We'll bet there have been some exciting developments in your house lately. First teeth? First steps? Didn't you just melt the first time they put up their little arms to be picked up?! By now your family will have settled down into some sort of predictable routine, and the disorganisation that can accompany the first few stages are over, which is just as well because TA DA! If your bundle of joy is now walking you are officially in ...the toddler stage, where your little one is getting ready to explore the wider world and this can mean some adjustments for all of you.
At about the same time that your toddler is developing a need for increased independence, you probably are too. Remember the changes that you went through (and are probably still experiencing to some degree) adjusting to the new identity of mother, and the parts of you that you left behind for a while? Now that you have (a little) more time and energy you might find yourself daydreaming about a life outside your neighbourhood.
At this stage many parents are exploring child care options and considering returning to work part-time. If you haven't experienced it already, any of these thoughts are usually accompanied by a dollop of guilt. Up until now you have been connected so closely to your baby that you sometimes feel as if you were one, and so making arrangements to spend some "me time" away from your child may take as much adjustment for you as it does for them. Remember though, toddlers naturally need some independence, so it is not a bad thing for each of you to spend some time apart. If you don't have a job to return to, or didn't like the career that you left, now might be a good time to invest in re-training for your next career. If paid work (as opposed to all the unpaid work you have been doing!) is the last thing on your mind, you might choose to use your "me time" to catch up on all the important things that you simply haven't had the time and energy to deal with...like getting in shape, picking up an old hobby, or re-kindling valuable friendships.
If you choose to return to the work-force it is important to use part of your "me time" for yourself so you can establish some balance where you are meeting your own needs as well as the needs of your child, partner, and employer.
Dads play with toddlers differently than mums do and this sort of safe rough and tumble play is good for their development. Just watch their reactions and if they begin to get scared, it's time to stop. This increases their trust of you.
One of the most stressful sources of conflict between partners at this stage is discipline and what's considered acceptable or unacceptable children's behaviour. Arguments are unpleasant for all involved, and especially distressing for children if arguments are about THEM. Now is a good time to put some energy into working as a team to bring up our children. If your relationship needs some TLC in order to do this, refer to the "Couple Support" section for more help.
Young children like some structure and predictability and are confused by conflicting methods of discipline. Now is a good time to discuss with your partner your ideas about what you consider to be appropriate discipline. There are many good resources available on this subject. Perhaps you could read a book each and take some time to discuss the merits of each.
At the same time that we want to discipline our children we also want to develop our relationships with them. We are laying the foundations now for how our relationships will be in 10, 20 or 50 years time. If you have a close and loving relationship with your own parents, then you may have never given this a second thought. If not, then it might help you to reflect on how you were raised and why you are not close with your own parent/s so you can make sure history doesn't repeat itself with your own children.
About this time it also dawns on some mothers that their status in society has changed somewhat. You might be at a party and notice that the first question everybody asks is "So what do you do?" In your previous life you might have been able to start a conversation with "I'm a ...(whatever)", but saying "I'm a mother..." to a non-parent either ends the conversation quite abruptly or causes the other person's eyes to glaze over really quickly.
You might also start to feel just a little bit (or a lot) upset when BC (before Child) no business colleague would let you wait for them more than fifteen minutes for a meeting, but the washing machine repairman is happy to let you wait for two hours without any hint of an apology. There is something about waiting in supermarket queues with an over-tired infant that is a very humbling experience. One new mother remarked that even though she was working a 24/7 shift at home, she felt like society was treating her like she was unemployed. This feeling is not uncommon.
Speaking of working, at about this time, you and your partner may have expectations that life will return to normal. "Normal" might mean different things to each of you, however. Your partner might expect you to return to work whereas you had planned to stay home. Conversely, you might be ready to return to work, but your partner expects you to stay home. If your haven't discussed this issue previously, or you had but you find your attitude to returning to work has changed, make sure you talk about this as early as possible so you and your partner can make adjustments accordingly
Be aware too that some mothers who are struggling to find a sense of "normal" in the chaos of looking after a small child can be tempted to return to work earlier than planned, only to regret it later. And at this stage babies routines can change fairly rapidly so it's hard to plan. Some mothers return to work because their babies had settled into a nice routine of sleeping through the night and predictable sleeps through the day (so the babysitter could cope OK), only to find a months later that baby had gotten into a new routine of waking up three times a night, and the last thing they could cope with was working the next day....
The toddler stage can be a really tricky one. It seems that overnight, your snuggly, cuddly agreeable baby has turned into a wilful, stubborn little person with a big attitude. A toddler's favourite word seems to be "No".
This attitude is entirely normal and, in the scheme of things, a desirable one. Over the toddler period, your child is negotiating the balance between his/her need for closeness and approval from you with their need to be independent human beings. Any help from you during this stage will assist them in this transition and can have an effect on how they operate in later years. If you support your toddler in gaining their independence, they will eventually be independent adults. If you smother them too much, they may never outgrow their dependency...and you may never get a life back !!!
On the other hand, if you push your child away when they are seeking closeness this will cause them anxiety. We all have times when we need closeness and times when we need distance. As adults we can learn to ask for what we need. The trick for us parents at this stage is to learn to be sensitive to our toddler's needs - to "read" our child, so we can best provide them with what they need when they need it.
Toddlers are by nature great experimenters - they are testing the boundaries of their physical, mental and emotional capabilities, and waiting for a response from us. Because they are experimenting, they are likely to make many mistakes, and it is partly from making mistakes that they learn how to do things differently. Methods of discipline is one issue that it makes sense to find an agreement on. If we can provide our toddlers with a supportive framework in which to experiment and make mistakes they will learn much more easily
"Discipline" literally means "training to act in accordance with rules" according to the Macquarie Dictionary. Discipline doesn't necessarily mean punishment. Common disciplinary methods include: time out (taking a child away from an activity for a period of time), natural and logical consequences (what will likely happen if they continue their behaviour) and revoking privileges (taking away their favourite toy for a while). If we think of discipline as a positive opportunity to teach our children rather than just as negative punishment, then the whole subject won't be as stressful for us.
An example of the steps you might take to discipline your child in a way that takes care of all your needs is as follows:
- Take a deep breath and get yourself under control first (this can often be the hardest step!). If we discipline out of anger or frustration we are likely to skip discipline entirely and jump straight into punishment. Take whatever time you need and look after yourself first. It might be a few moments of deep breathing or a 10 minute phone call to a sympathetic friend.
- Validate your child's feelings ("I bet you're feeling pretty angry/sad/hurt about that"). Your aim here is to be sympathetic and help your child identify what they are feeling. The angriest children are the ones who can't get in touch with their deeper feelings of sadness or hurt, or can't put words to their feelings.
- Set limits ("In our house we don't hit, we use our words" or "when it's cold we have to wear a jumper"). Be firm but gentle. Here is your opportunity to teach right from wrong, and instil values into your little person.
- Give choices ("Do you want to wear the blue one or the green one?"). Empower your child by giving him/her a say in what goes.
- Give consequences ("If you don't wear a jumper you won't be able to go out and play"). Consequences need to make sense to a child or they just become a meaningless punishment.
Sometimes it is just enough to do step one, two and/or three. Often all children are looking for is attention and validation. Attention is a valid need for a child. If you don't give them enough positive attention (ie. let them know when when they are doing things RIGHT), then they will likely seek attention in negative ways). Disciplining children in the above way makes them think about things and work things out for themselves, which increases their confidence, self-esteem and ability to function responsibly and independently.
Well, if you've made it this far, you've survived the toddler stage. And although we're sure it's had its challenges, we'll bet there's been even more rewards. It won't be long before your toddlers are off to school, so make the most of the time that you have with them at home and we'll see you in the next stage.