How do I give my toddler independence?

Our child psychologist discusses the differences between privacy and secrecy


Thankfully, your toddler is still years away from the door slamming, “Leave me alone!” and “You don’t understand!” of a teenage tantrum. But as he grows into a ‘little person’, he’ll start to crave his own space and some privacy.


Of course, your toddler still likes to be close to you and he still gets upset if you’re nowhere to be seen at the exact moment he wants you. But now there are times when he wants to have a few moments on his own surrounded by his own possessions.

Developing his Identity

This early need for privacy is a positive sign of your toddler’s increasing independence. Your challenge is to find a balance between keeping him safely close to you and allowing him some personal space. You might have difficulty letting go a little at this stage because he’s so young and vulnerable. But remind yourself that part of growing up involves developing his own identity, and that in turn involves carving out his own territory at home.

Privacy, not secrecy

There are some great opportunities for you to show him you trust him and to reinforce his sense of independence and privacy without making him feel as if you don’t want to be near too.  For example, if he wants to use the potty without anyone watching him, or when he comes home from a hectic morning at nursery surrounded by other children. He might also like time away from an older sibling to play uninterrupted with his own toys.

Letting him have five minutes to catch his thoughts when he’s in a grumpy mood is another way you can include some privacy –and potentially avoid a tantrum!

At the same time, encourage your toddler to understand the difference between privacy (that is, when he’s able to choose what he wants to do without anyone supervising his every move) and secrecy (when he keeps things hidden from you).

Since this distinction is difficult for a young child to grasp, make it clear. For instance, say to him, “I don’t mind you playing on your own in the other room while I’m busy in here. But when you come back I want to hear what you’ve been up to.” The sooner you start to teach him this difference, the better.

Try this…

Next time your toddler has a friend over, leave them to play alone for a few minutes. Explain that once you come back, you’d love to hear what they did while you were gone. If your toddler gives some account of events, perhaps he’s more ready for privacy than you think.

5 things to help your child have privacy

  • Explanations- Do what you can to make sure your toddler understands he should never hide anything from you.
  • Limits- He is just a toddler, so set limits of privacy – say, a few minutes at a time – until you’re sure he can handle it.
  • Supervision – Be prepared to redraw boundaries if he misuses privacy, for instance, by making a huge mess.
  • Siblings- Privacy involves others too; so let his siblings know that they should not take his possessions without asking his permission.
  • Trust- Have confidence in your toddler. The chances are that he’ll cope well with small amounts of privacy.

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