Over time, as young children experience this responsiveness and structure, a self-soothing function is internalized—the ability to calm themselves even though a parent may not be immediately available. Additionally, as the young child develops cognitive and motor capacities, (s)he explores abilities and surroundings in increasingly autonomous ways—grabbing/moving things, crawling/walking, speaking—ideally within safety parameters set by parents.
The move towards independence is gradual, and the “push” increases even more during the toddler years and then again during adolescence. It is not unusual that parents reflect on these two periods with mixed feelings—simultaneously exciting and also hard. Parents need to seek a balance between meeting dependency needs while also supporting independence strivings.
A good “pace” toward increasing a child’s independence is, in part, assisted by not accelerating the developmental process. Expecting too much, too soon, can lead to various emotional and behavioral manifestations of distress. So, parents should strive to:
- Respect the timeline of developmental milestones (e.g., children putting themselves back to sleep if awakened, toilet training, calming oneself down when upset, independently completing household chores or other more complex tasks). Parents need to watch and respond to cues suggesting the child is ready to progress.
- Realize that infants and toddlers are not yet able to adequately recognize and understand what others are thinking or experiencing. Characteristically, they will make social/behavioral choices that may not fit the adult’s social and moral understanding.
- Recognize that amid a complex and periodically unsettling life experience, parents need to contain and manage their own emotions and reactions so that young children do not misinterpret that they are responsible for, and must take care of, their parent’s emotions.
Even with the recommendation to not hurry the growing up process, parents need to encourage independence by allowing choices, with the opportunity to learn from those choices and one’s own mistakes. Children become increasingly autonomous as they learn to problem solve, choose, and then face results of their choices. If parents do too much of the child’s thinking for them, anxiously make choices for them to avoid mistakes--including sometimes painful (but necessary) learning experiences then dependency is reinforced. If parents commonly function as “drill sergeants” (barking out orders at every turn), or as “helicopters” (hovering to protect from potential missteps and other life lessons), they actually communicate to their children that they cannot function independently.
In teaching our children, independence is accomplished by how we simultaneously meet their dependency needs while encouraging autonomy – a gradual process with periods of accelerated growth. In our parenting, we should allow for choice, problem solving and decision-making, while remaining supportively involved, with reasonable expectations, providing structure and direction as needed. Pushing for independence too soon, or allowing too much autonomy too early, may negatively influence the process.
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