Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt – 18 months to 3 years

Cranky child

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Goodbye sweet baby and hello terrible twos! This stage of childhood development is notorious for its often sudden and confusing onset, as well as for the tumult it leaves in the wake of tantrums, defiant behaviour and general hijinks. Even though we’re told to expect it, many parents still find themselves dumbstruck, asking each other and whoever else will listen, ‘Where has my placid, good-natured baby gone? And is she going to be like this forever?’

The answer, of course, is that she’s still there somewhere, waiting for you to help her through this awkward stage, which is every bit as difficult for her as it is for you, and that, no, she shouldn’t be like this forever; though we all know adults who can throw a memorable tantrum! Perhaps they never resolved this particular psychosocial stage and so remain locked in it, forever at the mercy of their own uncontrollable emotions. That’s not a fate we want for our children.

Erik Erikson called the period of time between approximately 18 months and 3 years of age, a stage of ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’. The child is just beginning to realize that she isn’t a part of mummy and daddy, that she is a separate human being with a whole set of unique needs. Her task is to develop the skills to maintain a healthy will. She needs to accomplish certain tasks for herself, without the help of her parents and to be able to set boundaries that define her as separate. That’s where that jarring ‘No!’ comes in.

Rather than taking it personally and becoming locked into an ongoing battle of wills with your child – a battle that no-one can win – it makes more sense to understand where she’s coming from and how imperitive it is for her to go through this stage and come out the other side with a sense of accomplishment and autonomy. As she grows into an adult, that autonomy will stand her in good steed as she negotiates a world that will often want to prevent her from achieving her goals. A self esteem that includes a balance between independence and connection with others, will allow her to reach her goals while still maintaining healthy relationships.

This time of life is a period of rapidly growing brain function. Nerve connections are advancing at a truly amazing rate as children gain more control over their bodies and acquire new skills, particularly language. But because their motor skills are still developing it can be a frustrating time for parents as they learn to stand back and let their children try out their newfound abilities. Many of us want to rush in and get the job done quickly, or to rescue our child from the pain of struggle. The reality is, however, that we’re really rescuing ourselves, not our children. It’s our own anxiety we want to put an end to. That might be a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who prefer to think of ourselves as helpers, wanting to cushion the rocky path for our little ones so they don’t stumble and fall, but the look of sheer determination that we see on the faces of our little ones should tell us that they’re more than up for the challenge. In fact, when we step in and do things for them that they’re capable of doing themselves, we end up causing them untold frustration. More importantly, we give them a very clear, unspoken message – that we don’t believe in them.

A good rule of thumb for any stage of our childrens’ development is: Never do anything for them that they’re capable of doing themselves. This is contrary to the popular belief promoted by pop psychologists ie that a child’s self esteem is acquired through constant praise. The research shows clearly that self esteem is developed through feelings of ‘self efficacy’. What that means is that when children and adults acquire new skills, they feel good about what they’ve accomplished – this, in turn, raises feelings of self worth and self esteem. It’s still important to acknowledge our childrens’ conquests with warmth and a timely ‘well done’, and to encourage their efforts so they don’t give up. However, going overboard with a barrage of, ‘Wow, aren’t you fantastic, amazing, brilliant!’ every time they remember to pick up their shoes, simply doesn’t ring true – and the kids are painfully aware of it.

Despite their roaring voices and volatile behaviour, toddlers this age are really vulnerable. They can easily be shamed by parents who criticize their efforts or take over a child’s attempts to learn a new skill. As difficult as it is, we need to be wary of our own frustrated outbursts. We’ve all been guilty of this at some time during our children’s lives. An exhausted, bleary eyed parent with a headache can be forgiven for saying, ‘Oh for goodness sake! Let me do it,’ while watching their child fumble with their shirt buttons for the twentieth time in a minute. But by and large, we need to do our best to prevent our children from feeling ashamed of their efforts.

The area in which this is most crucial is, naturally, toilet training. While Erikson doesn’t agree with Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, he does agree that if we’re shamed in the process of toilet training (as in learning other important skills), we may end up feeling ashamed of ourselves and doubt our capabilities. The result can be a lifelong struggle with low self-esteem.

My next post focuses on the ages between 3 and 5 years, a time when it’s all about play, play, play! Yet, as much fun as that sounds, if the social conflicts of this particular stage aren’t resolved in a satisfactory manner, a child can be left with a pervasive sense of guilt.

Next post: Initiative vs Guilt

Until then, thank you for visiting.


2 responses to “Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt – 18 months to 3 years

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