“I walked into my 2-year-old’s room the other day while she was playing with her doll, previously known as ‘baby.’ As I was watching her, I overhead my daughter refer to the toy as Julia—which happens to be my name. Turns out, she renamed her doll and seems to really enjoy telling Julia what to do (‘Eat your peas, Julia!’). Should I be flattered or is this my toddler’s way of asserting control over me? What’s going on here?”
First of all, let’s relieve your concerns: You do not have any reason to be alarmed. In fact, your daughter’s behavior is developmentally very normal.
Toddler Playtime Isn’t Just Fun and Games
OK, now let’s dig a little deeper. The world of your daughter is one of imitate, make-believe, play and repeat. This type of play (often called imaginative play) starts during the second year of life. It’s important in that it allows her to role-play and act out various experiences she may have had or events that are of interest to her (like eating dinner or getting dressed).
This is serious business for your toddler. Why? Because through imitation, she is modeling your behaviors and learning how to become more independent. And through play, your daughter is experimenting with decision-making on how to behave. When combined in imaginative play (e.g., having fun with her Julia doll), your daughter can imitate mom’s behaviors and exercise some parental control.
It’s All About Asserting Independence
The primary developmental task for your toddler (ages 2 to 3) is to successfully begin the journey of becoming independent from her parents. Sounds great in theory, but how does this actually translate in the real world? Well, it manifests itself through willfulness, testing limits, frequent use of the word “No!” and the infamous “terrible two” temper tantrums. (And you thought having a teenager was going to be tough.)
Yet, these years and experiences are important in order to allow your child to begin expressing a greater need for independence in terms of gaining control over herself and the world around her. Your toddler is hard at work becoming the boss of toileting, food choices, clothing selection and toy preferences. Mastering the critical tasks of this stage gives her a sense of security and confidence. Without this mastery, she is left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.
By supporting your daughter’s creative and imaginative play with her doll, you are providing her a great opportunity to foster independence. (Even if that independence means throwing the peas on the floor at dinnertime.)
Carlin Barnes, M.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist and coauthor with Dr. Marketa Wills of Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends.