The Independence of an 18-month-old

“No, no, no …”  It is not uncommon to hear this from an 18-month-old who is flexing his muscle to let you know he is in control. It seems like it was only yesterday that he was so complacent and easygoing: Feedings were always fun. He smiled if you smiled. And those belly laughs made you laugh … Where did it all go?

Once a child begins to walk, they develop a sense of independence where it seems like life has no boundaries. This behavior and the desire to explore is very impulsive and not well thought out. Consequently, and appropriately so, they investigate everything. They want to see how things work, how things taste, and they want to explore cause and effect – i.e. If I pull on this, what will happen?

Learning boundaries is very hard for toddlers because it puts a limit on their desire to learn. This is where we as parents come in to help keep them safe. However, where the lines get drawn for boundaries is where difficulties often arise. Some boundaries are very clear cut. For example, we would never let a toddler run in to the street. Other boundaries, however, can be a little more arbitrary and vary depending on our temperament and how compulsive and careful we are as parents. In addition, the child’s temperament also factors into the conflict of where to set boundaries. Throw in our emotions as parents, how busy was our day, and whether we had much frustration at work, and you can see where we may have a recipe for an explosion at home.

The key to helping a toddler sort through this phase is understanding where and when they need to learn self-control.

Toddlers experience positive emotions when they accomplish something – like climbing onto the couch without any help. Once they get up, they smile, get down and try to climb back up.  And then another smile appears across their face. These are good opportunities for them to see us approve of their accomplishment. This creates confidence and they learn they can get that from us. Also, in the moment, this will lead to cooperation and caring on their part.

On the other side of the coin are the negative emotions where there may be frustration because they could not accomplish their task. Despite multiple attempts, your little one sees the same negative outcome over and over again.  As T. Berry Brazelton – an American pediatrician, author and developer of the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) – explains, negative feelings must surface with positive emotions. Even we as adults experience this conflict of positive and negative emotions on a regular basis. It is this life-long conflict that children need to learn to live with, and in the process, learn self-control.

These battles where toddlers experience positive and negative emotions can bring on some insecurity. What initially started out as stranger anxiety around 6-9 months of age has now developed into separation anxiety. Your child feels the need to go forward and explore their surroundings, while always looking back over their shoulder to make sure you are still there.  Tantrums are likely to happen if you disappear momentarily from the picture.

In addition to the dynamics of positive/negative emotions and security/insecurity is the temperament of your child. A strong-willed child can display a lot of passion, which can make for some challenging days.

Here are some suggestions to help you guide your 18-month-old:

  • As best as you can, avoid having arguments with your toddler. As a parent, you should always try to remain in control. When you hit a point during the day where a decision needs to be made, rather than asking what your child would like to do, give them an option of two choices they can pick from. For example, at breakfast you could ask “Would you like cereal or pancakes?” The will feel satisfied when they choose an option, and you are satisfied because you can live with either option.
  • When an adverse situation comes up that could make you lose your cool, take a deep breath, exhale, and don’t say anything. Not reacting right away and taking a pause can defuse a situation that could otherwise quickly escalate and make both of you mad. In a very matter of fact tone, acknowledge the situation and move on to another option.  Toddlers have a short memory, giving you the opportunity to refocus on an activity.
  • Take advantage of your child’s desire to be grown up like you. “Can you help me pick this up?” or “Can you help me put this away?” will likely add to their satisfaction that they are behaving like a grown up. And of course, the compliment and thankfulness afterwards will bring a big smile to their face!
  • Learn the technique of ignoring to minimize negative behavior. If your child is doing something that is of small consequence, look the other way and let them learn from their mistakes. Once you see they have learned their lesson, you can reinforce that lesson with a simple, matter of fact statement.
  • Know when to intervene if you feel their behavior is escalating to a tantrum. Tantrums need to be addressed calmly and rationally by providing a “choice.” If your little one is really wound up, remove them gently from the situation and engage in a different activity. Assess if their scheduled needs have been met, i.e. feeding times, nap times, sleep or bedtime to get back on track.
  • With the same matter of fact tone, let them know they are doing a good job. It’s a good idea to praise the work your toddler does and try to avoid using “good boy” or “good girl.” Instead, “I like how you put the toys away, thank you!” can bring a smile to their face. Kids need to know they are accepted and loved just as they are, despite sometimes making mistakes.  But they are here to learn, and we can approve of that process!

More Resources

As you get ready for your toddler’s next well-child exam, take a look at  The AAP 18-month-old article to give you an idea of what questions you might like to ask at that visit. Also, take a look at the Ages & Stages Questionnaire for 18 months old to see where your child is with development. And finally, I found this Today’s Parent 18-month-Old article very educational in helping to enhance knowledge on parenting.



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