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When toddlers begin to assert their independence it can be a difficult time for whānau, however there are constructive ways to support children as they begin to learn about making decisions.

Many toddlers struggle with making and sticking with simple decisions. That’s because they are learning to balance autonomy with security – looking for guidance from their whānau and asserting their independence at the same time.

What can help them as they go through this stage in their development? One strategy is to limit their options. Instead of expecting them to say exactly what they want, give 2 simple choices. They’ll feel great because they’ve had a say.

Defuse power battles by using phrases like ‘Let’s try this’ rather than an outright ‘No’. Encourage them to share their likes and dislikes. This can be done in a playful way, for example, ‘Do you like bananas or apples?’ This works even better if you put the items in front of them.

Keep expectations realistic

Parents can begin to teach the skills for decision-making, while remembering it is going to be a bit hit-and-miss until their child is 3 years and older. Assisting children in this process requires parents to let children have control over some areas of their lives, so they feel they are in charge.

Consider your child’s need to feel powerful and in control, and to have a go by themselves. This is when they begin to try out autonomy, and it can be a very tricky and turbulent time for parents because this assertiveness also often comes with a dose of negativity.

Celebrate the learning

Different generations and different cultures may have contradictory ideas about this stage of development. However annoying it may be, it is a developmental milestone and should be celebrated rather than controlled. Sometimes this isn’t easy, especially when parents and whānau members might think they are responsible for teaching their child to be ‘obedient’. A child who is nearly 2 saying a very defiant ‘No’ to mum or dad may not fit with their ideas of a child learning obedience.

Role models

Toddlers learn so much from copying, which means their role models can make a big difference. What does the child see and hear around them? Are the expectations that parents and whānau have of their children the same as their expectations for themselves? Do parents always follow the rules, including the rules of the family, road or wider society?

Giving children lots of opportunities to make decisions about simple day-to-day things helps them practise making decisions. Examples include which clothes they would like to wear, which of two choices they would like for breakfast, and whether they would like to go for a walk to the netball courts or to the playground?

The decision-making and impulse control part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is not yet complete and, according to research, won’t be until their late 20s! So parents shouldn’t expect their child to be making too many important decisions on their own for a long while yet.

A surge of nerve cell growth in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain during adolescence means parents will have to provide extra support at that age, as their children balance autonomy with security. The prefrontal cortex has been described during this period as being ‘closed for renovations’. Parents find themselves having to provide some of the functions of the prefrontal cortex like risk assessment and future planning on their teen’s behalf!

Back with the toddler, their world can be filled with what they ‘can’t do’ — they may feel frustrated about being too small, with insufficient skills or abilities. Parents can help them greatly by offering them things they can do.

However, choices need to be realistic. Unless whānau are happy for their toddler to be up all night, don’t ask them ‘Do you want to go to bed now? Rather, say ‘Do you want to run to the bedroom or have dad carry you there?’ This is a more workable option.

When the toddler is seeking independence, they’re not being naughty. It’s worthwhile for the whānau to consider what behaviours they consider naughty and think about why these behaviours are happening.

Being able to make good decisions is a complex process that will take many years of experience to master (and it’s good to know no one ever really perfects it – even adults make foolish decisions at times).

The Inuit people of North America don’t have a word for naughty, so guess what – their children aren’t!

Other resources

Helping your toddler to choose | Babycentre(external link)