From Toddlers to Children

When do toddlers become children? Often, parents suddenly look at them doing or saying something in a certain way and realise that their little toddlers have turned into ‘proper’ children, who can run and jump, talk with confidence and play with other children. At this time of year, it is often the beginning of school that prompts that realisation. And with that realisation comes a sense of pride, but also perhaps fear for your child managing in the big world, and even a sense of loss. Many parents mourn the fact that they no longer know every detail of their little one’s life – now their child has a life of his own outside of the home. One mother told me that she didn’t know how her son would get a drink at school in the day as he only drank at certain times of the day. She was surprised to learn from the teacher, who she had alerted, that her son drank at break-time along with the other children. He was, as are all children, very adaptable, and he wanted to fit in with his new group, different to his smaller family group.

The toddler, if he has had some good, loving early experiences, is ready for new challenges, and possibly one of the biggest challenges is that of learning to be in the bigger group. He might appear to be still very fragile but he wants to develop more and to find out about the world in which he lives as he moves naturally into childhood. He becomes aware of other children, of how bigger groups work, and begins to get a sense of rules in a group, both spoken and unspoken. He learns that you drink at break-times, he learns that you will get hurt or told off if you hurt other children. He learns that some things belong in one place and others in another. Children often love a toy or little trinket in a new place and will naturally slip it into a pocket to take home. They are told that it stays where it belongs and so they learn not to take things. Social rules can feel complicated to a small child but gradually he will learn about them, feel more confident with them and develop into a secure ‘middle’ phase of childhood, where rules become important and helpful. How can you play any playground game without a good set of rules to follow?

So, what are some of the ways you can help your toddler to become a child, especially if he has had a few hiccups in his early years? Transition objects really do work. When you leave your child at school, or with friends, or so you can go out for the evening, it can be very comforting for the child to have a bit of you to hold – a scarf that smells of you, a soft jumper to snuggle up in at bed-time. If your child has packed lunches, you can put a note in the lunch box, or a special favourite food. What else can you do? You need to remain calm. If you are anxious, your child will pick it up. You will project your anxiety into your child. Children begin to develop their own private lives, in the form of precious collected objects, drawings, diaries, and they need to experience some of their challenges alone. It is hard, but you have to try to begin to let them go. Finally, talk to your child in a calm, relaxed way, as and when your child talks to you. Be available and responsive sooner than asking too many questions. Bath-times, bedtimes or car journeys are often the places for the best conversations, when the child’s mind can wander back over the day.

When toddlers become children, they have a big new world to explore. They haven’t really left you and you haven’t really left them, for their strength as children comes from having you inside them, from knowing that they have a secure base to which they can return, and from knowing that they are loved.


Dr Angela Evans

Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists


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