The Emotional Life of the Toddler
1 The Emotional Importance of Early Relationships
Living with a child between 1 and 3 years of age is an exhilarating experience. Who else could show us so convincingly that a wet, muddy leaf lying on the ground is actually a hidden marvel or that splashing in the bathtub can bring ultimate joy? Toddlers have the gift of living in the moment and finding wonder in the ordinary. They share those gifts by helping the adults they love to reconnect with the simple pleasures of life.
But toddlers have dark moments, too. They are notoriously willful and unpredictable. Their behavior can be difficult to understand and strenuous to handle. At times parents find themselves caught in a contest of wills, vaguely embarrassed at being unable to win more handily at this uneven match. Other times they are simply at a loss. It is hard to fathom what the child is asking for, and the child cannot explain. He or she can only act, repeating the same behavior again and again until the parent finally deciphers the message and comes up with an appropriate response.
Examples of toddler behavior begging for an explanation are many.
• Blair hits his head against the wall if he is angry or frustrated.
• Eddy cries with hunger but rejects every choice his mother offers him for dinner.
• Sandra screams and tries to hide when she sees a picture of an elephant waving his long trunk in a children’s book.
• Lenya lets go of her father’s hand and runs toward a horse galloping in the field next to her house.
• Mary looks for her mother all over the house only to run out of the room as soon as she finds her.
• Marty goes back and forth between crying to be held and demanding to be put down.
These and many other behaviors defy adult logic. Why would a child seek pain, choose to stay hungry, become terrified of a harmless picture, rush into danger, search for her mother only to run away from her, or want comforting while rejecting it at the same time?
Though inexplicable from the perspective of grown-ups, these reactions make perfect sense from the viewpoint of a child who is 1, 2, or 3 years old. This book tries to explain why this is so. The ideas presented are my personal synthesis of child observation, clinical work with toddlers and their families, theories of development, and current research findings. The organizing themes come from attachment theory, which was developed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby and psychologist Mary Ainsworth to explain the intense need that all children in the first three years of life have for a close relationship with their parents and a small number of cherished adults. The basic premise of attachment theory is that toddlers can grow into happy and competent children if they can rely on at least one adult who makes them feel safe and protected. From this basic feeling of security in relationships grows the impetus to explore how things work in the world and to try out new skills.1
The most important emotional accomplishment of the toddler years is reconciling the urge to become competent and self-reliant with the simultaneous and sometimes contradictory longing for parental love and protection. This process is apparent in the behavior of toddlers who have recently mastered walking on their own. The child moves back and forth between staying close to the parent, moving away to do things on her own, and going back to the parent to share discoveries, to be comforted, or simply to “recharge batteries” with a hug or a cuddle before going off yet again for another bout of exploration. They are practicing the balance between their need for autonomy and their need for protection. In order to explore and learn, they need reassurance that the parent will be there to keep them safe while they do things on their own.
Parents serve as the home base for the toddler’s explorations. When they respond to the child’s experiences with encouragement and understanding, this home base becomes a secure base. The child derives a feeling of security from the parent’s support, and this security generates the self-confidence to seek larger horizons.
Different toddlers use the secure base provided by the parents in different ways. Some children are shy and retiring by temperament, and they need more time close to the parents before they are ready to explore on their own. Other children can hardly be held back because they are very active and enthralled by novelty. Temperamental tendencies put an individual stamp on how toddlers use their parents and other caregivers as a secure base for their explorations.
Yet most adults are neither fixed in one place nor infinitely available. The secure base is human, and the parent has to attend to aspects of life other than being responsive to the child. Parents have many roles in addition to being parents: they have a work life, a social life, and a private life, in addition to the multiple demands of everyday existence. The separate needs and wishes of parents and toddlers need to be negotiated and balanced in a reasonably mutually satisfactory way. What “satisfactory” means, in turn, differs from family to family and changes in the course of development depending on many factors, including societal opportunities and pressures, the parents’ cultural expectations and values, and the individual characteristics and relationship styles of the parents and the child. In striving for family harmony, it helps to remember that satisfaction is often the art of the possible. The English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who was renowned for his deep understanding of the mother-child relationship, coined the term “good-enough mother” to help mothers and society at large relinquish the fantasy that there is such a thing as a perfect mother—or that there should be. Many mothers use “good enough” as a mantra to repeat when they are flooded by guilt and regret that they cannot give their children the ideal life that we all yearn for and that eludes us all.
When the child first begins to walk, parents postpone or adjust many of their own wishes and plans because the new physical and emotional demands of locomotion often call for urgent, immediate
attention and quick action. As toddlers get firmer on their feet and acquire greater self-control between about 18 and 24 months, parents are under less pressure to defer to the child. They increasingly expect the toddler to adjust to the adults’ plans and wishes rather than the other way around.
The themes of physical and emotional safety must remain a priority throughout the toddler years because parents cannot rely on the child’s self-control or ability to judge what is safe and what is dangerous. Toddlers’ impetus to move and explore is much more powerful than their capacity to anticipate the consequences of their actions. The areas of the brain that involve logical thinking, abstract reasoning, self-restraint, and long-term planning take a long time to develop and may not be fully mature until early adulthood. As a result, the first years of life have the grim distinction of being also the most risky ones, with the highest likelihood of life-threatening as well as minor accidents such as falls, burns, ingestion of nonfood and sometimes poisonous items, and near drowning. Parents and other caregivers may find themselves taken by surprise, unable to anticipate or keep up with the quick mobility of a single-minded toddler who is intent on exploring how the world works.
Physical safety depends on the caregivers’ capacity to identify and respond promptly to sources of danger, which demands ongoing alertness to the child’s whereabouts. Emotional safety results from children’s consistent experience that parents and other caregivers will be available to protect them and respond to their signals of need. Though physical danger and safety are usually clear-cut, the experience of emotional safety is not monochromatic. Many of the power struggles so prevalent in the second and third years of life stem from parents’ and children’s disparate perceptions of danger and their often incompatible but nonnegotiable individual agendas. Parents and other caregivers are often exhausted by the extraordinary zest of toddlers for being on the move, their refusal to take naps, and the quick pace of their darting off, climbing, running, and jumping. Two efficient strategies to decrease parent and child mutual frustration are creating safe spaces for toddlers that decrease the need for constant parental intervention and redirecting their attention
by enticing them away from forbidden pursuits. In this sense, physical safety and emotional security can go hand in hand.
This is also the time when many socialization pressures begin. Toddlers are asked to live up to many new parental expectations in a short period of time. We want them to relinquish the satisfactions of being a baby and trade them in for the more ambiguous pleasures of growing up. Most toddlers experience toilet training, giving up the bottle, falling asleep on their own, and complying with the rules of the household as impositions that are more trouble than they are worth. They respond by refusing to do things before they are ready and by throwing a tantrum if all else fails. Yet those protests come at an emotional cost. Toddlers are scared that displeasing their parents will result in losing their love, and this fear finds expression in the common difficulties of toddlerhood, such as separation anxiety, sleep disturbances, and inexplicable fears.
In responding to the needs of toddlers, the caregiving function of parents as protectors undergoes a transformation. They can no longer serve primarily as an external secure base that anchors the child’s comings and goings and responds to the child’s signals of need. They must now help the child to become a partner in sorting out disagreements and finding solutions that will preserve mutual goodwill.
This partnership is necessarily asymmetrical because the parent and the child are not equal. The parent carries the responsibility for raising the child and must be the one to make the important decisions, although the child may be offered some concrete choices and allowed to take the initiative when appropriate. Young children are reassured by knowing that the parents are confident in their authority. This attitude is conveyed in the recommendations parents receive during a parenting intervention appropriately entitled “Circle of Security,” which encourages parents to be “Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind.”3
Partnership with the parents is a reliable ally for the child in times of fear, sadness, anger, and frustration because it serves as a protection from despair and emotional collapse. The child learns that she may dislike what is happening in the moment but can tolerate the stress and find pleasure in something else. The parents’ supportive attitude
in helping the child through difficult moments gradually becomes a part of the child. What at first was an external secure base is gradually transformed through multiple interactions into an internal experience of confidence and safety and becomes an increasingly reliable component of the growing child’s sense of self. The child learns to incorporate the parents’ care and protectiveness even in their absence. The toddler years are a crucial initial stage in the extended process of consolidating this achievement.
Partnerships are not always harmonious because disagreements cannot be invariably worked out to both partners’ satisfaction. This is probably more true of the toddler years than of any other age until adolescence. Temper tantrums, yelling, defiance, striking out, sulking, irritability, and anger are frequent components of family life while raising a toddler. This is an early mirror of the struggles inherent in relating closely to others throughout life. Some degree of ambivalence is an integral component of all human relationships. The more we love and depend on someone, the more intense our disappointment and frustration may become when conflicts are not resolved in the way we wish.
It is neither possible nor desirable to be always attuned and responsive to the moods and wishes of children. Unconditional deference thwarts their capacity to understand that the needs of others are equally legitimate and must sometimes prevail. Parents can lose their sense of self when they turn themselves over to their child, with negative consequences for both the parent and the child. The partnership between parent and child by necessity has to remain unequal for a long time. Testing adult authority and living with the outcome of this testing help children learn about social expectations and enrich their repertoire of social and emotional skills, including frustration tolerance and adjusting to the needs and wishes of others.
It is hard sometimes to keep in mind the growth-promoting potential of the mismatches between parent and child goals because the parents’ empathy for the child can make them feel as if it is their fault that they cannot fulfill the child’s wishes. Mismatches, however, can be beneficial to the child, even if unpleasant. Many studies show that
parents’ middle-of-the-road sensitive responsiveness best predicts the child’s security of attachment. Such “neither too much nor too little” parental sensitivity in responding to the child is most likely to develop when parents cultivate an attitude of partnership that integrates empathy with reality. This involves an effort to listen, show understanding for the toddler’s perspective and feelings, acknowledge that parents and children at times have different goals, look for ways to reconcile differences, and assert parental priorities when needed even if the child does not like this outcome. The child’s emotional resilience is built over time and calls for daily practice in problem solving, conflict resolution, and coping with the frustration of not having the last word. Kind firmness also reassures the child that the grown-ups know what they are doing and creates a realistic awareness of and respect for the needs of others through the example of the parents.
Every aspect of the toddler’s development is influenced by the presence or absence of a secure base and a partnership between parent and child. Milestones such as toilet training and common anxieties such as fear of separation and sleep disturbances can be understood better from this perspective. Even the child’s responses to stressful external events such as beginning child care or parental divorce become clearer and easier to manage in light of these concepts.
A secure base can be established with biological and adoptive mothers and fathers, with a single parent, with each of two same-sex parents, and with other trusted caregivers. In families with a mother and a father, the role of the father often becomes more salient when the baby in arms becomes a toddler. Cultural influences, family circumstances, and individual styles play major roles in shaping the role of fathers in their children’s everyday life, but the often observed increased involvement of fathers in the toddler years may be linked to findings that fathers as a group are more likely than mothers to promote the adventurous exploration and challenging play that toddlers are now ready to join.4
In studies of young children’s relationships with their mother and father, a secure relationship with the father is protective of the child’s healthy development beginning in infancy. One study, for example, found that children who showed a secure attachment to
their fathers by seeking them out for comfort when feeling stressed had fewer behavior problems and showed more competence in school and peer groups than did those who had an insecure relationship with their fathers.5
In another study, toddlers who showed insecurity with both their fathers and their mothers had more behavioral problems when they were 6.5 years old than toddlers who had a secure relationship with both parents, but having a secure relationship with either parent offset the likelihood of these problems.6
A growing body of research lends support to the notion that a supportive father presence is beneficial even when the father and the mother are not living together but can create a coparenting partnership on behalf of their child.7
This is an important message for single parents and divorced parents who are negotiating how to share their access to the child. The experience of toddlers and parents in divorced families is explored in chapter 9.
What are the implications of these findings for children raised in nontraditional family configurations, such as in single-parent households or by same-sex parents? The available evidence consistently shows that the support of friends and family, flexibility of work hours, adequate income and access to social resources, and satisfaction with caregiving arrangements enable single parents to raise children who
thrive in all aspects of their development. As with children raised in two-parent childhoods, the emotional quality of the relationship between parent and child is the single most important predictor of the child’s healthy development. Similarly, studies of children growing up with same-sex parents consistently show that their well-being—including emotional adjustment, quality of peer and adult relationships, comfort with their gender identity, and academic performance—is influenced by the same kinds of factors that influence the well-being of children raised by two heterosexual parents, including parenting stress, parenting approaches, and couple relationship adjustment. These factors are not associated with parental sexual orientation.8
Same-sex parents often report that when toddlers and preschoolers become aware of different family constellations, they ask, “Do I have a mommy?” “Where is my father?” Even very young children can understand and accept explanations about different family configurations that are offered in clear and simple language by the adults they love. Young children may be the first ones to describe to others what their family structure looks like, as 3-year-old Mary demonstrated when she told the cashier at the grocery store’s checkout counter, “My daddy Sam yelled at me, but my daddy Paul told him to stop.” The National Association for the Education of Young Children has developed resources that help parents and educators speak openly, comfortably, and inclusively with young children about the diversity of family configurations as a way of promoting cultural understanding and help children from all kinds of families feel that they belong.10
A book for children, Who’s in My Family: All About Our Families by Robie Harris, 11
helps parents introduce this topic to their young children.
The parents’ beliefs and practices about what is good for the child are shaped by cultural values that carry enormous emotional power even when parents are not consciously aware of them. These values and practices inform every aspect of caregiving, from concrete decisions such as where and with whom the baby sleeps and when to start toilet training to adult expectations about what is right and wrong, including what the child is allowed or not allowed to say and do in different situations. Different cultures have different ideas about the
importance of play, the value of talking to babies, gender roles, and what is expected from mothers and fathers—virtually every domain of parenting is affected by culture. Cultural values, in turn, are influenced by many factors that include the family’s racial, ethnic, religious, and national identity, immigration history, economic and social circumstances, educational background, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Cultural groups are not homogeneous. For example, people from the same race differ in ethnicity, religion, social and economic conditions, sexual orientation, and gender identity. People often see themselves as having several cultural identities simultaneously because of the different groups to which they belong. One can be a minority within a minority, as when in a particular country the person’s religion or sexual orientation is different from the mainstream in the minority ethnic group with which he or she identifies. The parent’s acceptance and comfort with the prevailing cultural values of the groups to which he or she belongs adds still more cultural variability to child-rearing values and practices. A deeply religious parent, for example, might have different expectations about what is allowed and what is forbidden in child behavior from those of a secular person from the same ethnic, racial, national, and religious group. As societies all over the world become increasingly culturally diverse, many individuals and their children have mothers, fathers, and other relatives from different identity groups and consider themselves multicultural in a variety of dimensions.
Social change means that cultural values are dynamic, in flux, and enacted through the individuality of each parent and each family. Across cultural groups, parents share the same goal: to help their children grow up to be healthy and productive members of their societies. This goal can be achieved through a large range of specific values and practices. No identity or cultural group holds a monopoly on how to raise children who thrive, and the beauty of cultural diversity enriches the world and all of us. The chapters that follow describe how toddlers think, feel, and respond to the challenges of growing up and how parents can help them meet these challenges with greater self-confidence and joy, but this book also reflects the (often unconscious) cultural
influences of its author. Parents can tailor every aspect of the book to their own individual and cultural beliefs in light of what is of value to them.
Parents and children help each other to grow. In raising their children, parents are also raising themselves. They relive emotions from their growing-up years and may find themselves repeating with their children the behaviors and feeling states that they felt toward their own parents. Sometimes the body remembers more than the mind does, through unexpected visceral feelings of tenderness, delight, joy—or, more darkly, sadness, fear, frustration, or rage. Child rearing gives parents the chance to redo their own childhood and to improve on it. Each encounter with their toddler becomes an opportunity either to fall back on old patterns or to create a new response that feels better aligned to the kind of person the parent wants to become. This book will do its job if it helps parents to raise their toddlers in the way they wish they had been raised.