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The Routines and Rituals of Toddlerhood

By Elizabeth Hart, Ph.D

Molly is an active, inquisitive, typically-developing two-year old. Generally cooperative and easygoing, her parents feel lucky to have escaped the stubborn behavior that they had expected at this stage. Until bedtime, that is. Each and every night Mom or Dad is put through his or her paces. Three stories – the “kitty one” first, two songs – one loud, one quiet, and three kisses – “one, two, three.” Neither fatigue, nor telephone calls, nor chores to do allows the appointed parent to deviate from the program.

Molly’s parents are far from alone. Such repetitive, ritualistic and perfectionistic behavior is quite common among young children. Developmentalist Arnold Gesell, referring to what he termed the “rituals of the ritualist” noted that towards the end of the second year many children begin to engage in elaborate rituals and routines. Studies of the frequency of this type of behavior find that it is most common among two to four year old children and tends to decline as a child moves through the preschool years, but is still relatively common through age five. Rituals may be especially present at times of transition such as mealtime and bedtime or at times associated with age-typical fears (e.g., fear of the dark). Toddlers may begin to show strong preferences for sameness in the environment, and exhibit rigid likes and dislikes. The desire for repetition and sameness is apparent in requests to hear the same story or watch the same videotape over and over and over again. Bedtime routines may require that songs be sung in a certain way, books read in a certain order, blankets or stuffed toys placed just so. Mealtime may involve requests for the same spoon each time, insistence that foods not touch one another on the plate or that they be eaten in a particular order.

Balance, symmetry, and wholeness are also quite important. Your perfectionistic toddler may insist on holding two crackers, one for each hand and may notice and be distressed by minor imperfections – a cracker with a piece broken, a toy with a bent or missing part. Strong preferences for eating particular foods and wearing certain favorite items of clothing over and over may also appear during this time.

The fact that routines and ritualistic behavior are so common during the toddler and preschool years suggests that they serve an important purpose at this stage of development. During this time children begin to establish greater independence from care givers. Along with this comes some uneasiness about the unknown and a yearning for predictability. Daily routines provide security to toddlers and young preschoolers who are going through a period of rapid growth and learning. A combination of similarity and repetition appears to provide reassurance and a sense of control. Following a routine throughout the day can help both children and parents more easily navigate times of transition.

If however, a child’s behavior is so rigid and ritualized that it interferes with the development or expression of other important behavior such as social play and communication, or if it takes up considerable time in a child’s day, there may be cause for concern. In this case, consultation with a child psychologist or other child development professional is warranted.

Fortunately, in most cases, a young child’s rigid adherence to rituals represents a passing, if exasperating phase. So what’s a parent to do?

Let it be. Try not to alter or shortcut the routine. Although this may be quite tempting at times, your toddler is likely to dig in his heels and resist. When circumstances require that you deviate from the routine, try to emphasize the novelty and make it special. Try to warn your toddler ahead of time of impending disruptions.

Stay relaxed about food and clothing preferences. Food jags are usually short-lived and will generally not lead to nutritional deficiencies. Power-struggles on the other hand, can lead to indigestion for everyone. Likewise, as long as she is dressed appropriately for the weather, allowing preschooler to wear the same clothing items over and over may offend your sensibilities but won’t do any harm.

Record it for posterity. Write it down, take a picture, make a videotape. As with so many things, this too shall pass. Perhaps all too quickly.

Elizabeth Hart, Ph.D is a Clinical Child Psychologist, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, and the mother of two young daughters.

 

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