How to Make a Toddler Independent

If you are the parents of a child who is 12 to 18 months, you may notice that the child is completely stuck to you, not just around you, but physically is always touching you.

There is some rapid growth happening in their brains around this time. Physically they are becoming more able. Emotionally they have bigger feelings and desires and wants. And mentally they are understanding much more.

You may simply be exhausted from the constant care that is required with a child that is this age, they just seem to need you so much. As the child gets older it is important for parents to set the stage for them so that they may become independent and high-functioning children and then onward to adults.

Funny enough, independence and attachment are connected

So how do you make your toddler independent? As an initial matter, independence of a child is strongly correlated to the child’s strength and confidence in their attachment to their primary caregivers. If a child has a stable situation with their caregiver, either parents, grandparents, babysitter, daycare, the child is more likely to exhibit independent behaviors then if their connection and attachment to their caregivers is unstable.

For example, if you and your child are out walking around, and your child is confident in your position with her, she knows 100% that you are there for her, and that she can count on you, she is more likely to venture away from you to explore, because she knows that she can return to you at any time. Children who have a weak or disrupted attachment to their primary caregivers off in the struggle to take independent steps away from those caregiver because they are not a hundred percent sure of what will happen should they move away from them.

Stability is a key component to strong attachment

So how can we help a child understand and develop a strong attachment that will be the foundation for independence?

First the child needs to know what is going to happen. This is developed with a stable and consistent schedule. Getting out of bed around the same time, taking naps around the same time, going to the same places and see the same people. This might sound boring to us as adults but for children a routine is comfort.

Even going through getting ready for bed with the same steps at the same time, even if they are complaining the whole, is comforting and develops that stability.

Your child knows whether or not you believe in them

The next thing that you should work on aside from stability as you think about attachment to your child is how confident you are in them. This is tough for parents because in many cases, parents do not have confidence that a child can accomplish tasks on their own.

Parents shouldn’t be shamed for not having confidence in their child’s abilities. Children can’t do a lot of stuff! Or at least, they can’t do much as well as us. It’s not that the child could do it and we don’t trust them, it’s just that a child doesn’t necessarily have the fine motor skill to do the things they want to do.

In many cases what we as parents do is prevent them from trying the activity because we want them to wait until they’re older, or we do it for them. Unfortunately, when we do not give children the opportunity to do things wrong, to drop things, the trip and fall, to take on tasks that are clearly outside of their realm of ability, we also inhibit that impulse to go out and try things on their own.

Inherent in close management by a parent is the message that, you can’t do this on your own. Or, you can’t do things on your own. Also, parents must help you with everything.

If you are focused on helping your child build independence, you need to get out of their way. You need to accept that messes are going to occur and things are going to get broken. A child needs to be supported through their attempts to do things that are too hard for them, rather than having the parents take over and do it for them.

Well-meaning help has negative consequences

I see this frequently at playgrounds. A well-meaning parent or grandparent sees a child struggling on a particular piece of equipment and they go and lift the child up and put them to the top. But when we pick them up and carry them up, to help alleviate their frustration or crying, we have done little to help build their confidence and done a lot to tell them how much they can’t do things on their own.

An appropriate response to a child struggling on a play structure or jungle gym would be to go and stand next to them or sit with them and talk to them about the things that they need to do. If they can’t see where the foothold is, you can point it out to them or, you can stand next to them and let them try it out knowing that they are going to fall but being there and being ready to catch them.

Another side product of taking a child to the top who is not developmentally ready to be at the top of a play structure, is that we may actually be creating a false independence, a false understanding but they are actually capable of getting to the top and keeping themselves safe when they actually are not.

If we let a child fail (not fall) on the structure, and they only climb to the top when they are actually able to do it, we are helping them learn what their limits are, to experience and deal with frustration, and then when they finally managed to do it on their own, they feel a very strong and important feeling of accomplishment that they would not get if we simply took them to the top.

Seriously, parents need to back off and let their kids do their own thing

If you feel like independence for your child at a young age is important, you need to set yourself up so that you can back off your child. Now let’s say your child wants to be near you at all times, and they won’t go and play by themselves at the playground, when you get there you sit down and make home and grab you and pull you or cry because you don’t come into the sandbox with them.

The reason this happens is that we have probably coached them that this is the way to play. Undoing this may take some time. A great way to get this started is set your expectations appropriately. When you go to the playground, make sure to tell your little ones that you are going to sit on a blanket and watch them. They can sit with you, or they can go and play on their own. Don’t control whether they go play or sit with you. If they protest, just accept their feelings. Accept the crying or frustration and don’t feel like the outing was unsuccessful.

The next time that you go, do the same thing, and let them know that you are going to sit on the side and they are welcome to play and do what they want. Over time, if you continue to do this and you are firm with your commitment to staying out of the way and not playing with them, they will start to venture out on their own.

Another way to encourage them to go and explore on our own is to provide super cool or awesome or new toys that they haven’t played with any other way ever and put those out for them. So the child has the excitement of checking out the new toy and you observe from the side.

Taking a backseat to their play doesn’t mean you are completely checked out and not paying attention. Most likely you are watching them carefully and you will see how frequently they look back at you to see if you are still there with them and still connected to them. When they look to you, definitely smile and wave, and acknowledge what they’re doing. You can support them, but saying things like “look at that shovel,” “look at how cool that castle is,” “I wonder what you’ll do next with that,” but without directing what they do or how they do.

You might have a different idea of what counts as a successful outing at the park, but what we adults think of as fun and enjoyment isn’t always what the child thinks of as fun and enjoyment.

Well-meaning grandparents….

Another one of my gripes is when I see adults, usually grandparents, in the middle of kids directing their play at the park. I see this frequently in places like the sandbox. There might be four or five children in a sandbox playing while the grandparent directs the children of how to play and what to do. The adult thinks that the sandcastle at the end is the goal. They take control of the play, how the children move the sand, what they do with this and how they build, who takes turns, but what that tells the children unfortunately is that they can’t do it on their own.

Adults need to get the idea that children need to be taught how to play out of their heads. Children don’t need us to show them how a shovel works. The child needs to hold the shovel, and then make her own decisions about what to do with it. Maybe she shovels with it. Or maybe the shovel becomes a plane.

I don’t want to discourage grandparents from playing in the sand with the kids. Interacting with grandchildren is one of the major joys of the holder years. I think this is a wonderful chance for grandparents to spend great time with these little ones. But instead of taking over, I would recommend the adult take the direction from the kids.

Let kids make the decisions about what to do and how to do and what to build and how to build and then have the kids tell the grandparent what to do. Instead of the grandparent controlling what goes where, the child tells her grandparents to put sand here, or add the water here, or make the decision that the mixture actually needs more water or less.

Even young children are capable

One of the fundamental things that we need to do as parents to help a toddler build confidence and become independent is to trust that they are able to do things. This is actually a hard transition to make.

We give birth to these completely useless and helpless beings. Over time we watch them grow and change but they really can’t do anything, or do anything well. To help them become independent, we have to accept that they can do things, and that they are useful, that they can help and they can do things for themselves.

Maybe the things that they do don’t seem to us to be useful or helpful, but a child gains a ton of confidence from finishing a simple tasks on their own, especially tasks that they set out to do for themselves.

Three things you can start doing today to make your toddler independent

Here is a list of several things that you can do to help your child gain confidence and build her independence from you.

First, when you go to the playground or other kid-themed play space, sit down, or stand back. Watch them, and maneuver yourself nearby if necessary for safety. But otherwise, give them space. Don’t follow them around closely. If they can’t do something on the playground, console them when they cry or get frustrated, but don’t do it for them. Keep them safe if necessary, but let them learn proceed at their own pace.

Second, take them someplace they can wander around safely in the outdoors. I’m not talking about playgrounds. I’m thinking more of like the forest, fields, any place with tons of different sensory inputs. Let them move around the environment at their own pace.

To start fostering independence, the child needs to be interested in taking the lead. She may not feel like branching out in her familiar environments. A natural environment is FULL of interesting things that should inspire even the most reticent toddler to run ahead and explore.

Let the child point out what is cool and what they see, and let them be in charge of their own experience. Don’t make this a hike with the adults’ idea of a successful outing is getting to the top. The child doesn’t care about getting to the top. The experience is what matters or her.

Third, I would set up structured independent play time in the home. This means that you let the child know that this is independent play time (regardless of age), that you are not going to set out the activities for them, and they will do what they want to do.

In the meantime, the adult will also find something to do and then focus on doing that, even though out of the corner of your eye and you pay attention to what they are doing to keep them safe. They may struggle to go and find things to do, and much of this time maybe spent with a child complaining or crying because they want your attention or because they don’t know what to do.

If your house is like mine, it is full of stuff for them to do. Sometimes you will have to stop your own tasks and console them. Acknowledge that they feel frustrated or perhaps they don’t know what to do. But again reiterate, that this is their time to figure out something to do on their own and do not give them suggestions or options for what to do. Over time they will learn how to find something for themselves to do.

Some parents will actually take the step to create a physical barrier between them and the child if the child will not find something on her own to do. Since I’ve never utilized this technique, I can’t say for sure that this is something that would work in my home.

But I can see that gating off the parent’s work space (like if he is at the computer), or fencing off a part of the living room at the child’s space could work. The parent is there, in view of the child. Everyone is safe. The child will naturally complain. The fence/gate is new, after all. She is used to being able to control how and when she goes to the adult.

If you take small steps forward on this, such as doing a few minutes of independent play time each day, and increase it over time, this could be a good solution for parents who need to work at home or to help the child get used to playing on her own.

Are you struggling to help your toddler play on his own? Let us know about your experiences in the comments.