Parenting a Toddler? Understanding the Stages of Development Can Help

Parent sits at table and hugs two happy toddlers sitting on table in tidy kitchenI am a therapist. But I am also a mother of three young children. And as I navigate the challenging yet rewarding years of parenthood, I am thankful for my psychology background and training.

It takes a lot of strength to raise a household of young children. It may take even more strength to do so while remaining positive, affirming our children, and communicating in a loving manner. Understanding children from a developmental lens can help immensely.

Erikson’s Stages of Development

One thing I continue to rely on is Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. This tool has been extremely helpful as my children progress through the toddler years. One of them is three years old, or, as some of my fellow parents put it, a “threenager.”

Erikson terms this stage of development as autonomy vs. shame and doubt. During this phase, a toddler’s developmental task is to become independent from their parents. As they seek to understand their identity, toddlers make their needs and desires clear. It can often feel like every choice they make is a new battle. My “threenager” has opinions about her clothes, her shoes, and the way she wants to wear her hair. I think I am helping her out by doing small things for her. But I am often met with resistance and the response, “No, Mommy, I want to do it myself.”

Erikson held that when these attempts to express themselves are met with encouragement, toddlers will develop a sense of autonomy and independence. If these attempts are met with resistance or punishment, on the other hand, the toddler will develop a sense of shame and doubt and carry it into adulthood. (The term “threenager” is fitting because this stage closely resembles the teenage years, where the developmental task also involves creating an identity separate from a teenager’s parents.)

The Developing Brain

It has also been helpful for me to understand not only what developmental changes are happening, but also what is going on in terms of brain development.

The ability to integrate right-brain emotional experiences with left-brain logic and understanding is key to a healthy brain. How can we help our young children begin this process? 

According to Siegel and Bryson, parents must learn to understand how their child’s brain works. This knowledge is useful because it can help us parent more effectively. One of the most important concepts to understand is left to right brain integration. Siegel and Bryson explain that a healthy brain is an “integrated brain.” This means the healthy brain uses left and right brain hemispheres to understand, make meaning, and organize experiences. The integration process takes a lifetime to perfect. But we can help our children begin this process early in life.

We first need to understand the difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

The left hemisphere of the brain:

  • Creates order
  • Helps us understand things logically
  • Describes cause and effect relationships.

The right hemisphere of the brain:

  • Is holistic
  • Is emotional
  • Stores and retrieves autobiographical memories

The ability to integrate right-brain emotional experiences with left-brain logic and understanding is key to a healthy brain. How can we help our young children begin this process?

Consider a toddler who has become overwhelmed by emotions. Toddlers can easily become emotionally flooded.  When emotions overwhelm them, they might throw a tantrum, yell, or cry uncontrollably. This happens because their brains are right-brain dominant. In other words, they are not driven by logic, responsibilities, and time. This makes sense from a development perspective. The left-brain hemispheres do not start to kick in until a child is around four years old.

So how can we effectively handle this situation? First, we need to remember not to dismiss or deny their feelings. Avoid saying things like:

  • “It’s not that bad.”
  • “You’re fine.”
  • “You need to be more careful.”

Instead, acknowledge what your child might be feeling. Help them tell a story about what happened. You might say something like, “Wow, that looked like it hurt. You were running, and then you fell and scraped your knee.”

Some time later, when you are connecting with your child and they are not emotionally flooded, help them understand the lesson in the story. You can even do this on a different day. You might say, “Remember when you fell and scraped your knee on the asphalt at school? Maybe you should slow down on the asphalt at school.”

Helpful Tools for Parents of Toddlers

Parenting toddlers may be extremely difficult at times. But there are many tools that can help. A recent study from the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University surveyed over 2000 mothers to help understand factors that contribute to overall well-being. Of those surveyed, 46% had a graduate degree, 37% had a college degree, and the remaining 16% had a high school education.

The mothers were asked about satisfaction with parenting, parenting guilt, and parenting role overload. The survey also assessed for maternal adjustment with questions related to emptiness, fulfillment, life satisfaction, and perceptions of their child.

Some results indicated that three areas were consistently linked with maternal depression:

  • Role overload, or feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities
  • Maternal guilt, or feeling as if they weren’t doing enough for their children
  • Child negative behaviors, or observing their child is distant, rude, or disrespectful to them.

However, the following four areas of personal support helped provide a buffer against maternal depression:

  • Unconditional acceptance
  • Feeling comforted when needed
  • Authenticity in relationships
  • Friendship satisfaction

Even when mothers scored high in the three areas linked to maternal depression, when they also scored high in the buffer areas, they were more likely to score high on parenting satisfaction scale.

How can mothers (or any parent) apply these findings to their own experiences in parenting? The old saying “it takes a village” rings true here. If you are a parent, attempt to create a supportive culture of other parents who:

  1. Are honest about the highs and lows of parenting
  2. Support each other even when they are not “perfect parents”
  3. Provide comfort when you feel overwhelmed with responsibilities

Some aspects of parenting toddlers can be a real challenge. Research supports that. Finding strength and support from other parents who are experiencing the same difficulties (and who are also honest about their struggles) is a key element in parental satisfaction. If you are currently struggling, consider seeking help. A compassionate, qualified counselor can offer support and help you explore strategies for parenting satisfaction and success.


  1. Crain, W. (2005, August 12). Theories of development: Concepts and applications (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall
  2. Luther, S. S. & Ciciolla, L. (2015). Who mothers mommy? Factors that contribute to mothers’ well-being. Developmental Psychology, 51(12). 1812-1823.
  3. Siegel, D. J. & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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