Developmental Trauma During the Toddler Stage of Development

Counterdependency is a set of protective adult behaviors that are caused primarily by developmental trauma between the ages of nine and 36 months—the toddler or “terrible twos” stage of development. During this period of time, children are separating from their mother and the dependency needs they have with her.

Toddler During Counterdependency StageBetween the age of six and thirty-six months, children’s triune brain and autonomic nervous system become much more connected and integrated. During this period, children learn to walk and talk, which gives them many more resources during times of stress. They have developed fight and flight responses to protect them when they perceive danger and help them avoid falling into shock. During this period, they also may have developed be coping mechanisms such as thumb or pacifier sucking or attached to a blanket or doll in order to comfort and self-soothe.

Toddlers’ Developmental Task

The most important developmental task during the separation stage of development is bringing the child’s developing ego and narcissistic rage under self-control. While this may involve a mere temper tantrum in the two to three year old child, the failure to complete this task during the counterdependent stage of development can not begin to compare with the rage exhibited by a developmentally delayed adolescent or a thirty or forty year old adult.

By adulthood, there are many more weapons available in a person’s arsenal to use when someone or something attempts to limit their feelings of entitlement, euphoria, grandiosity and omnipotence. If you challenge them, they might punch you out, attempt to kill you with a knife or gun or use an automobile to help them to discharge their narcissistic rage. This came to mind when we visited Alaska and saw most of the “Stop” signs with bullet holes in them. “No limits” for us they seemed to say.

Separating from Mother

Around the age of six months, toddlers’ begin to physically crawl and then creep and away from their caregivers. They also learn how to push away from too much physical closeness and use the flight and fight responses. Emotionally overwhelming experiences during this stage tend to fall more into the category of developmental trauma and to involve the sympathetic nervous system and the limbic part of the brain.

The biggest daily challenge in parenting toddlers is enduring the upset they experience when faced with the physical and social limits their parents impose on them. These limits frustrate toddlers who are having a love affair with the world and wanting to see how far they can push their passion to explore. Setting and enforcing behavioral limits gradually deflates their natural narcissistic behaviors involving entitlement, euphoria, grandiosity and omnipotence. Limits typically create strong feelings of frustration, anger, guilt and shame.

Toddlers need the assistance of attentive, sensitive and understanding parents or adult caregivers to help them learn how to regulate these emotions that are an integral part of the separation stage. It is very important that parents and other adult caregivers know how to help children re-regulate their emotions and repair any mis-attunements during the bonding stage. It is just as important to support children’s emotional regulation during the separation stage. Sensitive and cooperative adults must support toddlers in their transition between the codependent and counter dependent stages of developmental

counterdependent toddler tantrumToddlers are naturally ambivalent and oppositional, so adults who must be both consistently loving and consistently firm to help them navigate this bumpy period more easily. The most effective thing for helping toddlers regulate their emotions during this stage is adults who can keep their cool and not split or get triggered. We understand the challenge behind these words and offer it as an ideal to work towards. The presence of calm adults also help toddlers create healthy internal models of their adult caregivers.

Two Kinds of Mothers

There are “mothers of bonding” who do well at attuning with their infant. While they may be skilled in repairing bonding disruptions quickly and effectively, they may not be so effective as “mothers of separation.” A mother of bonding may feel abandoned or even resent the fact that her darling baby she once loved to cuddle is now more interested in exploring the world than being in her lap.

In the counter-dependent stage, mothers must undergo a major shift in the relationship with the child. They must move from being the mother endless “yes’s” of infant care to the mother of frequent “no’s.” Her need to monitor, limit and restrict her toddler’s exploratory and experimental behavior and administer consequences can put her in an uncomfortable policeman role. If parents or adult caregivers are not able to understand the difficult inner world of toddlers and the frustrations that they express through their angry outbursts, the parent may not be able to respond as lovingly as they did during the bonding stage when toddlers seemed more compliant and interested in oneness.

Developmental neuropsychological studies show that by ten months of age, 90% of maternal behavior consists of giving and receiving affection, playing with children and other positive care giving functions. In sharp contrast, mothers of 13-17 month old toddlers express a negative prohibition to their toddler on the average of once every nine minutes. In other words, the mother’s role changes drastically in this short period from being a positive and unconditionally loving caregiver to a being a negative and conditional socializing agent. Mothers must somehow persuade their toddlers to inhibit their desires for unrestricted exploration, their need to have temper tantrums, to control their bladder and bowel functions; and curtail many activities that toddlers enjoy immensely (Rothbart, Taylor, & Tucker,1989, p. 59 – 80).[1]

Separation Drama & Trauma

In addition, separation anxiety intensifies during this stage because toddlers now understand for the first time that their mothers are separate persons with separate needs and interests. Toddlers sometimes use narcissistic rage and temper tantrums in an effort to control their mothers so they won’t abandon them. This strong opposition, unfortunately, can trigger mothers into reenacting their own unhealed developmental issues related to their struggle to become separate. If the mother retreats or becomes escalated in this power struggle, it can create an experience of emotional abandonment in the toddler.

Stir into this drama the fact that very few parents have healed the developmental issues from their own toddler stage, and you have a recipe for conflict. If parents and other adult caregivers have unhealed developmental trauma related to separation, their own toddlers’ oppositional behavior and temper tantrums can easily trigger them into a reenactment. Rather than welcoming their stressed toddlers back to their laps for comfort, the adults may want them out of their sight. Mothers may have difficulty re-regulating feelings that trigger the reenactment of their own unhealed developmental trauma. Over the years of my parenting and grand parenting, I (Janae) adapted one of the country sayings I grew up with to an adage for parents: “Never get in power struggles with skunks or two-year-olds.”

Time-Out vs. Time-In

So what do frustrated mothers and toddler caregivers typically do? They use “time out” methods to isolate the toddler. While a time-out is useful for adults to re-regulate their emotions, it is absolutely the worst option for toddlers. In order to help calm their stressed nervous systems and to control their narcissistic urges, toddlers need comfort and closer connections with the adult. The forced separation during a time-out can trigger deep emotions in toddlers that, if not modulated, can lead to low self-esteem later in life. This is where shame enters the picture.

shamed_toddlerShame is seen as an “attachment emotion” (Lewis, 1989, p. 59 – 80)[2] because it is a reaction that toddlers have to their mothers when they are unable to help them re-attune or repair their dysregulated feelings. The shame is caused by the toddlers’ belief that there is something wrong with them because their mothers do not respond in the loving way they used to. They internalize the disapproving scowl on her face and her harsh tone of voice as a rejection. The now emotionally dysregulated mother, causes her toddler to become even more upset and filled with the shame of rejection.

According to Schore, shame is “the primary social emotion” (1991, p. 187 – 250) [3] that emerges around 14-16 months of age. By this age toddlers are usually exploring and attempting to master their environment while also staying in their mothers’ vicinity so that they can share with great excitement what they’ve discovered or mastered. This period offers mothers a chance to give lots of validation and praise for these accomplishments. Unfortunately, if toddlers also bring their frustrations and anger to their mothers to be re-regulated, these encounters are also likely to bring limits, restrictions and negative looks. This just creates more stress and emotional dysregulation in toddlers.

How To Help Toddlers & Young Children

When children become upset, they need calm, caring adults who can help them regulate their emotions. Common symptoms of emotional dysregulation in young children include hitting, crying, throwing, withdrawing, bullying and oppositional behaviors.

The most important thing to remember is that emotionally-dysregulated children have a problem that they are not able to resolve within themselves. They need adults to both help them identify the problem and to fix it. In this context, the conventional concept of “discipline” (punishment) is not useful. A more effective approach is to ask, “What does this child need and how can I help meet this need?”

The first step in helping a young child return to calm, harmonious behavior is supporting them both emotionally and energetically. Adults who are bonded to a child are the most effective in providing this kind of support, as children will attune only to adult caregivers who they trust will meet their needs.

The most effective tool for reestablishing this connection is known as Time-In. This practice involves placing children physically on or near to a caring adult for a period of time—someone who offers calming words and sounds, empathetic facial expressions, respectful touch, and firm but loving limits.

To download a four-page PDF file describing age-appropriate Time-In Techniques to use with children, click here.


[1] Rothbart, M. K., Taylor, S. B., & Tucker, D. M. (1989). Right-sided facial asymmetry in infant emotional expression. Neuropsychologia, 27, 675-687.

[2] Lewis, H. B. (1980). Narcissistic personality or shame prone superego mode. Comprehensive Psychotherapy, 1, 59-80.

[3] Schore, A. N. (1991). Early superego development: The emergence of shame and narcissistic affect regulation in the practicing period. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 14, 187-250.

Further Reading:

Buy Janae & Barry's book on counterdependency!

Learn about the impact of trauma during the toddler stage.

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