Toddlers often lack the language they need to communicate the powerful feelings they are experiencing—like anger, fear, or frustration. Browse the information and links below to see what your little one is experiencing and learning this month.
What It’s Like for You
As your baby advances through the toddler years, you may be seeing the challenging behavior that, until now, you thought (or hoped) only happened to other people’s kids. In fact, tantrums, hitting, and biting are not unusual for young toddlers. But they can certainly be tough for parents to cope with. Bethany, mother of Conrad (aged 17 months), agrees:
I never hit or spank my kids. But Conrad has started hitting me when he is angry. And it just makes me furious. It takes every ounce of self-control to not react harshly. His hitting seems so mean and disrespectful sometimes. How did he learn to do this anyway? It is really the most frustrating behavior I’ve had to deal with yet.
Toddlers often lack the language they need to communicate the powerful feelings they are experiencing—like anger, fear, or frustration. So they use other ways, like facial expressions and actions, to express their strong feelings. Consequently, hitting is very common for children this age. It’s important to remember that toddlers aren’t hitting to be mean or to “get” you. They are impulsive and have not learned to control their feelings and actions. When they get overwhelmed, they tend to lash out. It’s best to stay calm, take a firm but not angry hold of your child’s hand, and repeat, matter-of-factly—No hitting, hitting hurts. Then show him what he can do to express his anger. This approach helps toddlers learn self-control over time.
What It’s Like for Baby
There are so many people I have to see—doctor, dentist, barber, and the shoe store clerk. They all want to touch me and move me around in different ways and I’m not sure I like it one bit. It can be scary (like the scissors the barber uses) and sometimes even painful (like shots at the doctor)! Sometimes there are too many people and too much noise…or other kids crying. I just don’t like it.
But you really help me out by letting me know where we’re going ahead of time. (But not too far ahead—that can confuse me.) You say, We’re getting in the car now to go to the doctor for your check-up. I am not quite sure what you mean, since I don’t remember my last doctor’s visit all that well. But someday soon I will connect the word “doctor” with a picture in my mind of my doctor and know exactly what you mean.
I know that you also try to schedule my appointments during my best time of day, when I’m not too hungry or tired. And in the waiting room, you play with me and tell me the names of the animals on the wallpaper. That helps me feel comfortable. When it’s time for my check-up, sometimes I don’t want the doctor to touch me. But you sit next to me, hold me tight, and kiss my head. I feel safer with you close by. You ask the doctor and nurse to tell me what they are going to do before they do it. That makes me feel better because I know what to expect—what’s happening next. It is also pretty neat when you show me all the doctor’s stuff and tell me what it is: Stethoscope, scale, otoscope, tongue depressor. Those are funny words. And I love it when the doctor lets me listen to her heart and sticks out her tongue! When I get a little older, maybe I’ll pretend to be a doctor and give you a check-up, too.
What Your Toddler Is Learning
* That her feelings are important.
* To cope with frightening or stressful situations.
* To be empathic. Children learn how to show empathy to others by experiencing it themselves.
Language and Thinking Skills:
* To develop her imagination. She sees the world from another person’s perspective by pretending to listen to the doctor’s heart and looking at her throat. Role-playing helps children develop the ability to imagine what another person might feel or think in a particular situation.
* New words—like the various objects in the doctor’s office.
* How to communicate feelings of fear or anxiety.
* Memory—the ability to connect past experiences with the doctor with future doctor’s visits.
What to Expect From Your Baby’s Development
As you review the chart, keep in mind that development is not a race and that every child grows at her own pace and in her own way. Your child may develop skills faster or slower than indicated below and still be on track. If you have questions or concerns, talk with your child’s health care provider or other trusted professional.
Your Toddler’s Development From 15 to 18 Months
|What Your Baby Can Do||What You Can Do to Connect With Your Baby|
I’m using my body to explore and learn.
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I’m using language to understand the world around me.
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I’m beginning to understand how my actions affect other people.
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I’m becoming a good problem-solver.
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I may get clingy and act like a baby sometimes.
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Did You Know…
**Your instincts about your child’s health are probably right on target?** Have you ever had the feeling that something was wrong with your toddler—that she just wasn’t well? A recent large-scale survey of more than 2000 families found that a mother’s perception of her 17-month-old’s health corresponded with the child’s actual health status as determined by a physician.
What the Research Means to You
Trust your instincts. You are the expert on your child. You know what his gestures, facial expressions, and cries mean, his likes and dislikes, his temperament. This is why your observations of your child provide the professionals in your child’s life with important information. When you sense that something is not right with your child, it is always worth checking out with a physician or a child development specialist. Ask as many questions as you need to understand your health care or service provider’s diagnosis. And, most importantly, be an advocate for your child. The love you have for your child, and your belief in him, are powerful and will help see him through the challenging times.
Spotlight on: Toddlers and Play
Playtime is more than just fun, it is critical to all areas of a child’s development– thinking, language and literacy, physical and social skills. Play is children’s “work.” It is their way of learning about the world around them. Any activity can be playful to young children, whether it’s rolling trucks back and forth or sorting socks. Through play, babies and toddlers try out new skills, develop their imagination and creativity, and learn about relationships with other people.
As a parent, you are your child’s very first and favorite playmate. From the very beginning of your child’s life, he is playing with you, whether he is watching your face as you feed him or listening to your voice as you sing to him during his diaper change. He is at work—connecting, learning and exploring. Here are some ways you can make the most of playtime:
**Follow your child’s lead.** Provide an object, toy, or activity for your baby or toddler and then see what he does with it. It’s okay if it’s not the “right” way…let him show you a “new way.”
**Go slowly.** Show your child how a toy works then give her time to explore it and figure it out on her own. You might begin something, such as stacking one block on top of another, and then encourage her to give it a try. Providing just enough help to keep frustration at bay motivates your child to learn new skills.
**Look for “toys” around the house.** A paper towel tube becomes a telescope or a trumpet. An empty box of dry oatmeal is an indoor sandbox. Metal pots and wooden spoons become musical instruments. Empty plastic containers can be blocks. Children love playing with and exploring interesting objects. When there are many different ways to play with the same toy, children play for longer periods and don’t get bored so quickly.
**Make active play part of every day.** Children need time to be active each day. Make family walks, trips to the playground, “dancing time,” or indoor hide-and-seek part of your everyday routine. Physical play is fun, gives children the chance to practice and learn new skills, and keeps the whole family healthy.
**Read your child’s signals.** Your little one may not be able to tell you with her words when she’s had enough or when she’s frustrated. But she has other ways—like using her sounds, facial expressions, and gestures. Reading the signals that lead up to a tantrum helps you know when to change to a new activity or help her slow down and take a break. Reading her signals can also tell you what activities your child prefers.
**Make sure young children have time to play with siblings and peers.** For young toddlers, playing with other children usually takes the form of parallel play where two children will play next to, but not with, one another. This is very normal behavior. Parallel play is an important part of building friendships as toddlers watch and imitate one another as a form of social connection. By the time your child is about 2 1/2 to 3, she will start playing more interactively with other children, acting out stories or exploring the playground together.
**Do it again!** Your child will probably develop some favorite activities that he likes to play again and again. While this desire to do things over and over again is not necessarily thrilling for moms and dads, it is for their young children. They are practicing in order to master a challenge. And when they can do it All by myself!, they feel competent and clever. The more they practice and master new skills, the more likely they are to take on new challenges and the learning continues. So when you’re tempted to hide that toy that you don’t think you can stand playing with yet one more time, remember the essential role repetition plays in your child’s development.
Let’s Play: Activities That Promote Learning and Bonding
A Drop in the Bucket
Gather together a bunch of balls, small stuffed animals, or blocks. Get a bucket or box. Drop one ball in the bucket, then have your child drop one in. Take turns dropping balls in until they are all gone. Then take turns pulling them out. Games like this support your child’s cooperative play and sharing skills. They also help him develop hand-eye coordination and better strength and muscle control in his hands.
Throw a blanket or sheet over a low table or two chairs in order to make an indoor tent. Let your child go underneath and explore this new space. Get on the floor and crawl in the tent yourself to visit. Roll cars and trucks under and through the tent or put stuffed animals down for a nap inside its walls. Maybe your toddler would like to have snack in her tent. Creating new and different spaces for your child to explore jump-starts his imagination and builds his pretend play skills.
What’s on Your Mind?
1. My 17-month-old is a little shy and doesn’t like to be “smothered” by our very affectionate out-of-town relatives. In fact, when they go to kiss her she turns her head and runs away. With the holidays approaching, I’m worried that she’ll insult someone who tries to kiss her. How can I teach her to be polite while respecting her need for space?
The fact is that toddlers don’t understand and are not bound by grown-up do’s and don’ts. Your daughter is just openly expressing her feelings in exactly the way 17-month-olds do—without worrying about the other person’s feelings. But while her behavior is quite normal, it can make for some sticky situations with visiting relatives.
What can you do? Before their next visit, make a photo book of the relatives she’ll be seeing and look at it often, telling her about each person. Being more familiar with them may help her feel more comfortable when they arrive. Then, either before their visit or upon their arrival, remind your relatives that your daughter simply doesn’t like hugs and kisses right away; that she needs to get used to being around them again. It’s not personal, it’s just who she is. Suggest that they take some time to play with her, perhaps engaging her with a favorite toy or book. Encourage them to follow her lead and take things at her pace. This will make her feel safe and help her build a strong relationship with them over time. And remember that children look to their parents for clues to understand new situations and new people. So give your relatives a big hug and kiss. This lets your daughter know they are loved and trusted by you. And when you normalize her behavior and don’t make a big deal over it, chances are, no one else will either.
2. How do I respond to my 17-month-old who has started to swing at me with her hands when she doesn’t get her way?
It ain’t easy being 17 months. You have really strong feelings but lack the ability to use words to clearly let others know what’s on your mind. How frustrating is that?
The fact is that learning to express one’s self begins in the early years by using actions. Some are totally appropriate, like the 12-month-old who raises her arms up to show mom or dad that she wants to be picked up. Others can be find distressing, like hitting, kicking, and biting. But they are all efforts on the part of the child to communicate. In this case, we can hypothesize that your child is mad that she is not getting something she wants. She cannot say, Mom, I am so mad that you won’t let me have that fourth cookie! (Or, as my teenagers now simply say, I HATE YOU!)
The best way to respond to her swinging is to firmly—not roughly—hold on to her arm and say something like, No hitting. Hitting hurts. I know you are mad that (fill in the blank). You don’t like it when…But you cannot hit. Hitting hurts. It is important to be clear and firm in your tone but not angry. Your child is not purposefully misbehaving. This is about teaching rules and limits, not about punishment. These moments are also important opportunities to teach your child about feelings. You need to show her that angry feelings are not the problem, it’s what she does with these feelings that can be problematic. Your job is to let your child know what is and isn’t acceptable and then to teach her what she can do with her feelings. Putting her feelings into words is important. It shows empathy and provides a good model for how to cope with feelings as she grows.
After you have stopped her behavior and validated her feelings, you can show your daughter alternative ways of expressing herself. While most parents agree that hitting is not an acceptable way to express anger, they vary in their beliefs about what is acceptable. Some suggest children shout in the air as loud as they can or make growling noises to get their feelings out. Others suggest stomping feet, scribbling with a crayon, ripping newspaper, or hitting an object that is safe and can’t be hurt—such as a pillow. It is up to you to decide what is okay. The bottom line is that you acknowledge your child’s feelings and help her learn healthy, non-destructive ways to express them.
Keep in mind that learning self-control is a process. Your toddler will not be able to stop her impulses and understand the consequences of her actions until she gets closer to 3. In fact, she’ll keep working on these skills through the teen years. So your daughter will need your consistent, patient support for a while yet. Being able to manage and cope with strong feelings is a critical skill for lifelong success, so don’t fear these moments. Instead, see them as great opportunities for teaching your child an essential life skill.
* **Terrie Rose**, PhD, President and Founder, Baby’s Space
* **Ross Thompson**, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of California at Davis
* **Robert Weigand**, MS, IMH-E, Director, Child Development Laboratory,
Arizona State University
## This ZERO TO THREE newsletter series was made possible by generous funding from the MetLife Foundation.