How to help your toddler gain more independence

Your little one can't wait to gain more independence, but she still needs you to help steady her steps.

Photo: istockphoto

Photo: istockphoto

For Melissa Howe, adjusting to the total dependence of a newborn baby was pretty overwhelming at times. She recalls: “I remember sitting on the toilet and breastfeeding Matthew and realizing that he had completely infringed on my personal space and boundaries. With a baby, there are no boundaries.”

But at least that was consistent. Now that Matthew is a toddler, she’s had to make another adjustment: “It’s a time of fluctuation – sometimes he’s as dependent as an infant, sometimes he’s determined to be independent. And it can be incredibly frustrating for both of us.”

Take something simple like opening the door. Matthew can just barely reach the doorknob and can’t quite turn it. But he’s determined to try. And try. And try. Fifteen minutes go by, the tears are starting to appear, and Matthew and Mom are still both on the wrong side of the door.

“I’ll tell him, ‘You seem to be getting frustrated. Would you like me to help?’” says Howe. “He starts to cry, but he nods, so I open the door and walk through. And then he collapses on the floor all upset because I went through the door ahead of him. He wanted to be first!”

That’s one day. The next day Howe might serve Matthew finger foods for lunch on his high-chair tray, thinking she can eat her own meal while it’s still hot. Nope. Today, Matthew’s gone all helpless and wants to be fed. She tries to coax him into serving himself, but he’s already tired and hungry and the only way to head off the approaching meltdown is to pick up the spoon and feed him.

Early childhood educator Candice Clarke laughs when she hears about Matthew’s quick-change personality. “This is so normal, it just screams normalness. In fact, I would be worried about a toddler who wasn’t behaving this way.”

Clarke explains that toddlers are at an age when they are increasingly aware of what the older children and adults around them are capable of, and their natural drive to learn pushes them to give those things a try for themselves. “Often, though, their bodies haven’t caught up with their brains, so while they want to do it, they can’t,” she says.

Then the pendulum swings back, and the toddler’s need for comfort and nurturing comes to the surface. “It’s knowing that you, the parent, are available to help when needed that makes the hard work towards independence possible,” according to Clarke.

Coranne Lipford has noticed that toddlers seem to have the worst possible timing for these bouts of dependence or independence. She’s the mother of four-year-old Patrick and Graeme, almost two. “The times Graeme decides he’s going to put his shoes on himself are always the days when I’m in a big hurry,” she says. “Or he’ll insist that he can do up the harness on his car seat when it’s pouring rain, so I have to stand there getting soaked. If my arms are full, that’s when he wants to be carried. Guaranteed.”

Graeme’s tolerance for being separated from her fluctuates, too. “Sometimes I can’t even leave him with his father for five minutes, while I run to the store, without tears and protests,” Lipford explains, “and other times he’s saying bye-bye quite happily as I head out.”

She’s noticed, though, that progress is being made. “There are fewer and fewer really clingy times as he gets older,” she notes.

Bedtime has been a prime example. When Graeme was younger, Mom was the one who helped him fall asleep at night. With a new baby on the way, Lipford was anxious to pass that job over to her husband, Gord. But Graeme would have nothing to do with that plan.

“He was really upset at the idea, so we just dropped it,” she adds. Three weeks later, Lipford came down with a virus and felt terrible. “I told Graeme that I was sick and could he please go to sleep with his dad instead of me. He said OK and off he went. Gord’s been putting him to sleep ever since.”

She knows that he might decide to request Mom’s services again on some future night, but says, “I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

Both Howe and Lipford stress that acceptance is the key to dealing with children who are alternating between dependence and independence. “This is just how it is,” says Howe. “Yes, it’s frustrating when I know Matthew can do things but just doesn’t want to – like walking somewhere instead of being carried. But I know there is usually something underlying it that he can’t yet express with words, so the best I can do is respond to what he needs at the moment.”

Clarke adds that sometimes parents can head off some frustrating moments by planning ahead. “If you know she’s going to want to open the door, prop it open beforehand. If dressing herself is an issue, put out sweatpants that she can just pull on.” But she acknowledges that many of these challenges can’t be avoided. “Then it’s just patience, patience, patience. Keep reminding yourself that this is how toddlers learn.”

“Just don’t have any expectations,” advises Lipford, adding: “I think having gone through this once already, with Patrick, we’re able to take it more in stride. While the process may seem slow and unpredictable, over time they really do become more independent. It just doesn’t happen overnight.”

This article was originally published in 2011.

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