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Emotional and Social Development, Ages 12 to 24 Months

Topic Overview

Toddlers form strong emotional attachments and often feel uneasy when they are separated from their loved ones. Around the same time, toddlers typically want to do things on their own or according to their own wishes. This sets the stage for conflict, confusion, and occasional breakdowns.

Toddlers typically develop two conflicting feelings: wanting both independence and reassurance from their parents. Although their emotions change often, toddlers' personalities and temperament are becoming more defined.

Young children between 12 and 24 months of age experience many emotions as they learn to explore their world. When parents respond to emotional needs with a loving, consistent, and understanding attitude, their children develop confidence and a sense of security.

Common emotional and social developmental issues for toddlers include:

  • Problems controlling feelings. Your toddler's emerging sense of self and internal conflicts often causes irrational, extreme, and abruptly changing emotions. Typically, toddlers want to master skills and tasks independently and believe that what they want to happen should happen. But what they want to happen can change from one moment to the next. Toddlers often perceive themselves as the director of their own lives and you in a supporting role. Of course, they remain dependent on you. To try to keep in control, they assert themselves in defining how and when your services are needed. For example, your child may want to eat with a spoon by himself or herself and become angry when you try to give instruction. Moments later, he or she may ask—or command—you to help. If something does not happen as a toddler thinks that it "should," he or she can become impatient, easily frustrated, and unable to control his or her feelings. Consequently, toddlers are known to dissolve into tears, fuss, whine, or throw fits over simple matters.
  • Separation protest. During their second year, many toddlers experience separation protest (also called separation anxiety), because they are able to remember you after you have left but don't understand that you will come back. Separation protest may become intense at daycare, for example, because the toddler anticipates that you are going to leave and fears being deserted. These feelings are normal and usually peak at about 10 months. As the brain matures, toddlers become better equipped to handle these transitions more gracefully. Older toddlers usually understand that you always come back, even when you're gone for a whole day. Separation protest may also be the cause of bedtime problems. You can help your child learn permanence (and that you will come back after leaving for a bit) by playing games such as peekaboo. You can also place toys under blankets to "hide" them while your child watches and then "find" them together.
  • Self-comforting behaviours. Your toddler may use a cuddly object, a blanket, a stuffed toy, a piece of a parent's clothing, or another treasured object for comfort during times of stress or to relax. The attachment toddlers form with these objects helps calm and soothe them. Most children discard these objects in time.
  • Problems with sharing. Between 12 and 24 months, children start to understand that they are individuals and independent from everyone else. Sharing may threaten or interfere with their sense of independence. You may hear "mine" and "no" quite often when you try to help your child to share. Do not give up. Keep stressing the importance of sharing. Also, it may help to have your child select a toy to put away while other children are around. This allows him or her to feel more in control. Be patient. Your "mini tyrant" will soon be more responsive to sharing with others.
  • An awareness of others' emotions. When parents encourage and model an awareness for other people's feelings, toddlers begin to be able to recognize examples of kindness, co-operation, and sympathy that will help them develop these social behaviours themselves. Providing positive feedback and reinforcement will also help toddlers understand when they have behaved well. Toddlers also learn to read others' emotions and feelings. They know when parents feel angry, sad, or happy. It is often hard for toddlers to work with this newfound ability. For example, they may recognize that their parents are not happy when they misbehave, but they often don't know what to do about it.


Current as of:
September 20, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics
Donald Sproule MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics