There is a change that occurs when a child is approximately 18 months old. This change marks the movement of a child from a relationship with their mother that is symbiotic, into one that is about differentiation.
It is at this stage that a child is beginning to develop a sense of being separate from their mother as opposed to being a part of her. The early stage of a child being reliant on their primary care giver for all things is slowly starting to change. A child is beginning to find self assurance and is increasingly becoming more mobile. This makes it possible for a child to seek some things for themselves.
Children at this stage of development are discovering an exciting new world to explore, to touch and to hold. What makes this separation from their mother possible? It is the fact that that a child can now hold an image of their mother in their minds. An infant, when separated from their mother cannot conceptualise their mother returning. This means that infants need to be attended to immediately, whereas toddlers are beginning to explore some aspects of the world on their own and are beginning to enjoy their own company.
For this change to progress in a healthy fashion, this separation must be managed in a particular way.
The first thing that toddlers need is a safe and loving home base to return to after their adventures.
This stage of development should not be forced on your child. It is very important for them to be able to regulate their comings and goings. So when they look back to see if it is safe to be away from you, they will find their mother and fathers loving attention at a safe distance. This can be an unnerving stage for parents as our fear for their safety can be overwhelming. There can be a strong urge at this time to over parent and to smother our childs move towards independence and differentiation. So that we as parents are at ease, we must determine that the environment we choose to let our toddler explore is safe. If our children are in a situation where separation from us is forced upon them, this will create fear and timidness in them. If this happens regularly then it can create emotional and behavioural problems.
So lets talk now about setting boundaries and how to do this in a healthy and loving fashion.
Firstly, the techniques we ought to avoid. We should avoid shaming, hitting, manipulation, bribing, dishonesty, and punishing. These methods may work after a fashion but are harmful to the relationship with your child and in the longer term they will backfire as your child learns to respond in kind.
So how do we deal with highly energetic and oppositional toddlers?
The key is to develop an open honest and emotionally authentic relationship with your child.
Im not talking about pouring out your problems to them but about letting your child get to know you as a separate person with needs and feelings. Showing your emotions to your child when you are frustrated, cranky, delighted, scared, hurt, in love, etc., are all valid lessons for them to learn about the needs of others, including your need to set boundaries.
It is a slow process teaching our children about consideration for others. If our toddlers are encouraged and supported to feel their own emotions then a mutual respect is slowly developed.
Toddlers have not yet learned to control their emotions the way adults do so we are often confronted by their strong feelings. This is completely normal. As much as possible, our children should to be encouraged to express themselves even when we are setting a boundary with them. We need to encourage their right to be angry and say no to us.
This respect for oppositional behaviour and self assertion teaches emotional intelligence; it also teaches them to stand up for themselves and to have respect for others.
It does not mean however that we should collapse our boundaries.
We need to hold our ground and permit their opposition. It is often difficult to support their wilfulness because this was not permitted amongst our generation.
When we consider the raising of our very young children, we would be best served by considering what we might need to learn to do the job well rather than just thinking about what they need to learn.