As your toddler reaches the age of about eighteen months, he or she will realize that his or her angry “me” and loving “me” are within the same person. During this time, your toddler will also realize that the people he or she trusts and loves can also be the people who make him or her angry. As the sense of self emerges, your toddler gains an understanding that many different kinds of behaviors and feelings are part of a whole rather than being isolated responses unto themselves.
In forming a sense of self, your toddler also comes to have certain consistent expectations about foundational, core emotional themes. If a stranger walks into a room with a facial expression that looks scary, your child will feel a sense of danger and become wary. If another person walks into the room with a smile and an expression of open reassurance, your toddler will likely feel safe and secure.
Recognizing gestural behaviors—including gestures that signal approval or disapproval, safety or danger, acceptance or rejection, and humiliation or respect—is also part of toddlers’ developing a sense of self. Toddlers are becoming keen at recognizing patterns. Tied to this pattern recognition, they develop their own expectations of how others will react to them, and these expectations contribute to the sense of self.
If every time a toddler tries something new, he is teased or embarrassed, a pattern will be developing so that he expects life to be humiliating. If your toddler feels sad or needs something from someone outside of herself, seeks support, and then is ignored, she will feel that abandonment is to be expected and is what she deserves.
These emotional expectations become a part of toddlers’ sense of self. The important beginnings of how they view themselves develop in these early months of toddlerhood. At this young age, toddlers are piecing together experiences to form a notion of who they are, whether fundamentally lovable or deserving of rejection, safe in the world or endangered, and a person to be respected or humiliated.
As a parent, you can help your child by giving him or her experiences of consistent response and reassurance as he or she begins discovering an emerging sense of self.