Monday, April 9, 2012

The Journey to Autonomy

The journey to autonomy is the work of childhood. Every parent (and nanny) of a young toddler will attest that autonomy is the most important activity throughout the day. Autonomy at its core is independence. The journey is often full of struggles, challenges, frustration as well as accomplishments, satisfaction and triumphs. The tricky thing is – we want them to get there but we don’t always know how to help them or are ready for the challenges involved. Sometimes we are the ones who aren’t ready for the child to move forward, which can cause more friction. How can we let go appropriately, encourage liberally and set parameters that are fair?

First, being aware that the job of every child is to grow and develop into an independent individual is essential. The job of every parent and caregiver is to help them get there, to guide and facilitate their progress. Providing children with opportunities to successfully practice independence should be a done on a daily basis.

Play – play is the base from which children build autonomy. Whether it’s exploring with toys, imaginative play with dress-up and drama, learning rules to a game, or expressing feelings with art and music – play is the child’s occupation. Observe young children at play and you will see faces full of concentration and focus. Yes, they are having fun but they are also really learning new skills and practicing them; building new connections to ideas and concepts. Play can be cooperative with others or independent – both are valuable.
Choices – providing options for children can help them to gain decision making skills. Simple choices for young toddlers that might include which cup they will use at breakfast (red or blue), which T-shirt (yellow or green), which to play first (puzzle or blocks), give them a sense of control and accomplishment. Building on the number of items to choose from and areas which they have choices is appropriate as they mature. Older children and teens have many more choices and additional responsibilities, another important component to autonomy.

“I can do it myself!” – I know you’ve heard this frequently. Sometimes they are ready and sometimes they are not – it’s how we respond that makes the difference. If you know that they can manage the task then a little encouragement is all they need – “I know you can do it!” The struggles come when they think they can do more than they are able. We can sometimes jump in too soon to “help” or assume they can’t do it. Often taking a step back and simply asking “would you like help?” or “how can I help you?” can make a huge difference. If they are entrenched in doing it themselves, I let them know I’m available by saying, “let me know if you need help.” The other side of this is to make sure they are safe when attempting something new and that it is age appropriate. That’s when taking a firm stand is needed, but give a very brief explanation of why. I would often include at what age or when they would be able to try again – something to look forward to. Sometimes we have to take a firm stand – after all you don’t want to compromise their safety or have them do something that isn’t age appropriate – and that can lead to a melt down.

Tantrums – usually considered “normal” in the toddler years can happen at any age. They can look different but basically it’s the same thing. Feeling frustrated, lacking control and stress are just a few of the common causes. They can be fueled if a child is tired, hungry or under stress. Keep these tips in mind: 1) stay calm – don’t accelerate the problem by adding your energy to it, 2) make it clear their behavior is unacceptable – speak about the behavior with a calm voice, 3) when the tantrum has subsided - talk calmly and seek solutions together. Older children and teens can have tantrums too. They often include yelling, crying, stomping, or door slamming. Same rules apply – don’t escalate the situation by yelling louder or bringing more energy in to it, stay calm and speak to the behavior. Depending on the age and situation appropriate consequences may need to be issued. This is all part of the learning process to becoming an independent individual.

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