Parenting Resources

Building Independence in Toddlers

Toddlerrs during the second year of life, are learning so much.  They are becoming more independent physically as they develop the ability to crawl, walk and run.  They are also becoming more independent emotionally and are realizing they are different individuals from their parents.  Although they learn by copying and often want to do everything they see their parents doing, they also quickly realize they actually have different ideas and desires than their parents.  

Here comes the conflict for the toddler

Who is in control? How do I control my own behavior? What behaviors are acceptable? What are the limits?

Toddlers learn very quickly who is in control.  They test limits by exploring their environments, resisting “no” messages from parents, and learn early that tantrums either result in getting their way or not.  So, it is essential that parents set limits but do so without stifling their children’s creativity.  Saying “no” to dangerous activities or aggression is a must; however, redirecting behavior and offering choices may be easier and more productive in other situations.  

Parents (especially first time parents) have a tendency to hover and want to do everything for and with their toddler since everything the child does is cute, new and wonderful to the parent. Parents may also feel it is their responsibility to maintain their children’s happinessbut this is a dangerous trap that should be avoided.  If parents believe they must keep their toddler constantly happy, they are depriving their toddler of learning skills that will be of benefit throughout adulthood.  

Skills such as coping with frustration, problem solving, developing creativity and contentment – all these require that parents allow their toddlers to experience some unpleasant events.  

Toddlers must be allowed to make mistakes as they try new skills, they must be allowed to experience frustration as a parent says, “no” and they must learn limits to aggressive or unacceptable behaviors.  See our Time-Out handout in the parenting handout section for additional information. Offering toddlers choices is a wonderful way to help decrease the tantrums associated with frustration as well as providing your children with the opportunity to begin making decisions.

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning of Vanderbilt University has a nice description of self-help tasks that children of various ages can do in Teaching Your Child to Become Independent with Daily Routines.

What self-help skills can a toddler do?

  • wash and dry hands

  • drink from a cup, may use a straw

  • feed self using utensils (spoons usually are the easiest)

  • put dirty clothes in a hamper

  • throw dirty items in a trash bin (making sure the trash does not contain sharp, dangerous items)

  • put on and take off clothes  (you may want to choose clothes with easy fasteners/velcro to help with this)

  • help set the table with napkins, spoons