Rambunctious, mobile, and caught in a riptide of emotion, toddlers are the uncivilized, pedal-to-the-metal humans, matched only by the older edition called teenagers, experts (and parents) say.
Pediatrician Harvey Karp, author and creator of The Happiest Toddler on the Block, says if babies are angels, then toddlers are cavemen.
Lara Zibners, an emergency room pediatrician in New York, says, "They eat light bulbs. They shove Legos in their noses. Toddlers are egocentric, emotionally labile, indecisive, and oblivious to danger." Layer in their limited ability to communicate and their individual temperaments, and Zibners, author of If Your Kid Eats This Book, Everything Will Still Be Okay, says, "It's no wonder that many parents can't wait for their child to outgrow this difficult, yet often delightful, phase of childhood."
Yet parents aren't as helpless as they may sometimes feel. They can master understanding these little creatures. The first step is to figure out your toddler's personality. In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Karp writes: "Temperament explains why some of us can sleep with the TV on while others go nuts with the tiniest noise, why some forgive easily and others just can't let go. Knowing your child's temperament helps you know when to pamper and when to push."
Toddler Personality Types
Experts say there are three broad categories of toddler personality:
- Easy or happy, but not full-tilt constantly
- Shy or slow to warm -- often thoughtful and quiet
- Spirited (a nice term for "Get down off the refrigerator right now!")
The Easy Child: About half of all kids are easygoing -- waking up on the "right side of the bed," cheerful and ready for a new day, Karp says. They're active, tolerate change, and basically like new people and situations. They don't anger easily, according to the experts, but they aren't pushovers either.
Parents need to just use common sense if this is their toddler's personality -- with a couple of caveats. Easy children sometimes can be lost in the crowd, spending too much time left alone with the television or not enough time with their parents because other children demand the attention. Make sure that a child who is easy doesn't become a neglected child.
The Shy Child: About 15% of kids are shy or slow to warm up. By 9 months, many easy babies will smile at strangers. But shy kids will frown and cling. They'll wave bye-bye only after a guest leaves.
Children with this toddler personality are often extra-sensitive to the feel of their clothing or the temperature in a room. They need a lot of transition time from activity to activity and resist change. They might be late walkers and they will often study, with intensity, how a game is played before jumping in. Karp says, "Their motto is, 'When in doubt, don't!'"
These are gentle souls and should be shielded from harsh criticism and ridicule. Rejection can make a shy child fearful and brittle throughout life. Also, parents need to make sure children with this toddler personality have the stability and the time to process the curve balls of life; they can't be rushed into getting dressed or to sit on Santa's lap.
The Spirited (Wild) Child: About one in 10 toddlers is a strong-willed, challenging kid. "These roller-coaster kids have high highs and low lows," Karp says. "Parents usually know they have a spirited child because they're the 'more' kids." More active. More impatient. More impulsive. More defiant. More intense. More sensitive. More rigid."
The No. 1 recommendation to parents of children with this toddler personality is to keep them active. Get them outside to play -- a lot. These kids need to burn off their energy and work through their moods. They also need firm structure to keep them safe and stable -- and lots of patience.
Every Child Is Unique
Of course, no child is defined by just one toddler personality type. But these three types can serve as a guide on how to interact.
"Pay attention and pick up the nuance of your child," Karp says. "Kids are like flowers, each one is different, but special. So whether your child is a playful poppy or a shrinking violet, love and celebrate your child for his or her uniqueness."