Toddler milestone: Separation and independence

Toddler milestone: Separation and independence

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Separation and independence

When your toddler was a brand-new baby, she was completely unaware that you and she were two separate beings. But over time, as she's developed various physical, mental, and emotional skills and grown more confident, she's started to figure out that she's her own person with her own body, thoughts, and feelings. Of course, that means she increasingly wants to do things her own way.

When it develops

Your child's sense of individuality takes years to develop. At around 6 or 7 months, she began to realize that she was separate from you and that you could leave her alone. This may have been when separation anxiety kicked in — a phase that can last well into your child's second year.

But once she becomes more social and more confident that you will, in fact, come back for her when you leave her at daycare or with a sitter, she'll be able to move forward and forge her own identity. By the toddler years, her growing independence may have blossomed enough to cause some problems: Wanting things "my way" is at the heart of many temper tantrums.

How it develops

12 to 18 months
Early in the second year of life, the adventure of self-discovery truly begins. This is a time of astounding transformation from helplessness to independence. As a result, it's also a period of extreme mood swings and troubling behaviors. But understanding the reasons behind your toddler's actions can help you survive this tumultuous period.

Once completely dependent on you, your child now has the physical and mental capacity to explore on her own. She embarks on voyages of mobility, believing she rules her world. All too quickly, though, she learns the limits of her powers as she tries new experiences, whether it's climbing up on the couch and then not knowing how to get down or trying to put on her own coat and getting hopelessly tangled in it. And when she realizes she doesn't have everything figured out just yet, she becomes frustrated and frightened. But there's value in all of it — she's developing an identity.

Your toddler has learned that you are a separate entity and that you can leave her. However, she doesn't yet grasp the reliability of your coming back, which can make her very upset to see you go. This separation anxiety, which can come and go throughout the toddler years, typically peaks around 18 months and fades altogether by age 3.

In the meantime, resist the urge to sneak away when your toddler's back is turned — when you leave her at daycare, for example. It won't help her cope, and it may just make her more afraid that you aren't coming back. Hard as it can be, say goodbye and go while she's watching

19 to 24 months
Your toddler's self-awareness turns an important corner at this age. Evidence comes from a famous British study that compared babies under 1 with 21-month-olds. Researchers placed the younger babies in front of a mirror to see whether they understood that the reflection was an image of themselves. They didn't. The babies patted their mirror image, behaving as if they were seeing another baby. And when researchers dabbed red rouge on the babies' noses and plopped them back in front of the mirror, the babies always tried to touch their reflection's nose, not their own.

In contrast, when the researchers tried the same experiment with 21-month-olds, the children demonstrated a clear sense of self-awareness: They touched their own nose when they saw the red-nosed image in the mirror.

Not only does your toddler now better understand that she's her own person, she's better able to recover from a bout of separation anxiety. Even if she still gets upset when you leave her at daycare or with a sitter, she'll calm down more quickly because she's become more secure. Experience and her budding memory skills have taught her that you'll come back after being gone for a while. You've built her trust by continually showing her that you love and care for her.

It's also this trust that gives her the confidence to assert herself. Her insistence on wearing those green pajamas for the fifth night in a row, eating only certain foods, and climbing into her car seat by herself are all signs of her increasing independence.

25 to 30 months
Between the ages of 2 and 3, your child will continue to struggle for independence. She'll wander farther away from you as she goes exploring and she'll regularly test her limits (coloring on the walls, for example, even if you tell her not to, or leaving her room if you've placed her there for some quiet time when she's misbehaved). "I can do it myself" will probably be one of her most common refrains.

31 to 36 months
If she's like most kids, your child will conquer separation anxiety by her third birthday. But don't be surprised if, once she's cleared this hurdle, temporary episodes of separation anxiety recur from time to time. The road to maturity is riddled with separations: The first day of preschool, the first time at sleep-away camp, and even the first year of college. Helping your child cope with separation now will make future separations easier.

Your role

Your child needs a secure attachment to you before she can move away and explore her world. Consistently give her love and support, and she'll build the confidence she needs to strike out on her own. She also needs the freedom to test her limits and explore her surroundings, so provide her with a safe home environment. Instead of running around saying "no" every time she touches something that could harm her, keep dangerous objects out of her reach and plenty of safe ones within it.

Encourage independence and a growing sense of self by giving your child choices and things she can do on her own. A choice between two outfits, snacks, or afternoon activities allows your child to think for herself, and having her wield a spoon at mealtime or turn the pages of her board book shows her she's learning to help herself.

Keep in mind that just because your child is starting to break out on her own doesn't mean she'll require less of your comfort and love. While she may grow less needy, she still craves your constant care. Encourage her any time she tries something on her own, but don't push her away when she runs back to you for support. She'll want and need your reassurance for a long time to come.

When to be concerned

Though it's normal for your toddler to suffer from separation anxiety, you should consult her doctor if her anxiety becomes so overwhelming that she's unable to do anything without you by her side, or if she's inconsolable even after you're long gone from her presence.

What comes next

With age comes greater independence and self-awareness. Each year will bring more things that your child will want to do on her own. As your child gets older, she'll become more knowledgeable about herself and the scope of her abilities. Future developments include the ability to prepare her own food, make friends, and go to school.

Watch the video: Separation Anxiety: Part 1 (July 2022).


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