Parents are puzzled when their toddler, between twelve and twenty-four months, shifts from being dependent to being independent and back again. Why, for example, would she suddenly dart away from her mother and then just as suddenly come running back to her?
Such on-and-off behavior comes from your toddler’s mixed feelings about her place in the world. When she first learns to walk, she develops a sense of independence and joy. She’s delighted with her new-found skill and control, feeling that the world is at her command. Soon after exercising her new independence, however (sometime between seventeen months and two years), her perceptions of her place in the world change, and she can feel vulnerable. It’s her joy in exploration combined with her feelings of uncertainty that lead her to run off and run back.
Typical of a toddler at this stage is an eighteen-month-old girl waiting in line with her mother at the post office. She wiggles away and goes to look at a chain hanging across a doorway. As soon as she reaches the chain she says, “Mommy, Mommy,” and runs to get picked up. After a few seconds, she gets back down, runs and touches the chain, and then runs back to her mother. She repeats this cycle as long as she and her mother wait in line.
This developmental phase of emotional dependence-independence, which is a normal part of growth, can last until your child is two years old. Different children show different degrees of dependence. Some aren’t comfortable exploring their surroundings on their own and may cling to their parents. Most children need more reassurance when they’re out of their secure and comfortable homes.
During this stage, your toddler may be especially sensitive to your responses and easily upset when you disapprove of her behavior, just as she’s pleased when you approve. Over time, as your young child gains more experience, a change will occur, and she’ll be able to play, explore, and move about without coming to you for repeated reassurance.
Until then, try to accept her behavior, smile, and wave when she goes off a bit on her own, and give her the emotional support she needs to feel secure about her world.