Learn about the many ways you can help your toddler learn to feel good about who she is, and to believe in herself and her abilities.
Most toddlers want to do things “All by myself!” They are eager explorers and have many skills–walking, talking, figuring out how things work–that allow them to venture out and make lots of new discoveries. But they still need to know that their loved ones are always there for them as a “safe base.” This sense of security allows them to explore and learn.
Build your toddler’s self-awareness—the understanding that she is separate from you and that she is her own person.
Self-awareness is when a child realizes that he is a “distinct individual whose body, mind, and actions are separate from those of other people” (Berger, 191). This is a huge milestone for toddlers, especially for developing self-confidence. They can now think about themselves, their actions, and their impact on the people and world around them. (“Am I a good, likable, capable person?”)
You can tune in to your own child’s sense of self-awareness by using a technique from a classic experiment (Lewis & Brooks, 1978). In this study, a dot of red makeup was applied to babies’ noses without their knowing it. They were then shown a mirror to look at themselves. If the babies reacted to their mirror image by touching their own noses, they knew they were seeing their own faces. What researchers found was striking: None of the babies under 12 months reacted to the red dot as if it were on their own faces (though some smiled at the silly baby in the mirror). But most of the babies between 15 and 24 months did show some self-awareness of the red dot—by touching their own faces or gazing at their mirror image with a puzzled or curious look. This shows that the children recognized themselves. It also shows that they had a picture in their minds of their own faces—so the red dot was a strange surprise!
What you can do:
- Help your child develop self-awareness. Point out the result of her actions. You put the toys away. That makes Mommy happy. Now we have time to read another book before bed.
- Help your child understand who she is as she grows. Trying new things can feel scary to you. You need time to feel comfortable. Or, You have such strong feelings! Sometimes it’s hard to keep them in control. This kind of self-awareness helps children use what they know about themselves to manage successfully in the world.
Help your toddler become a good problem-solver
Children learn by solving problems—everything from how to get the triangle block in the right opening to how to get their own clothes on. Children benefit from activities that are challenging enough that they require careful thought, attention, and effort, but not so tough that they are impossible to master. Parents can help children tackle new challenges by seeing what skills their children currently have and then helping them take the next step. For example, if your child can build a tower 5 blocks high, show her how she can make a wider base so that she can make a taller tower.
No matter a child’s age, there are always tasks that she can complete with assistance, but cannot yet do totally on her own. (For example, a toddler may be able to lift the milk carton and pour but not get the milk directly into the cup.) When parents provide support to help children master new skills, they learn to feel proud of their own abilities and see themselves as capable and able to accomplish their goals. Through repeated experiences like these, children develop a sense of self-confidence and self-esteem.
Parents play a very important role in helping their children become good problem-solvers by scaffolding—or giving children the help they need to learn a new skill or accomplish a goal, without doing it for them. Just like the scaffolding that supports a building until it can stand on its own, the scaffolding you provide gives your child the support he needs as he works to complete the job he is working on.
What you can do:
- Support your child by using language—Are you looking for a big puzzle piece or a little piece? What about trying another space?
- Offer direction—such as taking a puzzle piece and turning it so that it is easier to see where it might fit.
- Point out positive steps taken—such as noticing when your child tries a piece in a different space (even if it doesn’t fit).
- Recognize progress—by helping your toddler see how she has gotten closer to finishing the puzzle: Look, you just got one more piece in. Now you only have two more pieces to fit in their spaces and the puzzle will be done!
Make playtime a chance to build self-confidence
Through play, children are faced with new challenges and master new skills—finding the ball behind the couch, getting the blocks stacked up, getting the jack-in-the-box to pop up. These play experiences and others like them help children develop confidence that they can solve problems.
What you can do:
- Follow your child’s lead during play and let him be the “director.” If he takes out the blocks, ask what he wants to build and help him carry out his ideas. This will build greater confidence, assertiveness, and leadership in your child. And children learn best through their natural interests and by doing what is most meaningful to them.
- Offer new and challenging activities (but not so hard that he does not have the ability to figure it out.) This will help expand your child’s skills and build confidence.
Recognize your child’s progress and accomplishments
Focus on the steps your child has taken to reach a goal. You helped put your shirt on by reaching your arms up high! That was a big help.
Focusing just on the outcome can make children feel as if they are only valued when they are successful. Providing encouragement along the way gives children the confidence to persist with challenging tasks—making it more likely that they will succeed in the end.
What you can do:
- Focus on the process more than the outcome. For example, point out how hard she worked to make her block tower taller.
- Make a photo album that shows your child’s progress. For example, take photos of a small block tower he has made and then another photo of the skyscraper he eventually created.
Break down difficult tasks into manageable steps
Some tasks can seem very overwhelming to young children. They often cope with these situations by avoiding them—such as by refusing to step into the wading pool or stopping halfway up the ladder to the “big slide.” When you help your child break down these challenging tasks into smaller steps, she is much more likely to feel confident that she can tackle them. You are also teaching your child how to use this strategy to accomplish the many big tasks she will face as she grows.
What you can do:
- Devise steps based on your understanding of what is challenging for your child. For example, if your child is afraid to go down the slide, you could slide down yourself to show him it’s safe, or have him slide a favorite stuffed animal or doll down first. Then offer to stand behind him as he practices climbing the slide’s steps. Then see if he’ll go down on your lap, and then perhaps alone while holding your hand. Throughout, let him know you believe in him. Also, make it clear that it is okay if he’s not ready to go down on his own yet. You are there to support him whenever he wants to try again.
- Show understanding and empathy when your child is struggling with a challenge. You tried to pour your own juice. Good for you. Some juice is in the cup. Some spilled. That happens when you’re learning to pour by yourself. Let’s wipe it up with this sponge. This lets children know it’s okay not to be perfect and helps them develop important coping strategies when things don’t go as planned.
You are a role model for responding to challenges. Children are always watching their parents for clues about what to do or how to feel about the different situations they encounter. When you talk yourself through a difficult moment, maintain your self-control when stressed, or persist at a difficult task, you are teaching your child important strategies for being successful and confident.
What you can do:
- Model persistence. When you model persistence and confidence in yourself, your child will learn this too. This jar just won’t open! It is sooo frustrating! What else can Mommy try? I know, how about I run it under some hot water? I heard that can help. Then, when you are successful: Yea for Mommy! I didn’t give up. I did it! This shows your child how to persist and cope with challenging situations.
- Model confidence in new situations. When you go with your child into a new situation or to meet a new person, if you look calm, confident, and happy, it lets her know this is safe, good place or person and she is more likely to feel safe and confident as well.
What You Can Do
Help your child develop self-awareness
Point out the result of her actions. You put the toys away. That makes mommy happy. Now we have time to read another book before bed.
Help your child understand who he is as he grows
Trying new things can feel scary to you. You need time to feel comfortable. Or, You have such strong feelings! Sometimes it’s hard to keep them in control. This kind of self-awareness helps children use what they know about themselves to manage successfully in the world.
Support your child by using language
Are you looking for a big puzzle piece or a little piece? What about trying another space?
Such as taking a puzzle piece and turning it so that it is easier to see where it might fit.
Point out positive steps taken
Such as noticing when your child tries a piece in a different space (even if it doesn’t fit).
By helping the toddler see how she has gotten closer to finishing the puzzle: Look, you just got one more piece in. Now you only have two more pieces to fit in their spaces and the puzzle will be done!
Focus on the process more than the outcome
For example, point out how hard he worked to get his block tower taller.
Make a photo album that shows your child’s progress
For example, take photos of a small block tower she has made and then another photo of the skyscraper she eventually created.
Devise steps based on your understanding of what is challenging for your child
For example, if your child is afraid to go down the slide, you could slide down yourself to show him it’s safe, or have him slide a favorite stuffed animal or doll down first. Then offer to stand behind him as he practices climbing the slide’s steps. Then see if he’ll go down on your lap, and then perhaps alone while holding your hand. Throughout, let him know you believe in him. Also, make it clear that it is okay if he’s not ready to go down on his own yet. You are there to support him whenever he wants to try again.
Show understanding and empathy when your child is struggling with a challenge
You tried to pour your own juice. Good for you. Some juice is in the cup. Some spilled. That happens when you’re learning to pour by yourself. Let’s wipe it up with this sponge. This lets children know it’s okay not to be perfect and helps them develop important coping strategies when things don’t go as planned.
When you model persistence and confidence in yourself, your child will learn this too. This jar just won’t open! It is sooo frustrating! What else can Mommy try? I know, how about I run it under some hot water? I heard that can help. Then, when you are successful: Yea for Mommy! I didn’t give up. I did it! This shows your child how to persist and cope with challenging situations.
Model confidence in new situations
When you go with your child into a new situation or to meet a new person, if you look calm, confident and happy, it lets her know this is safe, good place or person and she is more likely to feel safe and confident as well.
Parent-Child Activities That Promote Self-Confidence
Let your toddler do it “By myself!”
Give your toddler the opportunity to practice “big kid” skills like choosing his own snack (from a selection of healthy options), washing his faces or body in the bath (with close supervision), or brushing his teeth (of course, you get a turn, too).
Follow your child’s lead
When you take a walk with your toddler, you may want to show her the neat bug crawling along the sidewalk. But your toddler may be more fascinated with the garbage truck. When you follow your child’s lead and let her follow her interests, she feels supported, loved and important, you build her confidence and self-esteem.
Let your child be a family helper
Give your child tasks that match his age and skills. After you slice the strawberries, ask him to put them into the oatmeal bowl. When he drops his elbow macaroni on the floor, ask him to help you pick them up. Have him help you put napkins and spoons on the table while you set down the forks and knives. Helping out makes children feel good about themselves and builds their confidence.
Frequently Asked Questions
My sister’s son is the same age as mine—19 months old—and I want them to be good friends. The only problem is my nephew is a bit more aggressive; he’ll run over and grab my son or snatch a toy out of his hand. Now my child is scared of his cousin and runs over to me when he sees him coming! How can I help them to get along?
Ah, the politics of family relationships; so challenging, even when it comes to the smallest members! These situations are best handled by open communication and collaboration between the adults—in this case, you and your sister. It’s usually a disaster if one parent starts disciplining the other’s child, unless there is a clear agreement beforehand that this is okay.
First, tell your sister how eager you are for your children to become good friends. Then, in a nonjudgmental way, share your observations with her. It’s important not to sound like you’re criticizing her or her son, or she may get defensive and shut down. You might tell her that you notice your children have very different personalities and styles of communicating; your nephew is more assertive, while your son is on the shy side and gets more easily overwhelmed. Ask for your sister’s ideas for helping them get along better, given these differences.
When you’re spending time together, model how you’d like your sister to respond to your nephew without disciplining him or making it seem like he’s the bad one. For example, when your nephew takes something from your son, playfully chase after him, and say, “Hey, silly, Justin was playing with that! Let’s get something for you.” Then help your nephew find something else to play with. This kind of approach, which addresses the behavior but doesn’t make the child feel bad, will elicit more positive results.
When your son runs to you for protection, it’s important that you support him. But if you want your son to eventually feel comfortable with his cousin, it’s also important to convey a positive attitude toward your nephew. After all, your son will look to you for cues as to how he should feel about his cousin.
It can also help to act as your son’s coach. Say something like, “That silly Andrew! Did he take your toy? Let’s go see if we can get it back.” Then encourage him to use whatever communication tools he has at his age—gestures and sounds—to let his cousin know he wants his toy. Next you can suggest that the three of you search together for a different toy for your nephew. As the kids get older, you can also teach them about taking turns by making a game out of it: Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and have the boys trade toys when the buzzer goes off.
With your sister’s cooperation, you will be able to turn this situation around and help your son learn some coping skills and assertiveness, to boot.
I took my 15-month old to a new play group last week. All the other children were running around and exploring happily. My child clung to me for dear life. I want to keep attending the group. What do I do?
Children approach, take in, and react to the world around them in many different ways. This is often referred to as their temperament. One aspect of temperament has to do with how a child approaches and reacts to new situations.
On one end of the continuum, there are the very flexible children, the “go-with-the-flow” types, who eagerly approach any new situation as if to say, “I’m here. Let’s play!” They tend to enjoy a lot going on around them.
On the other end of the continuum are the children who are cautious and fearful of new situations, and need time and support to adjust. These children also tend to get overwhelmed when faced with situations where there is lots of noise and activity, preferring quiet play with just one or two other familiar people.
Most children fall somewhere in between. One temperament is not better than another—just different. The job for parents is to take the time to understand who their unique child is and to encourage his strengths while supporting him in areas where he needs help.
It sounds as though you’ve done a great job of tuning in to your child’s temperament. He has “told” you that he finds the playgroup experience difficult and you have sensitively read his cues. He is trusting you with some of his most vulnerable feelings—how you respond is the crucial next step.
While it is hard to see your child struggle or feel anxious, avoid the temptation to quit the playgroup. This experience provides you with a great opportunity to help him learn to cope with, adapt to, and, ultimately, find great pleasure in new relationships and experiences.
So, what to do? Look for ways to make playgroup more familiar and less scary for your child.
- Between meetings, plan some one-on-one time with another toddler who is easygoing and won’t overwhelm him.
- Try getting to playgroup early to give your child a chance to explore the environment without a lot of other children around. When you bring him to the playgroup, sit down and play a little, just you and him.
- Once playgroup gets going, follow your child’s lead and read his signals. If he clings to you, comfort and reassure him. Pick him up and walk around the room. Rather than thrusting him into situations, take things at his speed. Explore the toys and talk about what other children are doing in an upbeat tone which lets him know that this is a good place. If he needs a break, take a walk or go to a quiet room.
- Set up your toys next to another child, encouraging “side by side” play that is so common for toddlers and that may make your child feel safer than having more direct, intense contact.
- When you think your child is ready, invite another child and parent to join your play.
- When your child is happily playing with another youngster, it is time for you to take a backseat.
This approach of reading and sensitively responding to your child’s cues—and taking incremental steps–can be helpful in any situation. While you are not changing your child’s temperament (and this shouldn’t be the goal), you are helping him adapt and nurturing confidence and coping skills he’ll use from now through adulthood.
My 21-month-old is scared of the vacuum cleaner. Whenever I try to clean he starts to cry. I don’t know what to do?
The vacuum cleaner, from a toddler’s perspective, can look and sound pretty darn scary. Figuring out the reason for your toddler’s fear will help you help him cope in the most effective way. The strategies we’ve suggested for dealing with this fear (discussed below) are useful not just for this situation, but for many situations your son will encounter as he grows.
Here are some possible explanations for your son’s fear:
At 15 months, children are entering the world of pretend which means they are starting to develop their imaginations. But they don’t yet understand the difference between fantasy and reality. For them, the vacuum cleaner really may be a monster.
Temperament—your child’s individual way of approaching the world—may also be a factor. Children who are generally more fearful and cautious by nature are likely to find an object like the vacuum cleaner scary.
If you think that the vacuum is a scary object for him, you can simply not use it when he’s around. However, you can also find ways to help him learn to manage his fears—a very important skill to develop. At a time when you have no expectation of getting any cleaning done, bring the vacuum out. Then:
- Let him explore it while it is off. Make it part of a game. See how many times you and he can run around it in one minute.
- Dress the vacuum up with silly hats and scarves. Make it talk in a funny voice.
- Have one of your son’s favorite stuffed animals slide down the vacuum. (Using humor can be very effective.)
- Have your son move it around while it’s unplugged (perhaps again as part of a game) so that he can feel like he’s the master of it.
- When you think he is feeling very comfortable with it, ask him if he’s ready to turn it on. Perhaps he wants to be in the next room and slowly move toward it.
How children take in and respond to sensory input—such as light, sound, or touch—is also a factor. For example, when faced with the vacuum cleaner, some children are fascinated by the blaring noise, some totally fall apart, and yet others seem to hardly notice. If you find that your son is sensitive to other noises in his environment (i.e., prefers softer music, gets distressed in noisy places like the mall or grocery store), then he needs two things from you:
- First, protect him from this upsetting noise. Vacuum when your son is out taking a walk with his dad or have dad do the vacuuming when you’re out playing with your son.
- Help your son learn to adapt to unpleasant sounds that he will eventually be exposed to in his daily life. So introduce him slowly to new and different sounds but stop when he begins to show distress. Over time you will help his system handle sounds that are now overwhelming him.
With time, rest assured, your son will conquer the vacuum cleaner and move onto bigger “dragons.”