Toddlerhood: A Transformative Time of Developmental Leaps, Relationship Redefintions and Life-Setting Experiences

By Kathleen Baltman, MA, IMH-E®


From the first days of life, long before birth, the course of development runs on multiple tracks — distinct yet totally inseparable. The challenge is to recognize their unique components while simultaneously fitting them into relationship with each other. This journey is complicated enough during the first year, with rapid brain development, periods of regulation, disorganization, and reorganization, but then comes toddlerhood!

Suddenly, or so it seems to caregivers who have been learning and practicing nurturing ways, a whole new order of caregiving must be learned in order to respond to a whole new set of complexities. The toddler’s second and third years are increasingly centered around the internally driven and all-encompassing task of developing a sense of self. At once sharply focused and broadly activated, this task that brightens and widens the toddler’s world view with new awareness and possibilities is a daunting process, especially when being guided by amateurs, i.e., the toddler, the parents, the family, important caregivers, and all supporters, some of whom may know about toddlers but none of them knowing this toddler. Critically, while a toddler’s often confusing actions and responses to “guidance” may shout SEPARATENESS, every second- and third-year child needs every bit as much consistently nurturing love and support as the newly born and first-year child.

Indeed, there is an abundance of scientific and anecdotal evidence to support developmentalists’ proclamation that no developmental progress just happens. Yes, the newborn’s central nervous system is on a neuro-biological mission, but its exact course is charted according to an increasingly complex interweaving of natural occurrences and nurturing experiences. Throughout the journey, particularly at its almost dizzying speed at outset, that course is vulnerable to even the subtlest of challenges, each one capable of producing profound shifts in direction.

Each toddler’s profound request to be securely held while being actively encouraged to explore gives ample reason to consider, with as much care and depth as we can gather: What do toddlers need? What does this toddler need? When? Why? What might get in the way? What might “satisfaction” look like? And so, let’s ask the toddlers. Let us closely attend to the many ways they communicate their needs and reflect on the impact of caregiving responses on their developing understanding of what it’s like to become and to be a “me.”


Let’s begin with every toddler’s deepest need, the need to be understood (Gold, 2011).

While this is a basic need across all stages of life, it is particularly salient for toddlers as the developmental tasks of toddlerhood (here loosely defined as the 12- to 36-month-old) can be so difficult to understand — by the toddlers as well as their caregivers. Then, too, each toddler’s behaviors and interactions are imbued with a tightly woven mixture of genetics and experience and are carried out quite uniquely according to health and well-being status, temperament, developmental timetable, and lessons learned since before birth.

This seems a good time to call upon the work of Erna Furman, one of toddlers’ champion-grade interpreters of their support needs. Mrs. Furman was a classically trained psychologist whose early work was with Anna Freud’s nursery school for very young children in WWII England. Her writings about toddlers were firmly anchored in the perspective of the toddler, with clear and caring intentions to help caregiving adults understand and support the toddler’s struggle for mastery of bodily and emotional self-care (Furman, 1982a, 1987, 1992). She clearly understood that while not much stops a toddler from moving toward and becoming part of a wider world, their caregivers could easily become confused, hesitant, reactive and avoidant, even while wishing all the while to say, do, and be the right thing at the right time to protect as well as guide these very determined explorers.

Toddlers do so much to show us the kinds of help they need in their continuing quest, and how those needs change as they practice and build skills toward owning their bodies and using their feelings. They are eager to discover new areas of “needing less” and then “not needing,” all the while being blissfully unaware that it is their dependence on sensitive, consistent, predictable, nurturing support and guidance from their most trusted caregivers that carries them into successful mastery. Furman’s organization of this developmental journey into four successive stages of maternal-child interactions provides an interpretive roadmap for parents and caregiving adults through this, at times, mind-boggling illustration of the powerful driving force that embodies all development.

Please note that, in reviewing this developmental roadmap, I have intentionally retained Mrs. Furman’s focus on the role of mother and her primary importance to the developing toddler (Furman, 2001). While much has subsequently been written and considered to challenge and expand our understanding of primary caregiving roles, especially that of fathers, but also including grandparents, foster parents, and early care providers, it can be helpful to sometimes be reminded of the reality that every infant’s very  first relationship experience, in every culture, in every part of the world, is with a mother who carried and gave birth. Every additional relationship, including substitute care placement, is then added to that first “knowing” rather than replacing it. I believe that toddlers really need us to keep this in mind as we seek to understand and support their rapidly widening world of essential and important relationships. 

Stage One: “Doing For”

Infants are born with neurobiological needs for connection and survival. As their needs are expressed, it is mom’s job to consider those expressions as signals and, as she responds to those signals, to observe and learn her baby’s preferences for how the needs are best met by this very unique little being. The newborn has only an awareness of a feeling that is a “something” and, as the feeling grows and becomes more uncomfortable, reacts in the only way open at this time — a cry, followed by another cry, followed by continued cries until the discomfort stops. When the feelings of discomfort are discovered, addressed and replaced by brain-activated feelings of “no discomfort” that are experienced in a context of increasingly familiar holding arms, cooing voice, rhythmic rocking, and perhaps even calming music, and when those sensations are repeated and repeated, the baby’s distress signals recede and mom feels like she’s found the Holy Grail! Through repetition of what begins as trial and error, mom begins to recognize that her baby needs her in increasingly distinct ways. She is able to recognize and resolve more and more of her baby’s discomfort cues. She is also able to recognize and feel the satisfaction of seeing her baby’s comfort cues when she has alleviated her little one’s alarms of distress. By the end of the first year, under “good-enough” circumstances, the baby has developed expectations and the mother has developed confidence in her role as nurturer of this baby. When Timmy’s mother arrives at the day care and calls Timmy’s name, the look on his face and the sight of him beginning to reach out to her fills her with feelings of oneness with him. When she picks him up and he buries his head into her neck, they both experience a sense of the whole world coming round right. Together, they have been learning and practicing a sense of shared predictability that makes it possible to sort, organize, predict, and enjoy their relationship. (For an extensive review and discussion of early attachment development, see Ribaudo, J. (1)

Stage Two: “Doing With”

Throughout the initial period of care-needing and care-giving interactions between mothers and infants, there are both subtle and strong indicators that things are going to change. As soon as the infants can become mobile enough to respond to an increasingly strong central nervous system command to MOVE, they do! For infants whose development is proceeding according to typical-for-age expectations, their second-year label of “toddler” says a lot. It says, “I want to direct my mind and body to try, to practice, to do whatever catches my interest until I get really good at it! Then I will try, to practice, to do something different! I want to try, practice, and do everything!”

Let’s consider how the toddler’s expressions of this drive change the mother-child relationship. First, she may become confused. The infant at the brink of toddlerhood often signals total independence — rejecting mom’s attempts to feed him pureed fruit while working hard to pick up slippery chunks of banana, but then clearing his tray of all food and opening his mouth wide for another spoonful of pureed fruit. It takes a good deal of practice time for the toddler’s attempts to become skills. The understanding, support, and patient assistance that nurturing caregivers give to young toddlers is such an important gift to their development — not just in promoting this bundle of energy’s motoric successes, but in allowing, assisting, and celebrating such determination. It is mom’s readiness to join with her toddler’s efforts at self-care by noticing and, as needed, assisting her toddler from initially clumsy effort to eventual satisfaction of success that introduces and encourages a new level of base security — that of the toddler’s gradually developing a positive sense of being a “self.”

Stage Three: “Standing Back to Admire”

Through considerable practice, and with more and more self-care achievements made possible by a very rapid development of the central nervous system, toddlers grow increasingly focused on exercising preferences, including moving quite quickly from one place to another without assistance, gaining skills in self-feeding and, above all, making and acting on decisions about which room or area, and what clothing, food, toys, books, activities, etc. are desired at any one moment. The toddler has many opportunities for learning what’s possible, what’s not possible, and what just maybe might be possible under certain circumstances. It can be very difficult at times for even the most consistently nurturing caregivers to remember the importance of allowing toddlers clear successes in their explorations in “self-doing,” particularly in light of other adult obligations such as searching for keys and getting to work on time while helping a distraught third grader recover from having spilled juice all over her eggs, the table, and her very favorite outfit.

Parents, too, need encouragement to keep believing and trusting that their expressions of acceptance and approval now will result in greater relationship satisfaction later, since even the most super-self-determining toddlers still depend on the parent’s continued loving support. The emotional see-saw of the toddler’s experience in this many-faceted drive toward mastery means that, even when most fervently insisting on self-caring, he is also needing mom to “step back and admire, but not any farther back than I can tolerate as I walk this new and sometimes very scary path!” Thus, undergirding all the surprises that mothers experience during this phase, her greatest challenge is to learn new ways to hold her toddler while letting go.

Stage Four: “Doing for Oneself”

This stage, even more than the third stage, continues well into the preschool years. But it is important to note that it is the successful navigation of becoming a self that supports the toddler’s ability to internalize the security of being held by a loving parent, even when the parent is not physically present. The child’s ability to feel held while being separate lays the foundation for the preschooler to approach the tasks of the preschool period with an already experienced measure of self-confidence.


Before turning to close consideration of just what it is that toddlers need — and from whom — to successfully support their developing drive toward self-hood from within the security of connectedness, let’s take a minute to highlight the impact of  “goal satisfaction” on the toddler, the parent, and their relationship.

For the toddlers who signaled their need to try mastering multiple aspects of self-care until something from deep inside told them that they, at least for now, could stop doing heavy battle at every new practice opportunity, they gain:

  • The continuance of nurturing relationships with their most special caregivers.
  • The deeply satisfying feeling of being safely secure in felt closeness with their most special caregivers.
  • The assurance of constancy in being supported in all the self-mastery challenges yet to come.
  • The joy of successful experiences in communicating and connecting with others.

For the parents whose significant history of successes in providing for their wholly dependent infant strengthened their abilities to access their best selves to meet their toddlers’ insistent needs for permission, support, and approval, they are hereby awarded:

  • The distinct and cumulative pleasures of strengthening and deepening a thoughtfully built child-parent attachment relationship.
  • The joy of having newly complex ways to relate to and learn from their uniquely growing child.
  • The hard-earned satisfaction in becoming a successful negotiator.

So, when we recognize parents’ generally enough meeting their toddlers’ needs, to what are we actually referring?

Let’s zero in on the infant’s primary, most central need: ongoing nurturing relationships. And let’s ask the developing attachment relationship of the dyad to set the stage for a close-up consideration of how toddlers use that primary relationship to guide their journey through the increasingly complex tasks of toddlerhood.

Right from the start, as babies experience caregiving, they generally become increasingly close to their mother or mothering (primary caregiving) person. As days and weeks turn into months, their developing dependency on this person for felt security can easily be seen (and heard) in how they search for and latch onto this person, and how they are more quickly comforted by this person over any others at times of distress. Repetitions of such call and response interactions with a central caregiving adult teach the infant lifelong foundational understandings of interpersonal trust.

As mobility and brain power increase, the infant who has experienced the ready availability of the attachment figure is able to use the felt closeness as new steps are taken toward a new developmental task, that of selfhood. Calling again on Erna Furman, when the “doing for” lessons are comfortably internalized and the efforts to take some initiative in the doing are welcomed, these new tasks can be “felt” as right to try, especially when the successes are so reinforced with parental smiles and displays of joining-with joy!

Thus, the infant gradually crosses over from basking in being given to by mom, to partnering with mom-the-giver, to the toddler who is beginning to experience and wants to re-experience and so “practices” what it is mom-the-giver has been giving. We might even enjoy imagining the toddler being able to realize: “Wow! When I do things for myself that she’s always done for me, I get a really good feeling. All the ways that I’m taking care of myself are the ‘givings’ she taught me!”

Realistically, it’s reassuring to know that

when toddlers beam with self-pride at doing-for-self, they are on the way to internalizing life-strengthening lessons about the importance of relationship.


Let us turn now to the developmental journey of toddlerhood through the experiences of one child and her parents.  At each developmental stage of this journey,

we’ll first observe Silvie in social interaction, and then consider what Silvie might tell us, if she could, how those interactions will provide life lessons for her next developmental steps.

By reflecting on the role that ongoing nurturing relationships play in the realization of selfhood, let’s examine how we might respond when specialized support is needed to guide a caregiving adult through the critical toddler-developmental period. 

Silvie and her family

 Silvie is a healthy, sturdy, easily engaged Latina child, whose first year was relatively free of emotional upheavals, physical challenges, and health concerns. She lives with her mother and father in a safe and comfortable environment. Both of Silvie’s parents teach full-time at a Spanish immersion K-8 school near their home. Since Silvie’s mother returned to work when Silvie was four months old, Silvie’s weekday care has been provided by her mother’s longtime friend, who is a licensed home care provider. She is “Tia” (auntie) to Silvie, who soon comes to call her MyTia. Both of Silvie’s parents are thankful for the support and advice they frequently seek and receive from their wise and encouraging friend, especially because both sets of grandparents and most of their extended family live in Mexico.

Initial considerations

First, let’s acknowledge that while stressors are part of everyday life, these vignettes suggest a caregiving context of manageable rather than toxic stress. In defining stress manageable, reducible, or even resolved through meaningful support, we can thus consider stress as opportunity for strengthening. I wish here to look to what early caregiving relationship health looks like, the better to 1) alert us to caregiving relationship risk and danger signs, and 2) guide us toward offering child-centered, relationship-focused interventions and support, whether informal, clinical, educational, or policy-determined.

Let us also pay due respect to the wisdom of the legendary baseball great Yogi Berra, whose oft repeated yogi-isms included a reminder that we “can observe a lot by watching.”


Silvie is toddling around the kitchen, stopping periodically and plopping down to a sit to pick up and briefly explore some of the toys that are usually in the corner of the room, but are now scattered across the floor. Mama is rinsing dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. Suddenly, she drops a (polyurethane) cup and the water in it splashes onto the floor. Silvie quickly crawls to the cup and is just about to pat the pooling water with her hand when Mama swoops down with a towel, mops up the water and picks up the cup, saying, “No, no, Silvie. Mama do it. There. All gone.” Silvie watches and then reaches toward the cup with both hands, grunting her “request” with increasing insistence. Mama says, “You want water?” Silvie’s face brightens. “OK, but I’ll get your cup.” She finds a sippy cup, fills it and hands it to Silvie. “OK, Silvie. You take your cup. Mama’s busy.” Then she gets a metal bowl filled with small blocks from across the room and puts it in front of Silvie. “Look! Here are your blocks in the bowl! You like your blocks!” Silvie drops her cup on the floor, picks up the bowl and dumps out the blocks. Mama says, “OK, fill up the bowl again, Silvie. You can do it — one, two, three!” Silvie picks up one of the blocks, then drops it and crawls over to another toy. Mama returns to her work at the sink.

What Silvie needs us to know now about the help she needs to become a ME

I have just begun to walk, but I feel much surer of myself if you’re holding my hand. When I really want to get somewhere, I’d rather crawl because I can do that all on my own! Same with eating. I love cut-up food or Cheerios on my tray. Now that I can pick up tiny things, I can choose what I’ll eat next — or not! Papa and I have fun at diaper-changing time. He laughs when he sees me trying to lift my bottom up for the diaper. And I’m very proud that I can take a turn with you putting my blocks in the bowl you gave me, but I like dumping them out best!


Silvie is walking around the kitchen, stopping periodically to pick up and briefly explore some of her toys. She picks up a board book, sits down and opens it, stopping to look closely at a page or two. She generally turns more than one page at a time, and soon discards it altogether. Her mother is putting dishes in the dishwasher. Suddenly, she drops a cup and the water in it splashes onto the floor. Silvie is quick to stand up, go to the cup and pick it up. She holds it to her lips, then holds it out to Mama. Mama says, “Oh, you want to practice? Wait, let’s mop up the water first.” She pulls down a towel as Sylvie drops the cup and puts her hand near her Mama’s; she laughs a little as they wipe up the water. Then Silvie points to the cup, looks at mama, grunts, points again, looks at mama and grunts. Mama says, “You want water in the cup?” Silvie brightens, wiggles a little, then puts both hands on her knees and grows still. Mama puts a tiny bit of water in the cup, holds it to Silvie’s lips, saying “This isn’t your cup, Silvie. There’s no top on it. Careful now.” Silvie puts both hands on the cup and pulls it away from her mama. As she lifts it to her lips quickly, some of the water spills and mama shakes her head, grins, and says, “Oh, Silvie!” as she uses the towel to pat Silvie’s face and shirt. Silvie laughs and bounces up and down. Mama laughs, too. “OK, Silvie! All gone.” Silvie says, “All gone.” Mama then points to the cupboard door that has Silvie’s “kitchen toys” in it. “What’s in there today, Silvie? You look and see while mama washes dishes.” Silvie stands up, walks quickly to the cupboard, opens the door, pulls out a large metal bowl, and sits down. She begins to pull out some small plastic cups and plates and toss them into the bowl, looking up at her mama with each one she pulls out. She looks for and finds a sponge in the cupboard and starts to “wash” the cups and plates. Mama says, “That’s right, Silvie! Silvie washes and Mama washes!” They smile at each other and mama returns to the sink.

What Silvie needs us to know now about the help she needs to become a ME

I really like to be wherever you are, Mama. And you have found ways to let me do that by putting things that are just for me in every room! Sometimes my things get all over the room, but you usually don’t get bothered by that, which is good because I like to play with lots of things. I can be busy for a long time when I’m able to pull things out, play with them, and then find different things. I love having choices. BUT … I’m always watching you and what you’re doing. Why? Because lots of times, I want to show you something, or ask for help, or watch what you’re doing and try to do what you’re doing. That way, we can still be close, but I don’t have to be actually right up close all the time. Sometimes I even leave the room, but only for a minute. It feels too … I don’t know what. I need to keep practicing this leaving and coming back thing. And you know what? When you show me that you like me being with you, like when you talk to me or help me, even if something goes wrong, I can do things you want me to do, even when I don’t want to do them, more than you might expect. When I don’t have to fight for my choices, it’s easier for me to let you have choices! Oh, but sometimes that’s very, very hard! My choices are really important to me! I guess it’s just that when you’re happier, I’m happier, so I try to (sigh) give in when you make it really clear to me that I have to. Mama, thanks for not making me do that too often.


Mama is washing dishes at the sink and Silvie is sitting on the floor in the adjacent breakfast room, “reading” a book. Suddenly, she gets up and runs to mama and says, “Water, Mama!” while tugging at Mama’s jeans. Mama says, “You want a drink of water?” Silvie nods vigorously and says, “Drink of water.” Mama reaches for one of Silvie’s cups and begins to fill it. Silvie stamps her feet and shakes her head, saying, “No, no! Other cup!”  She points to a cup that does not have a lid. Mama pauses, sighs, and then says, “OK, Silvie, but it might spill. There’s no lid for that one. Careful now.” She puts a little water in the cup, crouches down and hands the cup to Silvie. Silvie begins to drink but loses her grasp and the water spills onto the floor. Mama says, “Oh, Silvie! It spilled!” and reaches quickly for a towel. Silvie again gets upset, grabs the towel and says, “Me do it! Me do it!” Mama sighs again and says, “OK, Silvie. You wipe up the water.” She stands up, takes a step back, folds her arms, and watches as Silvie holds the cloth in one hand and keeps turning it over to find dry places on it while she wipes and wipes and wipes the water away. Finally, she stops and looks up at Mama, who laughs softly. “You did it, Silvie; you did a fine job! Thank you!” Silvie grins broadly and says, “Welcome!” She returns to her book and Mama returns to her dishwashing

What Silvie needs us to know now about the help she needs to become a ME

Mama, I know it’s sometimes really hard for you to be patient with me. It used to be easier for me to stop doing something I chose to do and do what you wanted instead. But lately, now that I can think more about what I want to do, and I can actually do more of what I want to do, I just don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to keep at it! I’m so busy! I’m working hard! Look here, my protests are not really about you, they’re all about me! Actually, I think you do know that, because you try so hard to let me keep going, and when you have to stop me, you always talk to me about it. You try to explain, either why I have to stop, or that you know I’m not liking having to stop. Sometimes you say both. It doesn’t necessarily calm me down, but what I really hear is that you’re trying to help me. I may have to lose my choice, but I don’t have to lose you. What a relief. Whenever I “lose” me, you help me “find” me. This business about being a separate person takes a LOT of practice, and I can’t do it alone. Thanks to you, Mama, I can better focus on all there is to see and hear and learn about. I play better, I eat better, I sleep better.


Mama is washing dishes and Silvie walks into the room, saying, “I want water, Mama. I need it right now. Can I have water right now?” Mama says, “Please?” Silvie nods. Mama waits a second or two and then just says, “Sure Silvie.” She gets a non-breakable glass from the cupboard, fills it half full of water and holds it out to Silvie, who is cradling a favorite doll in the crook of her arm. Silvie says, “Here, Mama. Hold Baby.” Mama takes the doll and holds it in her hand. Silvie shakes her head and says with firmness, “No, Mama! Not that way! Baby likes this!” She grabs the doll and thrusts it into her mother’s bent elbow and moves her mother’s hand to hold the doll securely. Mama (wisely) looks at the doll and whispers, “Sorry, Baby.” Silvie gives a strong nod, gulps down all of the water and, with a gesture that clearly conveys self-pride, sets the glass firmly down on the counter. Mama says, “Wow! You were thirsty! You drank it so fast, and you never spill anymore. You’re such a growing girl.” Silvie nods and laughs, then picks up the glass again, holds it out to her mama and says, “You can take it now. It’s all gone!” Mama says, “Thank you, Silvie,” and laughs, too. With considerable gentleness, she hands the doll back to Silvie while saying, “Here you go, Baby, back to your mama.” Silvie looks thoughtfully at the doll for a moment, then at her mama, then back to the doll. Then she walks over to a low drawer by the stove, opens it, scans the contents, and gets out a small measuring cup and says, “My baby wants water now. Bye-bye.” Mama calls, “Wait! Come back and close the drawer, please.” Silvie runs back, pushed it shut, and runs out of the kitchen, chuckling as Mama says, “What a good Mamacita you are.” Mama chuckles, too, as she returns to her task.

What Silvie needs us to know now about the help she needs to become a ME

Hey, we could have had a big fight just now! You might have called me out for being so bossy. I felt kind of funny for a minute, but you weren’t mad, and you acted like I’m still your best girl, and I was so relieved. I just get carried away sometimes by how much I can do! This morning I pulled up my own pants, and I almost got my sweater on all by myself. Then I climbed the stairs to go get my baby, and I didn’t even have to hold the railing. Yes, I know you want me to hold it, but I was in a hurry! This day is actually going better now than it started out. I woke up screaming this morning because that boy Jamie at MyTia’s punched me! You came in and held me. You told me I dreamed it. I don’t know about that. I think he came into my room and punched me. He always wants his way at MyTia’s. Sometimes he grabs other kid’s toys. Everybody’s afraid of him. When his mama came to get him, Tia talked to her and then she yelled at him for being so mean. She called him BOSSY! She grabbed his arm and took him out the door. I felt scared inside. I went and stood by MyTia until you came to take me home. Mama? I love it when we laugh together.


Mama is washing dishes at the kitchen sink. Silvie and her cousin from daycare come in from the back yard, each holding a long stick. They put the sticks down on the floor, take their sweaters off, and Silvie says, “Mama, I am Princess Magic Melda, and this is Princess Magic Zelda, and we’re thirsty!” Asked if they want water, the girls answer loudly and in unison, “Yes, please!” and giggle in delight to each other. While they’re waiting for the water Silvie says, “We have magic wands.” She opens the screen door, puts the sticks on the porch and comes back to stand next to her cousin. Mama hands two-handled cups to them and says, “Okey-dokey, here you are, my giggly girls. Here, I’ll hold the door for you. Walk carefully down the stairs so you don’t spill the water!” “Okey-dokey,” says Silvie, as the girls giggle and rush out the door. As they leave, they almost bump into Papa, who is coming up the back stairs. “Hey, Silvie! What’s the rush?” Continuing into the kitchen, he almost misses her stern reply as she and her friend rush down the stairs. “I’m not Silvie! I’m Princess Magic Melda! Bye!”

What Silvie needs us to know now about the help she needs to become a ME

I’m so happy today. I love being with my cousin. She has such good ideas. We talk about things and make plans about things. She wants me to go home with her and sleep over, but I don’t think I’m ready to do that yet. I like my cozy bed. I like the stories you and Papa read to me before I go to bed. I like when I wake up and come out to find you and you hug me and say, “Good morning, Princess!” I tell you what I want to wear, and I can pretty much dress myself. I tell you guys which cereal I want, and I eat all of it! When you remind me to put my dish and spoon in the sink, I’m proud that I can do it. On the way to MyTia’s, we sometimes sing. You and Papa make me feel so special. When I’m upset, you listen to me and try to help me feel better — even when you’re the ones who made me upset!! All in all, what I really like is knowing just how things are going to be! It’s what my pediatrician calls “being secure.” So, thanks.


Toddlerhood is a word that is generally understood to encompass a distinct phase of early childhood development. Most commonly, it is almost synonymous with a period of time that is primarily burdened by challenges to parental authority — “control.”  Indeed, the term “terrible twos” is typically used with a rolling of eyes or a shake of the head. And depending on who’s saying it, it is a term that turns our attention quite quickly to the parents’ responsibility to “Do something!” to correct the problem, the menace, the forecast of adolescent delinquency and adult imprisonment.

Thankfully, all manner of experts — developmentalists, psychologists, physicians, allied health practitioners, social workers, educators, and parents — have written clarifying and illuminating books about toddlerhood. And no wonder. It is a time that is at once exhilarating to behold and be a part of, and mind-boggling in its complexities. As for me, I have always been particularly drawn to the seemingly sudden and soon relentless call to “self-authority” that all but explodes soon after the first birthday of a previously mostly smiling “just-want-to-be-close-to-you” baby. I am even more captivated by the observable evidence that, when clear and limited authority is granted to this new monarch, there is a noticeable easing of tension that quite often restores, however briefly, periods of comfortable closeness and shared pleasure in being together.

I continue to learn much from toddlers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and from new as well as treasured writings in my library of wise ones. As I wrote this paper, the books written expressively for or in support of the parents and caregivers of toddlers were much called to mind: T. Barry Brazelton (1992), Claire B. Kopp (2003, Doug Davies (2011), Selma Fraiberg (1959), Claudia Gold (2011), Alicia Lieberman (2017), Kyle Pruett (1999), Alan Sroufe (1996), and of course, Erna Furman (1982a, 1987, 1992, 2001).

It is important to keep in mind that just as there are many ways to consider a toddler’s relationship needs, there are even more ways to consider possible, preferable and even prohibitive responses to those needs. As we ponder the best ways to promote optimal social-emotional development and well-being during this newly complex growth period, we are compelled to wonder: What helps? Who helps? How helpful can any one person with any one perspective or training or program funding sources actually be? We would be wise to periodically pause and call up the voices of developing toddlers and use those communications to quite consciously re-center us and strengthen our resolve to focus on and follow our best individual and collective steps of toddler-centered, relationship-based support and intervention.

We might also want to stop along the way and consider the “voice” of early adolescence. When children have successfully protested being too old for babysitters and are experiencing a new kind of “caring for one’s self,” they are often called on to be babysitters, perhaps even for toddlers! What makes them successful? Their parents are nearby and ready to support as needed. The adolescents who ARE able to call on their parents when caregiving presents unfamiliar dilemmas or perhaps serious challenges, are, no surprise, most likely to be those who have carried forward supports they have stored away from back to when they were toddlers themselves. That’s when they got their first but not only boost in validation of their forages into autonomy, their push/pull gut feelings of marching forward vs. being cradled in loving arms. This, to me, is my best response to those who look at me with some confusion, saying, “So?”

In response, let’s fast forward to a glimpse of Silvie as a 27-year-old who is, with her husband, parenting a 30-month-old. Grownup Silvie might very well want her parents to know:

As I took my first steps and toddled unassisted, you were there to help me up when I fell, and there to prompt me to try again. In the face of fear, I could be courageous — because that’s what you showed me, taught me, gave me. And so today, your encouragement  and the confidence you expressed (even as I now realize with clenched teeth at times), are with me. Thanks, Mama. Thanks, Papa.

And so it goes as each infant grows, one generation of toddlers growing up and begetting another, each new generation of infants striving first for selfhood and self-authority, and then very gradually growing toward the security of felt interdependence. I have written here in hopes of encouraging us to look, and keep looking, ever more closely, to learn the language and lessons of those who have no idea what toddlerhood is until given the opportunities to try it out and to practice, again and again and again. And let us take every opportunity to encourage the givers — those who do for, do with, and stand back to admire the developing sturdiness of selfhood, and remind them that their gifts will always be passed forward to future generations. All we can teach is what we know.

  • Ribaudo, J. & Beckett, H. (Feb. 2019). What is Going on in There? The Neonate Becomes an Infant. The Infant Crier. 


While reflecting on the vignettes of Silvie and her mama at each developmental stage of toddlerhood: Doing With, Standing Back to Admire, and Doing for Oneself, explore the following:

  • What are the key indicators in these vignettes that suggest the likelihood of Silvie and her parents’ successful practicing of:
    • Doing With?
    • Standing Back to Admire?
    • Doing for Oneself?
  • Identify some possible examples of parental responses at each developmental stage that might have compromised or precluded positive practicing experiences and suggested a need for specialized support or intervention.
  • As a relationship-based interventionist, how might you have supported Silvie and her parents in reducing stumbles and encouraging successes during each of these developmental phases? 


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