Does anyone have any tips on how to promote independent play, so our son will learn to (or get used to) play by himself?

Our son is quite a demanding child who is constantly asking us to play with him, this didn't used to be a problem because we had time to give to him, or he was at a childminder who could give him attention.

However, we have a new addition to the family which means we can't always give him the attention, which often leads to him start nagging and then eventual escalates to tantrums. This has started to get a bit stressful, especially when the newborn is crying.

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    I think the 'new addition' is the cause for his change in behaviour: It is quite common for children to be a little jealous about the attention the parents give to a newborn...
    – Treb
    Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 10:19
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    How old is your son? Are neither of the parents able to give toddler the attention? If parents can alternate between the kids, it would help the son...as someone is giving him attention.
    – Swati
    Commented Mar 29, 2012 at 14:19
  • possible duplicate of Encouraging my 2-year-old to play independently Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:18

4 Answers 4


Okay, a few pieces of advice.

Can your son help you with the baby in any way? If you are bottle feeding can he help with that? If you are nursing can he bring you anything? Can he sing to the baby while you feed him/her? Can he play with a doll right next to you while you are helping the baby? Can he be in charge of poopy diaper disposal (my kids took this very seriously).

Also, if you give him 10 min where you initiate play with him then you tell him, 'okay now I need to take care of ... I will come back to play with you after that'. Be sure he is engaged in something before you leave. This will show him you are not not playing with him, but you can't play with him all the time. This may not work at the beginning but as with all things consistency and keeping your promise of returning will, in the end, teach him to play on his own and teach him that even when you are not playing with him you still love him.

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    +1 especially for the "give him stuff to do." It doesn't just apply to helping with the newborn, either. My 2yo helps with the dishes and laundry.
    – Shauna
    Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 15:16
  • I read this after posting my answer. Obviously, I totally agree with the idea of engaging him as helper to provide the needs of both children - at least to some extent - at the same time, whenever possible. Good ideas for inclusion too. Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:39

The behavioralist axiom is to reward the behavior you want and punish the behavior you don't. A tantrum should bring swift, certain, severe punishment.

So applied here ... when the child spends time playing alone, praise and reward him. When he acts out, punish him, perhaps by closing him in his room or taking away prized possessions for a time.

There is a good discussion about dealing with tantrums here, although the higher voted answers seem to be more about calming the child and negotiating, which will encourage more tantrums, than about preventing future tantrums. What that says about parents and kids today I haven't figured out yet ...

  • I agree (in theory, as I have yet to have the opportunity to put it in practice) about negotiating with a toddler throwing a tantrum would seem to validate the tantrum as a means for the child to obtain leverage for future negotiations. It would be interesting to see if there are any reputable studies that support this theory.
    – user420
    Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 12:52
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    Actually, there's a lot of research that shows that praise/punishment cause more harm than good. Neither teach the child/person what to do instead. They may seem effective short term, but the long term results are quite shocking. It's not about negotiating, it's about meeting the child's need for belonging and significance. I am not here to control children, I am here to connect with them. Control invites resentment/rebellion, connection invites cooperation. Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 14:35
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    And, being able to calm yourself when emotional is a lifeskill that will help him on the playground eventually. This self-soothing behavior is often the first I have to teach my students because they never learned it at home. We don't solve problems when we have "flipped our lids" (from Dan Siegel's Brain in the Palm of Our Hand). We need to cool down first, then we can come back and work together to solve a problem. Very important lesson! Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 14:44
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    Behaviorism is REALLY OLD NEWS and many other methods have been found to be superior in terms of emotional development and centered, balanced self-esteem later in life. The downvote, though is because you suggest locking a toddler in his room alone. WHAT!?! While you are right he should not get a bunch of "negotiating" as a response to his tantrums, "Severe" punishment for a toddler that has little alternative in terms of communication or little cause and effect understanding at this stage is HARSH! and yes, SEVERE Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:36
  • @Beofett. There are studies that show when children get attention (discussion, or negotiation) during a tantrum it actually encourages the behavior for the next time. The resulting theories other than behaviorism that tomjedrz is a proponent of, therefore encourage a quick statement like, "let me know when you are ready to talk like a big kid," and many of Christine G's great examples. Then, the child is given some time to cool down before a discussion that teaches alternative means of dealing with the frustration. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 19:18

This question has been asked a lot so check out other answers too.

In the interest of clarity, I propose addressing the underlying problem and not just the symptoms. The problem is that your son's needs for belonging and significance are not being met, this is further aggravated by the arrival of a new baby that forces him to question is his place in the world (subconsciously).

Parents must be really intentional about meeting this need for a child (and any person really) to feel like the belong in the family/group and to feel needed/significant. In Positive Discipline, we call it understanding the (subconscious) belief behind the behavior and is based on the work of Alfred Adler originally. Here's a further description I wrote here.

Thus, to promote his self-reliance and therefore ability to play independently you must meet these needs for belonging and significance.

To meet his need for belonging, one thing I would try is to be really intentional about carving out time to spend with this child without any distractions. Schedule it in advance, let him pick the activity, and name it his mommy/daddy time. You know your child best so do some brainstorming with your co-parent to think of what would help this child feel the most connected/wanted/etc. Have this time away from the infant. (As the infant grows, s/he will need their own mommy/daddy time).

To meet his need for significance, give him opportunity to feel needed and capable. This can be reached in part by helping with the baby, but his identity needs to be more than just a big brother. I really like Balanced Mama's answer to a related question:

If you are folding laundry hand him some washcloths and let him try his hand at folding. Yes you will need to go back and refold, but in the meantime he is learning that you value your time with him AND that you value his contribution (a REALLY important lesson that helps with a lot of things later on - including discipline). Laundry also makes for good "matching" lessons and opportunities when it comes to pairing socks. Also importantly, he is learning social skills as you speak together. While you talk about things that are NOT toys and games, he is learning about how to learn, how to listen and the give and take of language.

In the kitchen, give him something to stir or mash or knead (great life skills to know and sensory experiences). It is a good sensory experience for him, he learns kitchen skills from watching you and the two of you can talk about what you are doing which also helps him build his vocabulary. You could also put a little water in the sink and let him "help to wash dishes" as you make them (just don't have any knives wind up in his reach). Dish washing is another experience that teaches him a life skill AND gives him another important sensory experience.

To address the playing issue more immediately, try investing time teaching him how to play. If he is the first-born and doesn't have a lot of experience with imaginative play, this is especially crucial for his own development, as well as your sanity. I responded here. Basically, slowly take his play one step further by asking questions and introducing new scenarios into the game.

To respond to the tantrums in the moment you have many options, some I have used are:

"Let me know when you are done."

"Wow, you are upset/angry/frustrated. Let's cool down and then we can talk" (this works best when you've already brainstormed with him options to help him calm down, and as a bonus it helps build his emotional literacy when you name his feeling so that soon he can begin to name his own feelings so he won)

"I need a hug" (I love this one, it stops them in their tracks and helps you both feel better!)

"My ears hurt when you speak/scream like that and I can't listen. Let me know when you done screaming so I can listen"

Toddlers want to be heard just like the rest of us. But unlike the rest/most of us, they don't have the language skills nor the emotional literacy/regulation to be able to communicate without screaming. These are the skills you must teach your child, with the same care, attention and patience as you will teach him to read, use the toilet, etc. It is no different. Giving your child attention won't cause/reinforce tantrums, it will help prevent the need for them. If you're only paying attention to your child when he throws a tantrum, that's a different issue.

As always, my favorite blogs for this are:

Can We Hug It Out
Parenting From Scratch
Single Dad Brad

And, if you need a laugh, and it sounds like you probably do, here's a blog written from the perspective of a toddler that I just found yesterday. It is very funny!

  • +1 for reasons mentioned in my own post. I really don't know why answers like this get down-voted. They are intelligent, thought out and backed with substantial experience and an education in childhood and behavioral psychology (even if it is an informal education) I wish downvotes required an explanation! Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:32
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    Yeah agreed. It's annoying. But all I can do is provide information and people can take it or leave it. Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:33
  • My guess would be the that downvote is because the question is "how do I encourage my toddler to play by himself", and this answer does not actually provide information to help accomplish that. Not my downvote, but that's the reason I can't upvote this answer (even though I love the vast majority of answers you've posted so far!).
    – user420
    Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 0:16
  • I disagree. All of my answer promotes trust and self-regulatory skills which allow a child to play by himself. Plus I addressed the concern raises by the OP regarding tantrums. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 0:20
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    Okay, @Beofett, I will edit Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 18:38

I suggest you also refer to this question which is essentially the same as yours.

In the meantime, he is still a toddler and needs your attention (hence the demanding aspects of his behavior). While, I feel Christine Gordon's advice to you is worthy of attention (She did quote me after-all) Thanks Chrstine!!, I do feel a bit of advice as it relates to the newborn may be beneficial.

Make your toddler a part of the care team for the baby. No, he can't carry and rock her back to sleep in the middle of the night, change her diaper or even feed her, but he can hand you a wipe and a diaper while you are engaged in changing the "new addition." He can help to scoop formula into a bottle (if you are using formula at all). He can help in a lot of little ways that make him feel needed (something Christine also mentions when she mentions significance) and valued. It also offers him some attention even while you are giving the new addition attention.

In regard to the tantrums, again, Christine's answer rings with a lot of truth. A child shouldn't get a bunch of attention for temper tantrums (or their way because of them), but helping to include him, making sure his needs are met along the way AND following up after a tantrum and cool down with preferred, alternative behaviors are all steps you can take that will likely make a big difference in both your experience with your son AND his attitude toward the baby as well as you.

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