How to Safely Foster Independence in Toddlers - Baby Chick

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How to Safely Foster Independence in Toddlers

parentingUpdated March 30, 2021

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist


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Welcome to the toddler years! The years when you spend your entire day just trying to keep your toddler safe as he explores his world that he now has some control. At this age, children are craving independence and are determined to prove that they can do everything themselves. It becomes our job to foster independence in toddlers just the right amount to make them feel “big” while protecting them and ensuring their safety in the process.

How to Foster Independence in Toddlers of Various Temperaments

Some toddlers are more reserved and will not object to having your assistance for some things. In contrast, other toddlers are insistent that they strap themselves into their car seat, dress themselves, and push the buttons in the elevator themselves. Your child’s temperament can be a large factor in determining how much independence she will be seeking. Research tells us that your child’s temperament comes from her brain activity. Children with higher activity levels in their left frontal brains tend to be more willing to explore unfamiliar places and objects. Those children with more activity in the right frontal brain tend to avoid unfamiliar situations and be more fearful, cautious, and reserved in general. Children who are more cautious and fearful as toddlers tend to have better self-control later on.

Brain chemistry is not the only factor that plays into temperament and a child’s craving for independence. Just as a child’s experiences affect his brain development, they also affect his temperament. Parents can foster independence in toddlers and encourage a child who is fearful of new situations, and set the foundation for independence.

If your child is on the fearful side, you can provide a lot of encouragement and reassurance in new situations to set the foundation for healthy independence. Inversely, if your child is a risk-taker or tends to over-react in certain situations, keeping calm and patient will help him learn to regulate his own actions and emotions. There really is no right or wrong way to react to your child’s temperament, and there is no good or bad temperament. It is just important to best support your child based on his specific needs and your specific parenting style.

Understanding How to Foster Independence in Toddlers

Independence takes shape in a few different ways, language, communication and social interactions, self-help skills, and emotional skills. Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas and how you can foster independence in toddlers in a safe and supportive way.

Language and Communication:

Language and communication skills begin to emerge as soon as your baby makes eye contact with you, but now that she has words to express some of her wants and needs, she is much more adept at making her needs known. Remember, your child may seem very verbal, but he still has a long way to learn vocabulary, verbal language, and non-verbal language. Try to provide your child with the language they need to deal with situations. If it is obvious that he is frustrated, teach him to say, “I am frustrated because . . . ”. Don’t assume that he can read all of your non-verbal communication and understand how you are feeling. Toddlers are perceptive but still learning how to interpret non-verbal communication. You can explain to him how you are feeling with words such as, “I am not mad at you. I just have a lot to do today.”

You can provide her with language and vocabulary to help her navigate social situations independently as well. Maybe before a friend arrives for a play date, you practice scenarios with your child. “What will you say if Jenny wants to play with dolls, but you want to play with Legos?” Then provide suggestions.

Self-help Skills:

This is probably the most significant area where toddlers really want to prove that they are big and independent. Allow your toddler as much supervised independence in this area as possible. Picking out clothes, dressing herself, and brushing her own hair and teeth empowers and builds self-esteem.

It may be hard to watch your toddler select a pink tutu, pumpkin tights, and a green pajama shirt to wear as clothing, but allow it sometimes. You are fostering individuality and reinforcing her choices which give her validation and feeds into self-assurance and confidence.

In general, try walking a middle ground. Maybe pull out one or two outfits and let your toddler choose which one he wants to wear. This provides some independence and autonomy, but you are still in charge. Maybe you allow her to brush her teeth herself, but you set a timer, and she cannot stop until the timer dings, or you sing a song while she brushes, and the brushing ends when the song ends.

During mealtimes, allow your toddler to help with food preparation. Pull a stool up beside you and put him to work mixing, slicing bananas with a butter knife, washing dishes, or shucking corn. Give her half a cup of milk in a measuring cup with a handle to pour into her cereal herself. Give her all the pieces of the sandwich separately and have her assemble it before she eats it.

Emotional Skills

This can be the most challenging because it is not tangible. Remember that your toddler’s emotional health, sometimes called mental health, is developing at this stage of blossoming independence. How you, as the parent nurture this, lays the groundwork for future emotional health. Toddlers need a lot of encouragement and support, and they look to you to fulfill that.

It is important to keep them safe but provide just enough independence to provide a sense of pride and confidence in their abilities, choices, and actions. Reinforce as much as possible. When your child does something that demonstrates their independence and practice of new skills, point it out and praise her. When my daughters were toddlers, we had sliced bananas as a side dish with almost every single meal, and my husband and I always praised the chef and made a big deal about how helpful they were in preparing the meal.

Fostering independence in toddlers is a constant balancing act, but it is always about the process, not the finished product. If your toddler wants to help fold laundry, let her do it, praise her like crazy, thank her emphatically, and you can always re-fold after she goes to sleep. Stay in control, but he doesn’t always have to know you are in control. Let him feel big by offering lots of choices, but make sure the choices are all that you want.

Continue to talk to your toddler all day long, ask lots of “wh” questions (who, what, when, where, why) to build his vocabulary, read books together and give lots of advanced warning before transitions so he has time to adjust his thinking and acclimate to the change. For example, “You have five more minutes to play, then we are going to put on your shoes and go to the grocery store. While we are there, you can help me find oranges and peaches. I will need your help.”

The two of you will conquer these toddler years together!


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