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Giant Steps - Expectations and Challenges in the Toddler Years - Part 2: Common Challenges and What To Do About Them

by Anita Gurian, PhD

The second half of a two-part article.

Part 1—Expectations deals with toddler development in social/emotional, motor, communication and cognitive areas. Part 2 of The Toddler Years presents common challenges faced by parents and caregivers during this developmental stage.


As the infant moves into toddlerhood, she masters new capabilities which help expand her horizons. Able to move around more independently, she becomes an active explorer. She can observe her surroundings from different viewpoints and gain a new sense of herself in relation to the world. Her cognitive skills are growing by leaps and bounds. She can use language to make her needs and reactions known and to relate to adults and children in new ways. Along with language comes the ability to use imagination and to engage in pretend play, often playing out scenes she's seen at home or on television.

The milestones listed in Part I are approximate times when certain abilities are observable. There is no fixed timetable for acquiring abilities or confronting different challenges, and there's a wide range of what's considered "normal." Every child grows and adjusts to the world at his or her own pace. Particular issues that confront parents, such as helping the child adjust to limits and master fears should be understood in the light of the developing child.

Tantrums: Deliberate disobedience or testing the limits?

Susanna insists "I'll do it myself" when trying to tie her sneakers, but then she becomes frustrated and has a tantrum when she doesn't succeed.

Sara puts her wet boots on the rug rather than in the designated spot.

Timmy is known in his family as "the question machine." He wants to know why he can't watch television before breakfast, why he has to have dinner before dessert, why he can’t stay up as late as his older brother.

The "terrible twos" is a designation that's unfair to kids. What may seem like deliberate disobedience and negativism are most likely the toddler’s ways of testing the limits of her behavior, of finding out how far she can go. Children at this age are discovering their own identity and experimenting in asserting their will. Some kids are testing to find out how their ideas coincide or differ from those of their parents. They are discovering that the feelings and reactions of others may be different than their own. Toddlers want to do things that they see older kids do, and although their linguistic, social and motor skills are developing rapidly, they often can’t quite do what they aim to do, and frustration and tantrums may result.

Experts advise parents to set and enforce reasonable limits. Clear guidelines will help the child learn to differentiate between approved and disapproved activities. However, to avoid creating an atmosphere of constant reprimands and a power struggle, parents should choose their battles. For the child who seems exceptionally negativistic giving her some choices may enable her to perceive that she has some control over events. For example, you might say "you can choose the pink or the yellow toothbrush" or "you can put your jacket on in the hall or in your room."

Toilet habits

Most children become physically and emotionally ready to control their urine and bowels some time between the ages of two and three. About this time they are better able to control their physical urges and want to be more grown up. Timing, however, is more than a date on the calendar. Children usually indicate their readiness to master urine and bowel habits by other accomplishments, such as following simple instructions in other areas of life, staying dry for longer periods of time, acting as if they are on the toilet, and curiosity about bathroom activities. Various techniques have proved successful: for some a gradual step-by-step approach is effective, for others a one-shot method works well. At times a toddler's negativism can result in a power struggle between child and parent, a situation which should be avoided. Some children are not yet ready to acquire toilet habits and may need a longer time. Parents should adjust their expectations to the child's indications of readiness and adopt the method most compatible with the child's developmental pace.


For many children, going to sleep is a struggle. As nap times become less frequent sleep patterns of some toddlers become less regular, and crying and resistance may occur. Parting from parents at the end of the day and ending interesting activities may be a difficult transition. Fears that are manageable during the day may become more threatening at night. Rituals and routines are useful in helping a child to simmer down and separate gradually from parents. Soothing songs, warm baths, gentle rocking motions and a parent's calm good-night can be helpful. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that parents try to insure that the child falls asleep on her own. They recommend that parents allow periods of fussiness up to 20 minutes. Helping the child learn to comfort herself will usually help her go back to sleep without parental intervention.

Middle of the night wakings – Some children may experience night terrors or nightmares. Night terrors occur in deep sleep; the child may scream or thrash about but does not awaken. Night terrors last for only a few minutes and disappear. Nightmares, or bad dreams, may occur after the child has had a particularly stressful day.

The AAP advises that parents reassure child and check on needs quietly and quickly without providing playtime or snack. Parents should be aware that the child may be having some separation problems and that with reassurance she will overcome these worries. They should also be aware that allowing the child to fall asleep on her own will not cause harm. Whether to allow the child to sleep in parents' bed is an area of controversy, to be decided upon individually.

Fears and anxieties

Scott, age two, is afraid of noises, such as thunder, the vacuum cleaner, the wail of a siren.

Isabel, age one-and-a-half, cries whenever clowns appear on children's television shows.

Arline, two, is afraid of the monsters she thinks are in her closet.

Fears are a normal part of life. Adults know that the fear will pass despite the immediate discomfort. Children, however, are not so sure. Most toddlers experience some fears and anxieties. For example, at 12 to 18 months separation anxiety is common. A child may worry when leaving a parent to begin nursery school or day care, or when the parents leave, but the fear usually disappears as the child discovers that parents always return and as the child accommodates to the new situation.

As toddlers learn to make sense of the world they're not always clear about the difference between fantasy and reality and may attribute magical and scary abilities to ordinary things. Some common fears are monsters, clowns, the dark, and sudden loud noises, like a vacuum cleaner.

It's important to respect rather than to downplay fears; let the child know you take her fears seriously and that her feelings are okay. Help her to get used to the feared situations gradually, rather than avoiding them. Help her understand that some fears are appropriate and there are things she can do to stay safe; we need to protect ourselves from danger; we don’t touch a hot stove; we don’t run in front of a swing or an incoming bus. Most fears abate with time as children discover ways of coping with them. Some children derive comfort by holding on to a favorite blanket or toy. A child's fear will be less threatening if he feels he has some control over it. Remind him, for example, that he can close his eyes or turn off the television if a cartoon is too scary. Be aware of your own reactions; children are attuned to their parents' moods and fear can be contagious.

Giant Steps—Expectations in the Toddler Years is the first of a two-part article.
Back to Part 1.

References and Related Books

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (1998). Your Child: What Every Parent Needs to Know. Harper Collins
American Academy of Pediatrics. (1999). Caring for Your Baby and Young Child (Revised Edition)

Websites of interest:
National Parent Information Network
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Psychological Association
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry