As your baby enters the toddler phase, he or she will go through many emotional highs and lows—which may put you through the same emotional rollercoaster. Guiding a child through emotional development can be taxing on the parents since the emotions and behavior can change quickly and finding the right rules and approach to managing the behavior can be trial and error.
The ultimate goal in raising a child is independence, and that goal is the same in guiding your toddler’s emotional development. Each tantrum you manage and victory you celebrate gets you closer to the goal: an independent person who behaves appropriately for the situation.
That means teaching your toddler when to be quiet and sit still (at church or in the pediatrician’s waiting room) and when it’s okay to scream with joy and run around (on the playground). Your toddler will test limits, which might drive you crazy when he or she does so at inappropriate times, but that’s when you have the opportunity to teach him or her the proper behavior.
According to Healthy Children, toddlers act out more around their parents than others because they trust their parents to protect them. Your toddler will test the limits—let’s say by going toward the street when playing outside. When you set and enforce those limits, he might react by crying, screaming, or huffing and puffing. In this example, your child might cry out of anger when you grab him before stepping into the street and telling him firmly to stay in the yard. Depending on your toddler’s age, you might want to explain the limit—playing is only allowed in the yard, not the street, because there are cars in the street that can hurt him if they hit him.
Toddlers also become more independent as they learn to live without their parents for short periods of time. That’s right—it’s good for your child to get a babysitter and have a few hours to yourself! Your toddler might become quiet and withdrawn or even cry in anticipation of you leaving, but reassure her that you will be back in a few hours and playtime with the babysitter will be fun. I recommend trying a few babysitting sessions while your child is awake so that she witnesses you coming home. Praise her for being good while you were away. After a few times with the babysitter, she might feel more comfortable with a nighttime session, feeling safe and familiar enough with the routine to go to bed while you’re away.
In this case, both you and your toddler are testing limits. She is learning how to let you leave and enjoy time without you, and you are learning how she deals with the separation.
Zero to Three offers an activity you can do with your toddler to see how she feels when you are gone. When your toddler is role-playing with friends or toys, see how he or she behaves as Mommy or Daddy. Some kids will pretend to be the parent and wave goodbye. If you’re playing with your child, remind him or her that while the doll or action figure misses Mommy or Daddy, it knows they will be back. Your child might even instruct a friend or doll to “be sad” or “have fun” once “Mommy” or “Daddy” leaves. That will give you great insight into how your child feels when you leave, and give you the opportunity to address those feelings.
These are just a couple of examples of how your toddler may test limits on his or her quest for independence. He or she is learning the rules, how to behave, and how he or she feels about being given limits. As you guide your toddler’s emotional development, it’s normal for tears, screaming, and tantrums—sometimes from both of you.