Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (Toddlers, 1-3 Years)


Social-emotional development includes a child’s ability to understand himself or herself, to control and change his or her own emotions, and to form relationships with others.

For toddlers, the following skills will typically be developing:

  1. Toddlers will look for a familiar adult during play, especially when trying a new activity.
  2. Toddlers want to do things for themselves and are often frustrated when caregivers try to help.
  3. Toddlers start to play beside other children with similar items, but they do not play together.
  4. Toddlers have strong preferences for certain items and activities and will use “no” often.
  5. Toddlers start to participate in self-care routines, such as dressing themselves, feeding themselves and learning to use the toilet.
  6. Toddlers try to imitate the motions of familiar songs and finger plays and are beginning to understand emotions.

What can you do at home to help your toddler develop these skills?

  1. Smile and reassure your toddler when he or she checks in with you during play.
  2. Let your toddler help with some routines and self-care activities, but set him or her up to succeed. For example, provide a stool so your child can reach the sink to help brush his or her teeth.
  3. Encourage your toddler to play beside other children, but don’t try to force toddlers to share toys.
  4. If your toddler refuses to do something (for example, get dressed), offer limited choices: “Do you choose the red shirt or the blue shirt?”
  5. Encourage your child’s independence as the child is able but offer assistance if he or she is becoming frustrated.
  6. Label your child’s emotions, such as happy, sad, and frustrated. Sing and sign songs with hand motions and finger plays, such as “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

Learn more about social-emotional development:

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