Every parent will have had the experience of their toddler having a screaming fit in the middle of Target over some bright pink shoes with flashy lights in them. As frustrating as they are, tantrums are a completely normal part of childhood development. There are lots of theories about what is happening for the child at this age, and the one that makes most sense to me is that of Erik Erikson.
Erik Erikson was a psychologist and psychoanalyst mist famous for describing a list of stages that he believed every person passes through in their lives – from infancy to old age. The second stage that he described, occurring at the toddler stage (18 months – three years) is the stage of autonomy – v – shame/doubt.
Erikson believed that a toddler’s task is to develop a sense of autonomy, and if the toddler doesn’t do that, she will be left with shame, and doubt about her ability to function independently.
It can be a difficult stage for us as parents to negotiate as the toddler challenges our authority. On one hand, we want to let our child become more independent: to learn how to put her own shoes on and make decide what kind of sandwich she wants (inevitably jam), but on the other hand we also need to set boundaries and limits. Outside of the house, children need to learn social rules, and of course, be safe.
I think the best way to manage the battle of wills with a toddler is to pick your battles. If a toddler wants to wear a fairy dress over their pajamas, along with a sun hat, sunglasses, scarf and pink slippers, then that really doesn’t matter. It does help to give the child that sense of control over their day and their life. But if they refuse to sit in the pram and insist on walking, then they must hold mum’s hand. There will be tears and anger, and little ones become overwhelmed by their feelings very easily. But by being firm, while telling the toddler that you understand how they feel when you stop them from climbing up the bookshelves in the shop, the tantrum will pass. And in time, the child will develop a sense of independence and autonomy, and have no doubt in their own ability to be a big kid.