a new sibling, expect double trouble. A toddler with a new brother or sister is going to need an extra dose of attention and empathy to deal with the separation phase.
How to Get What You Want and Meet Your Toddler’s Needs
What prevents parents from having a good time with their toddler? If you are doing a lot of yelling and punishing and feeling frustrated, it may be that you and your toddler are at cross-purposes. Remember that life doesn’t have to be like this. Yes, this can be a tough age, but you and your toddler can still enjoy each other. The rule of thumb is that when you recognize a behavior in your child that upsets, embarrasses, or angers you, you need to try to figure out what this behavior is telling you and then try to meet your toddler’s needs and yours at the same time.
A lot of parents may say: Why should I accommodate him? Shouldn’t he learn to listen to me? My answer is: Of course, your toddler needs to accommodate you, but it will take some time. Right now your understanding of his needs will pay off not only in a happier relationship but with a more secure child. A toddler is not deliberately misbehaving. His outrageous antics are his only way of figuring out who he is. This is the time to put yourself in your toddler’s shoes, because he certainly isn’t yet able to put himself in yours.
Just think how validated and empowered adults can feel when someone reports in a nonjudgmental way on their mood. “Boy, you really have had a lousy day. It must have been hard when your toddler had six tantrums at your mother-in-law’s house.” So imagine the relief that a toddler with a limited vocabulary and understanding of her emotions can feel when someone describes in simple words what she is doing and feeling. Parents help their toddler separate by distinguishing her feelings from theirs and others'.
For example, when your toddler is driving you crazy by whining or yelling you might say, “Stop whining or I won’t listen to anything you say,” but you’ll only lose with this order. He may stop whining with threats, but in the long run, which may be ten minutes from now, he’ll start whining again because you haven’t focused on why he’s whining. How about saying: “I know you don’t like me to be on the phone and you need me now. As soon as I finish this phone call I’ll be with you.”
In order to tolerate the insistence of a toddler who wants everything now, it makes such a difference first to understand what he is feeling and then to address his needs. By understanding what a toddler is really expressing, parents often seem to feel less put upon and angry. However, if you feel that it is very hard to be empathic, go back to your past once more. For instance, how pleased were your parents when you stood up for what you wanted? How much slack did they give you, or was the household rigid with rules?
Separation is the most important developmental stage of toddlerhood. This is the time when your toddler gets a sense of independence from his mother and father. Separation and individuation are the milestones that every toddler must achieve on the way to growing from a baby to a preschooler.
The process, however difficult, really is a joyful event. After all, your toddler is coming into his own for the first time.
Patricia H. Shimm started the Barnard College Toddler Center and is a leader of parent groups focused on issues of parenting and child development. Kate Ballen is a Shimm Fellow at the Toddler Center and college consultant at Bronx Aerospace Academy High School. Together they wrote, Parenting Your Toddler: The Expert’s Guide to the Tough and Tender Years.