Your toddler is quickly growing into a little person with his own thoughts and feelings. He probably even voices what he’s thinking now, with words like, “Yay!” and “No!” This is a sign that he’s developing self-concept – or forming his own ideas about himself.
He’s actually been doing this for a while, but his self-concept becomes more prominent in the toddler years as he begins to put his thoughts into words. When he was a baby, the development of self-concept began when he realized he was a separate person from you, or clapped when he tossed a toy.
Now, his understanding of himself is becoming more sophisticated as he’s also gaining an understanding of language and emotions, which, together, help him form more cohesive thoughts. Self-concept is an integral piece of social-emotional development that will continue to transform throughout his childhood.
Self-Concept Development in Toddlerhood
Between 24 and 36 months, your toddler goes through a lot of social-emotional and cognitive growth. He’s figuring out his likes and dislikes, growing individual bonds with people, participating in imaginative play, and becoming more independent with everyday tasks. All of this leads to him learning more about himself, or developing self-concept.
Up until now, your toddler relied mostly on your reactions to things he did to learn more about himself. For example, picking him up from his crib after a long nap and smiling at him shows him that you’re as happy to see him as he is to see you.
Now, he’s navigating his world more on his own and drawing conclusions from what he does and sees. As he accomplishes tasks on his own, your toddler will start to feel more confident. He might believe he can put his shoes on by himself or pour a bowl of cereal on his own, all because his self-concept is growing in leaps and bounds the more he tries new things.
The Self-Concept and Social-Emotional Development Connection and How to Keep It Growing
Self-concept and social-emotional development typically work together. As your toddler learns more about himself and gains a sense of confidence, he’ll start to feel more confident in other areas of his life, too, like playing with others and helping with age-appropriate chores. Similarly, a toddler with a negative self-concept might have a tough time completing self-care tasks, like trying to feed himself, or could feel anxious in a playgroup.
Just like your baby looked to you to help him understand how he should react to things, your toddler also needs your guidance. What you say and do as he discovers new things about himself can shape his social-emotional development and self-concept as he grows. You can help him build strong self-esteem by:
- Being specific in your praise. Your toddler needs to know what he’s doing well. Say, “You are being so gentle with the cat. That’s so kind. Look, now he wants to snuggle you!” instead of, “Good job being nice to the cat.” He’ll get a better idea of what he did to receive your praise.
- Showing interest in things he’s interested in. Show genuine interest in what your toddler likes to do. You can also let him take the lead during play. It’ll show him that his interests are valid and will encourage him to keep exploring.
- Helping him understand that trying is even more important than doing. Not being able to accomplish things can be a huge bummer for a toddler. That’s why it’s crucial to praise his trying instead of accomplishing, which can boost his confidence and make him want to keep trying.
- Being kind to yourself (and others). Parents and caregivers are often hard on themselves without realizing it. Your words and actions can have heavy effects on toddlers, though. Remember to stay positive and give yourself some public words of encouragement, like “Wow, this dinner that I made tastes so yummy!” Your toddler will see that you value yourself, too.
Need some ideas for activities you can do with your toddler that target social-emotional and self-concept development? Check out the Social-Emotional and Self Care sections of our BabySparks development program.