The Parenting Challenge
Toddlers need to flex their psychic muscles in order to become more autonomous, or more able to direct their own behavior. Nevertheless, the toddler power surges that occur after learning to walk, and again during the third year of life, definitely complicate parenting. Virtually overnight, they can transform child rearing from a joy to a highly demanding endeavor.
Adults who have trouble with self-assertion, feel overwhelmed by conflict, or look to their youngster to affirm their sense of self-worth may find parenting a toddler a special burden. It is draining to tangle with a power-tripping youngster several times a day — not to mention every hour. It's hard for parents not to take the struggles personally when they are the targets of toddler wrath. It's important for parents to remember that the stage of development is driving the behavior — children are not “choosing” to create problems — and that their toddler is not railing against them but against the injustices of life itself.
Just when a youngster is feeling oh-so-powerful, he finds he can't do a simple task like put his shoes on by himself. He can't float his toy car in the toilet without a big person appearing at the door to stop him. Life keeps reminding him he's not powerful at all.
Developmental psychologists agree that a nurturing parent-child relationship is critical for toddlers. This single relationship influences youngsters' relationships with other authority figures from today's teachers to tomorrow's bosses. It also impacts how they get along with siblings, peers, friends, and future mates.
A parent may feel her youngster doesn't trust her to know what's best, given that the tot works hard to reverse so many of her decisions. In a sense, that's true. Toddlers often trust their own knowledge about what is in their best interest more than their parents'. Realizing they are still dependent on others to make decisions and handle even the most basic aspects of their care delivers continuing blows to a budding ego. At the same time the fear that “If I can do it myself, Mommy might stop taking care of me” looms large. Thus, failure highlights their inabilities while success threatens their relationship with parents. Accepting the disappointing reality that their newfound power to walk hasn't transformed them into an all-knowing god, and that being able to do more for themselves doesn't mean they will lose their parents' love, takes time.
Some parents worry that lots of arguing and defiance from their toddlers reflects weak emotional attachment or insufficient bonding. In most cases the truth lies elsewhere. It is their abiding
When children can make a parent a target of their bad moods, then turn to that same parent for comfort, it usually means that they trust the parent not to retaliate. In the past, parenting experts were adamant that caretakers should avoid being too solicitous or indulgent. With the recognition of the importance of trust the advice has changed. Rather than spoiling infants and toddlers by giving them too much time and attention, it is now believed that lots of attention makes children more emotionally secure, enabling them to tolerate more independence sooner. Experts also believe that toddlers more readily cope with rules, disappointments, and frustrations from a trusted caregiver who is loving and kind when enforcing limits.
Parents as Safe Havens
Psychologist Harry Harlow (1906–1981) conducted groundbreaking research that demonstrated how critical a nurturing parent is for children's emotional development. His studies on young monkeys have important implications for child rearing. Harlow separated newborn monkeys from their parents and raised them in cages that were barren except for a wire mesh structure. When the little orphans nursed from a baby bottle, they would cling to the wire mesh as if it were a mother.
Despite adequate nutrition it soon became evident that the emotional development of the little ones was seriously distorted. When Harlow placed something frightening in a cage, such as a noisy wind-up toy, each orphan would flee to a corner, hide its face, and tremble in terror, unable to summon the courage to approach the object for a closer look. Later, when other baby monkeys were placed in the cage of a little orphan, it didn't know how to play or interact with them. When the deprived orphans grew up, their emotional development was so stunted they couldn't even figure out how to mate.
Young monkeys raised with their mothers were much more able to cope with the wind-up toy trauma. They fled to their mothers for comfort when the frightening toy first appeared but soon became brave enough to approach it. Each time they lost courage, they ran back to their mothers for support and to regroup. Within moments they were happily playing with the new toy.
The parent-child dynamics of these monkeys, Harlow realized, mirrors what happens in the human world. A caregiver to whom the toddler is attached serves as the child's island of safety when a stranger comes into the house or when she feels frightened for any reason. Once a frightened child has spent a few moments with her human security blanket, she ventures forth with renewed courage.