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July 5, 2016

We’ve all got an idea of who we would like our kids to become and most parents would place confidence pretty high on the list of desirable traits. But how do you lay the foundations for your baby and toddler to grow into a happy, independent child, while still making sure they are safe and feel loved?

Age 0 – 6 months 

This is a period of time where grown-ups are most focused on a baby’s physical needs. Hunger, thirst, nappy changes and sleep dominate routines, but that also influences baby emotionally.

“The need to feel secure is a running theme through all stages of childhood,” says Sophie Alcock PhD, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Education at Victoria University. “There’s this great phrase: ‘from a secure base’; children will go out and explore and be adventurous if they feel secure and loved at home. Their dependency on you never decreases, but it becomes more tolerable to them. If they have a strong sense of self in relation to their parents, a sense of connectedness, then they will feel more comfortable pushing their boundaries.”

Developing a strong bond with your baby at this time will lay the foundations for confidence. Wear them in a sling when you can and respond to their needs promptly and consistently. Don’t worry if some days you are lacking in patience or can’t be as quick to help baby as you would like – it’s the dominant pattern of behavior that’s important, not that odd time when you might drop the ball.

Age 6 – 12 months

This is the stage when baby starts rolling, crawling and eventually taking those first tentative steps. It’s also the age when we begin to perceive the dangers to our little one – and a measured response to those dangers is key to confident children.

“A sense of fear and recognition of situations that may offer some risk or danger is often developed at the end of the first year of life,” says Dr Peter Slater, an Auckland-based child and adolescent psychotherapist. This is a learned behaviour that comes from a parent’s response to a situation. “Anxiety can be highly contagious and highly anxious parents can lead to anxious children. There is nothing better than learning from experience.”

While it’s perfectly normal to feel a sense of fear when you see your nine-month-old crawling towards an open stair gate, flailing your arms, screaming and wrenching them away will be quite a traumatic experience for both of you – and ultimately teaches your child that being inquisitive is something bad.

“I would encourage parents to get on the floor with their crawling baby and see what they do, from their perspective,” says Sophie. “Don’t interrupt – although you can help if they need you – just watch and see where they go and what they are interested in. This will help you relax and understand your baby better.” It will also help you assess what areas need to be child-proofed.

If you need to move baby away from the stairs, stove or plug sockets, pick them up gently, move them slowly and say – calmly – “Let’s play over here” or “Shall we look at these toys?” Remember, baby is a sponge, soaking up your responses to build their own emotional tool kit.

Age 12 – 18 months

“When children start walking they become more adventurous in their minds also,” says Sophie. “But they still need to know they are safe. They will wander within sight of their mum or dad, returning periodically as if they’re on an invisible leash.”

This is a great opportunity to allow your new toddler some independence in a safe environment. Firstly, child-proof your house: move any objects that are a height they can grab, put covers over plug sockets and pad any furniture corners they could bump their head on. This will remove some of the tension from the house, giving your little one more freedom to explore and you the emotional space to enjoy these new milestones.

Make sure rules are as consistent as possible. This can be difficult as a friend’s home, playcentre, daycare etc. will all have different rules, but if you apply them evenly in each setting then your toddler will learn. They should know how far they can wander, for example and whether it’s okay to get messy.

Finally, let your children spend time outside. Don’t mollycoddle them. “Feeling the grass, playing in the dirt, touching things like pine cones are all really important for building confidence and giving your child a sense of freedom,” says Sophie. “If they can’t do something don’t just say ‘No’ – help them understand why.”

This will help develop smart problem solvers who understand their boundaries and aren’t too reliant on you.

 Anxiety: Nature or nurture?

Sigmund Freud, famed neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, strongly believed children were born a blank canvas. He felt that early childhood relationships and experiences shaped the adult, anxious or otherwise. 
However, recent research has refuted this. Dr Jerome Kagan, a professor of psychology at Harvard, believes there is a genetic influence that introduces anxiety;
in other words, some children are born with it.
Other studies have also shown that children push the boundaries of behaviour as a way of helping them figure out who they are. If you have a child who seems quiet and timid, who doesn’t want to jump off the climbing frame or go fast on the roundabout, it might actually indicate they feel secure and have a strong sense of what they like and dislike. 
It’s widely accepted today that both nature and nurture have a role in a child’s developing temperament and the advice is clear: play to your son or daughter’s strengths, support their interests and make sure they feel wanted and secure. Perhaps they will always be a little nervous, but this isn’t such a bad thing. Adele, Johnny Depp and even Abraham Lincoln admitted to suffering from nervous dispositions, which in some way have contributed to their success.

Age 18 – 24 months

As they approach two, children begin to develop more of a sense of their independent self.

“This is why two-year-olds can be so difficult,” says Sophie. “They’re still dependent on you for so much, but they want to be independent and are starting to see themselves as a separate person.” This is also the stage where children begin to apply value judgements to themselves. “Your child is trying to push their boundaries and this is normal,” says Sophie. “If you tell them they’re being naughty, they will begin to believe it and this will impact on their self-esteem and confidence when they’re older.”

Instead, talk to your child and help them solve problems themselves. Offer them alternatives. For example, if they want to climb the big climbing frame don’t tell them they can’t, instead say, “Do you think this small one might be better for now?” or if they want to jump from the top step say, “Why don’t we try it from halfway down first?” This way you are encouraging them to make a good decision themselves, rather than feeding them commands.

Peter also reminds us that children meet different milestones at different times, emotionally as well as physically. Knowing your child and how to respond to them in a way that doesn’t stimulate anxiety is really important. Remember, what works for a friend won’t necessarily work for your family.

Beyond 24 months

As children grow older they start to imitate grown-up behaviour and break down the barriers between the adult and child world. Think about the behaviour you would like to see in your child and lead by example.

“Children need to see and be around adults who can manage their more difficult emotions,” says Peter. “If they have this experience then they internalise it and use it as their own template to manage their own difficult feelings later on in life.”

Beyond two years, children also begin to develop their capacity for abstract thought, something that is essential for core school subjects like maths and English.

“This peaks at around four with imaginative play,” says Sophie. “When your children are pretend playing ‘mummies and daddies’, they’re actually engaging in quite a complicated thought process that helps them make sense of their world and yours.”

Leading up to this you can encourage imaginative play in children by letting them use household and natural objects, rather than manufactured toys, to explore their own ideas. “They might use a broom for a horse, or a banana as a phone,” says Sophie. This ability to take an object and play with it beyond its purpose is essential to building confidence. “Children create things, explore emotion through abstract play. They become comfortable and happy when they pretend.”

Both Sophie and Peter are quick to remind us there is no such thing as a perfect parent.

“There’s a lot of pressure on parents today to be perfect and have a great experience,” says Sophie. “One of my favourite quotes is from Winnicott [English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott], who talks about just being a ‘good enough’ parent – and that really is good enough.”

Peter agrees, you can’t have all the answers. “Sometimes it is important to get it wrong,” he says. “The child then sees a human being with strengths and weaknesses, not a parent driven to please and get everything right. It also helps a child to build resources to manage and cope as they grow.” 

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