Toddlers can be tricky, making you laugh one moment and bringing you to tears the next. They don’t listen, they throw things, and they refuse to sleep/eat/use the toilet.
But the reality is, toddlers are just trying to understand the world around them and their place in it. Understanding their needs and corresponding behaviours will help us support them to make discoveries and construct themselves.
Toddlers need to say “No”
Developmental Need: Establishing their autonomy and individuality.
One of the most important developmental phases a toddler passes through is the “crisis of self-affirmation.” Between 18 months and 3 years, children realize that their identity is separate from their parents’ and they begin to desire more autonomy. At the same time, they begin to say “no,” they begin to use the personal pronoun I.
This movement toward independence does not come easily. Some days they will push us away, wanting to do everything by themselves; other days they will refuse to do anything at all or will cling to us.
Toddlers need to move.
Developmental need: Mastering gross movement.
Just as an animal does not like to be caged, our toddlers will not sit still for long. They want to keep mastering movement. Once standing, they move on to climbing and walking. Once walking, they want to run and to move heavy objects-the heavier the better. There is even a name for the desire to challenge themselves to the highest level by, for example, carrying big objects or moving heavy bags and furniture: maximum effort.
Toddlers need to explore and discover the world around them. The Montessori approach recommends that we accept this, set up our spaces for our child to safely explore, get them involved in daily life activities that involve all their senses, and allow them to explore the outdoors. Let them dig in the dirt, take off their shoes in the grass, splash in the water, and run in the rain.
Toddlers need freedom.
Developmental need: Self-directed exploration with autonomy
This freedom will help them grow to be curious learners, to experience things for themselves, to make discoveries, and to feel they have control over themselves.
Toddlers need limits.
Development need: Understanding how far is safe enough to explore
These limits will keep them safe, teach them to respect others and their environment, and help them become responsible human beings. Limits also help the adult step in before a boundary has been crossed to avoid the all-too-familiar shouting, anger, and blame. The Montessori approach is neither permissive nor bossy.
Instead, it teaches parents to be calm leaders for their children.
Toddlers need order and consistency.
Developmental need: To feel the safety that predictability provides.
Toddlers prefer things to be exactly the same every day-the same routine, things in the same place, and the same rules. It helps them understand, make sense of their world, and know what to expect.
When limits are not consistent, toddlers will keep testing them to see what we decide today. If they find it works to nag or meltdown, they will try again. This is called intermittent reinforcement.
If we understand this need, we can have more patience, more understanding. And when we aren’t able to provide the same thing every day, we will be able to anticipate that they may need additional support. We won’t think they are being silly; we’ll be able to see from their perspective that it’s not the way they were hoping it would be. We can offer them help to calm down and, once they re calm, help them find a solution.
Toddlers are not giving us a hard time.
Developmental need: Expression of big emotions
They are having a hard time. I love this idea of “Seeing Tantrums as Distress, Not Defiance”. When we realize their difficult behavior is actually a cry for help, we can ask ourselves, “How can I be of help right now?” We move from feeling attacked to searching for a way to be supportive.
Toddlers are impulsive.
Developmental need: Need for external regulation until they learn self-regulation
Their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that houses our self-control and decision-making centers) is still developing (and will be for another twenty years). This means we may need to guide them if they are climbing on the table again or grabbing something out of someone’s hands, and be patient if they become emotional.
Toddlers need time to process what we are saying.
Developmental need: To live in a slow and intentional manner.
Instead of repeatedly telling our children to put on their shoes, we can count to ten in our heads to allow them time to process our request. Often, by the time we get to eight, we’ll see them start to respond. Instead of forcing them to live our fast-paced lives, we can slow down and live their normal and intentional lives.
Toddlers need to communicate.
Developmental need: To experience their existence, impact and for social development.
Our children try to communicate with us in many ways. Babies gurgle and we can gurgle back; young toddlers will babble and we can show an interest in what they are saying; older toddlers love asking and answering questions; and we can give rich language, even to these young children, to absorb like a sponge.
Toddlers love mastery.
Developmental need: To master a skill and move on to more challenging tasks.
Toddlers love to repeat skills until they master them. Observe them and notice what they are working to master. Usually, it is something hard enough to be challenging but not so difficult that they give up. They’ll repeat and repeat the process until they perfect it. Once they’ve mastered it, they move on.
Toddlers like to contribute and be part of the family.
Developmental need: To find their place in the family and society.
They seem to be more interested in the objects their parents use than they are in their toys. They really like to work alongside us as we prepare food, do the laundry, get ready for visitors, and the like. When We allow more time, set things up for success, and lower our expectations of the outcome, We teach our young child a lot about being a contributing member of the family. These are things that they will build on as they become schoolchildren and teenagers.