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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

Coping with Defiance

Marco, 19 months, runs into the tunnel at the playground and stays there when his dad tells him it’s time to leave. 

Tanya, 32 months, refuses to have her cereal in the blue bowl. She insists that she needs the red one and if not, she won’t be eating her breakfast.

It is a toddler’s job to be oppositional. This is the period in your child’s development when she begins to understand that she is separate from you and can exert some control over her world. One powerful way she can do this is by defying you. You say, “Do this,” yet she says, “No!” The drive to assert one’s self is useful as it motivates your child to want to make things happen. Being able to do some things for herself builds her confidence. The key is to find ways to show your child how she can be in control and make her own choices in positive ways. 

It’s important to keep in mind that some toddlers are simply, by nature, more likely to be oppositional than others. Children whose emotional reactions are big and intense, as well as children who are more cautious and timid, may be more oppositional than children who are temperamentally more easygoing and flexible. Why? Because these children tend to have a difficult time with changes, for example getting into the car seat, going to bed, or visiting a new place. Natural shifts in the day can also be stressful and result in a wide variety of protesting strategies from toddlers. To learn more about temperament and how you can support your child based on his individual approach to the world, visit our Temperament resources. 
  

Think about:
No two children or families are alike.  Thinking about the following questions can help you adapt and apply the information below to your unique child and family.

    • What does your child tend to be most oppositional about? What, if anything, do these things have in common?

    • Why do you think these issues bring out your child's "oppositional" side?  How can this understanding help you help your child cope better?

    • How do you respond when your child is being defiant? What works? What doesn’t? What can you learn from this?  

 

In this resource, you will find information on:

What to Expect from Birth to 3


Three Steps for Responding to Defiant Behavior 


Suggestions on When to Seek Help



You can also browse common parenting questions and challenges on topics such as:
 

 

What to Expect From Birth to Three  

Birth to 18 Months
Babies do not have the thinking skills to purposefully defy parents. When they don’t respond to a parent’s requests, they are acting on their impulses (not trying to manipulate others). Babies just don’t have the ability to say to themselves: “I am going to grab this glass even though mommy has said not to.”  Because they do not yet understand logic and have not yet mastered self-control, they also don't understand rules.  So the best response is redirection. For example, gently but firmly take the object away or remove your child from the off-limits situation while acknowledging her feelings: “I know this glass looks so interesting, but it is not for play.” Then give your baby a toy or object that is safe to explore. Back to Top


18 to 36 Months

Starting at about 18 months, toddlers are beginning to understand that they are separate from others—that they have their own thoughts and feelings that may be different from other’s thoughts and feelings. They understand and can follow through on simple directions, such as, “Go get the ball.” Young toddlers are eager to make their mark on the world. One way they often show their independence is by defying their parents. You might say, “Time to get dressed for child care.” Your toddler might respond, “No! I stay home!” This type of defiance is very typical for toddlers as they are so eager to have some control over their world and to make their own choices.       Back to Top

  

Responding to Defiance and Oppositional Behavior:  What You Can Do

Step 1: Think Prevention  

Anticipate the kinds of situations that lead to defiance from your child and help him problem solve and cope in advance. This might mean letting your toddler know that you understand leaving the house to go to child care is difficult for him, and then offering him the choice of a book or toy to bring in the car to help him make the transition.

It can also be helpful to give children a warning before a transition needs to be made. You can use a kitchen timer so they can actually see and track the time. Making a poster of pictures that show the steps in your daily routines can be very useful as well. For example, pictures of tooth brushing, face washing, reading, and then bed show children what they can expect to happen next. For older toddlers, give some concrete cues about transitions, such as, “Three more times down the slide before it’s time to go.” It’s very important to then follow through on your limit.  
Step 2:  Respond with Empathy and Set Clear Limits

Validate your child’s feelings. As parents, we often skip this step and go right to setting the limit. But  acknowledging a child’s feelings first is very important as it lets her know you understand where she’s coming from, and that her feelings matter. (Keep in mind that it’s not the child’s feelings that are the problem, it’s what the child does with her feelings that is often the challenge.)   For many children, it's this first step—empathy and validation—that helps them start to calm down. Labeling your toddler’s feelings also helps her learn to be aware of her emotions and, eventually, to manage them. Keep language simple and direct: “I know you don’t want to put your pajamas on. It’s difficult to go from playtime to bedtime.” When you skip this step, children often “pump up the volume” to show you—louder, harder, and stronger—just how upset they are. This is often when tantrums start. 

After validating your child's feelings:

  • Set the limit.  “It is time for bed now.  You need to sleep so your body can get some rest and grow big and strong.”  Use language your child understands.  Keep it short and clear, but not threatening. 

  • Offer a few choices (which are acceptable to you). “Do you want to put your PJs on before or after we read books?” Or, “Do you want to put your PJs on or should daddy put them on for you?” You might also give a choice between two pairs of pajamas that he might want to wear. Giving choices offers children a chance to feel in control in positive ways.  Giving choices can actually reduce defiance. 

  • Use humor. This is a great way to take some of the intensity out of the situation and throw a monkey wrench into a power struggle. You might try to pull your child’s PJ bottoms over your head, or see if they fit onto her favorite stuffed animal.  

  • Engage your child’s imagination. For a child refusing to go to bed: “Elmo is soooo tired. He wants to go to sleep and wants you to cuddle with him.” Or, a child refusing to clean up: “Our favorite books want to go back on the shelf with their friends.  Let's a have a race to see how fast we can get them back up there.” 

  • Enforce the limit:  If none of the strategies above work, and your child is still digging in his heels, calmly and firmly set the limit.  “You can get into the car seat or I can put you in. You decide.” If your child resists, then (without anger) pick him up and strap him in.  In a soothing tone of voice, you might say something like: “I know, you hate getting in the car seat. I understand.” Or, just start talking about something totally unrelated to the tantrum. “Wow, look at that big doggie coming down the street.”  Or, "I wonder what you'll have for snack today at school."

    The key is to pay as little attention as possible to your toddler's protests. Ignoring the behaviors you want to eliminate is the fastest way to be rid of them. (The only exception to this rule is if your child is being physically hurtful—hitting, slapping, punching, and so on—in which case you calmly but firmly stop the behavior and explain that he can feel mad but he cannot hit.)  

  • Avoid giving in. If you give in to tantrums, your child learns that if he pushes hard enough, he’ll get what he wants. This will also make it more difficult for you the next time you try to enforce a limit. 

 

Step 3:  Think about your own behaviors:  Could you be sending mixed messages to your child? 

Sometimes our own choices and behavior as parents can influence our children's behaviors.  Listed below are strategies to address two very common parenting dilemmas that often lead to tantrums or defiance with toddlers. 

Avoid the “Okay?” pitfall. “Let's go to bed now, okay? Time to get dressed, okay?” Although this is a very common way that adults communicate, it is confusing for young children. They take your question at face value and think they have a choice to say, “No, I really would rather not go to bed right now.” This can create unnecessary power struggles.  Be sure to communicate what is and isn’t a choice very clearly.  “It is time to put on pajamas and get ready for bed. Do you want to wear the green or the red PJs?” 

Think in advance about the limit you are going to set so that you can avoid changing your mind mid-stream.  For example, one mom insisted her 2-year-old wear a long-sleeve shirt on a winter day. Her child started to protest because she wanted to wear her favorite short-sleeve shirt that day. About 5 minutes into the tantrum the mother realized that this was an unnecessary battle.  Her daughter would be wearing a coat outside, and the child care center was heated. But she naturally worried, at this point, that “giving in” and allowing her daughter to wear the short-sleeve shirt would set a bad example; that it would teach her daughter that throwing a tantrum gets her what she wants. The easiest way to avoid this dilemma is to take a few seconds to think first before you act: “Is this a limit I really to need to set?”  (This is also known as “choosing your battles.”)     Back to Top

   

When to Seek Help

If your child’s defiance is interfering in his daily functioning, then it is important to seek guidance from a child development professional. For example, if his behavior is negatively impacting his ability to make and enjoy friends, interfering with his exploration and learning, or negatively affecting his relationship with you, it’s time to seek help to get back on track. Having an assessment done by an early childhood professional can provide very valuable insight into what might be at the root of your child’s defiant behavior and give you ideas about how you can help your child cope better.      Back to Top




Common Parenting Questions and Challenges 

 
I have a new baby, but a lot of my friends have 2- and 3-year-olds, many of whom seem to completely control their parents. How can I avoid this with my own child?

Kudos to you for thinking so far ahead. There is actually a lot you can do to encourage cooperation and limit defiance starting in your child’s first year. Read on.

Encourage turn-taking. As young as 6 and 9 months, babies can begin to engage in back-and-forth interactions. They also learn to imitate. This is a great time to encourage turn-taking as you talk and play with your baby as it helps her learn language and the joy of relationships. When you place a block in the bucket, give her time to copy you. Take turns putting objects in the bucket and dumping them out. As she gets older, take turns putting pieces in the puzzle, or shapes into the shape sorter. When it’s time to clean up, you can make a game of taking turns placing toys back on the shelf. These experiences are opportunities for her to feel the pleasure of accomplishing something as a team.

Do chores together starting at an early age. Let your child grow up experiencing the benefits of cooperation. Even 1-year-olds can help set the table and clean up toys. Point out the advantages of cooperating: “Look how fast we set the table. Now we have time to read a book before dinner.” Or, “Boy was it fun to wash the car with you. You are a great scrubber! Look how bright and shiny you made our car!” 

Explain your reasons for family rules and helping each other out. By age 3, most children use and understand language well enough to handle simple explanations. Point out how rules benefit the whole family: “We all help clean up. Then we don’t lose our toys and we can find them again.” Or, “When you help me put away the laundry, I finish quicker and then we can play.”

Take time to problem solve. You can help your older 2- and 3-year-olds come up with solutions to everyday dilemmas and encourage cooperation at the same time. First, state the problem. “You want to draw on the wall but mommy says no.”  Next, ask a question. “Where else could you draw?”  Finally, problem-solve together.  If your child can’t think of an acceptable option, offer two choices, both of which are acceptable to you—perhaps drawing on paper or a cardboard box. If she insists on drawing on the refrigerator, set a limit: “I’ll put the crayons away until we agree on a place to draw.”

Give specific praise for cooperative efforts. Point out why and how your child’s contribution was important. This helps her recognize and value her skills. “You picked out all the white socks and put them together. That helped me finish the laundry quicker. Now we have more time to play.” Or, “You put the books away on the shelf. Now it’s easier to choose one. Would you like me to read to you?”

Offer suggestions, not commands. Suggestions elicit cooperation. Commands often evoke resistance. “It is cold so you will need to wear a hat. Would you like help putting it on, or do you want to do it yourself?” This is likely to bring about a better response than saying, “Put on your hat.”

Give your child choices while maintaining the rules. “Teeth need to be brushed at bedtime. Do you want me to brush your teeth first, or do you want to brush first?” Offering choices shows your child respect, and respect creates a sense of collaboration.
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 My 14-month-old ran off the other day in the supermarket. I put him in the cart, but then he shrieked that he wanted to get down. When I put him down, he immediately ran off again. Short of leashing him, will I ever be able to buy food again? 

Fourteen months can be a tough age. Your child can move (fast) but lacks the self-control necessary to keep himself safe. The short answer is to do the grocery shopping on your own. Using Internet-based grocery delivery programs for a few months or letting your child spend some special time with his other parent, another family member or trusted friend, can be handy strategies.

For those times when you have to bring your son shopping with you, concentrate on what will make it most successful for both of you. You may have to plan on keeping your list short and looking for ways to involve him. Pick him up so he can reach the cereal box on the top shelf. Let him help you choose the apples. Ask him if he wants to touch the freezer doors to feel how cold they are. While he’s in the cart, make it fun by letting him tell you whether to “drive fast or slow.” You can also bring along a “surprise bag” from home—this is a tote bag that you fill with healthy snacks, stickers, maracas or shakers, board books, and other fun stuff that you can hand to him when he gets bored. No—it won’t be easy—but before you know it, your child will be big enough to push the cart instead of ride in it! 
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Whenever I try to discipline my 1-year-old by telling her no and swatting her hand when she touches something she shouldn't, she just laughs and thinks it's a game. Then she'll keep opening the drawers or picking the flowers in the garden, or whatever else I'm trying to stop her from doing. How can I let her know I'm being serious?

Toddlerhood, while incredibly delightful, can also be very frustrating for all parties involved. Toddlers are eager to use all of their developing skills to make new discoveries. Their world is their classroom, which means they get into everything. At the same time, they do not yet have the ability to control their impulses. This means that they can’t stop themselves from doing something they desire, no matter how many times you tell them not to do it. You see this behavior when a 1-year-old stops what she is doing when she hears,  “No!” but then is back at it shortly thereafter.

So how do you get your child to take you seriously? First, it’s important to recognize that your child will not be able to think ahead to stop unacceptable behaviors on her own at this age. That doesn’t mean you don’t set limits, you just need to have realistic expectations. Also, a young child will be best able to respond when you use words together with actions. As you explain what is not acceptable, also show her what you mean and what she can do.

Take the opening and closing of drawers, which many parents are understandably worried about. From the child’s point of view, discovering what’s inside of drawers is very exciting and worth exploration. So, the first step is to tell her in a matter-of-fact (not angry) tone that she cannot play with the drawer. At the same time, gently lift her hand and move her away. Next, find something else that functions like a drawer that is safe and acceptable for your child to explore so she can have the experience of opening and closing to see what she can find. This is known as redirection. Try a shoebox with a favorite toy inside, or a child-safe kitchen drawer that has safe contents such as plastic containers that can provide endless entertainment. You are recognizing and acknowledging your child’s desire for exploration and offering her an acceptable way to meet this need. You will have to do this many times until your child gets closer to 3 years and begins to develop better self-control. This process takes a lot of persistence and patience on your part as well. But it’s well worth it because you are teaching your child a very important skill—how to cope with life’s frustrations and disappointments—and how to find acceptable ways to meet her goals.

As for her laughter and smiles as you try to discipline her, ignore them. The rule of thumb is that you pay as little attention as possible to behaviors you want to eliminate. Why? Because any attention—positive or negative—is rewarding. If you don’t react, she is more likely to give the behavior up. This is why it’s most effective to stay calm and matter of fact when you set limits. The more emotional you get, the more rewarding it is to her.

Finally, when it comes to discipline, it’s important to carefully think about the possible impact of any strategy you might use. The concern about hand slapping, or any other kind of physical discipline, is that while it may stop her behavior in the moment, it may not lead to long-lasting learning of positive behaviors. In addition, it can teach a child that when people are angry, it is okay to hit, which may increase the chance that she will hit when she is angry. It can also make children behave out of fear, rather than from an internal desire to do the right thing.     
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My 1-year-old hates taking baths. He will scream and kick and cry until we take him out. I can't understand why this is happening, but it is really frustrating. Any ideas on helping him calm down while we get him clean?

The first step is to try and figure out why he hates the bath. Knowing that transitions are difficult for toddlers, you may want to think from his perspective what happens before, during, and after the bath. Also think about how he reacts to sensory experiences. Does he like feeling wet or having his hair washed? He may feel too cool while he’s being toweled off, or he may not like the texture of the towel or the smell of the shampoo. Because children have such limited tools to tell us about their own experiences, his refusal to take a bath may be his way of staying away from a sensory experience that is uncomfortable.

If this is a sudden change for him, then it may be that he had an experience that made him fearful. The water during a recent bath may have been too hot and felt uncomfortable. He may have experienced something—like slipping or sliding—that made him feel insecure and afraid. His growing understanding of how the world works can trigger reactions or fears. For example, watching the draining water can cause a young child to worry that he too might disappear down that hole at the bottom of the tub.  

For now, be observant and consider not fighting this battle. Don’t feel pressured to bathe your son every day. There are plenty of other ways to keep him clean. A warm sponge bath works great and even a quick once over with a soaped-up washcloth will get the job done. You might also let him play in the kitchen sink filled with water and bubbles with toys that he could also take into the bath. You can encourage water play when you son is not in the bath, like washing a toy duckie or doll, to gradually increase his comfort level with water. You might also consider getting in the tub with your child. This may eventually get him back to a place where he feels safe in the bath alone.

If you do choose to continue with baths right now, give your son ways to feel in control while he’s in the tub. He can help you pour in bubbles, wet the washcloth, and clean himself. Also bring in lots of bath toys and other objects he can play with in the tub like plastic cups and strainers. Use bubbles or bath paints to make it fun (and to provide distraction).

When he’s in the bath, read his cues to see if you can identify what bothers him. Is it shampooing that puts him over the edge? Or is it getting out and feeling cold as he towels off? You can modify the bath routine based on your observations.

Responding in this way is not spoiling him or being too lenient. It lets your child know that his feelings are respected and important, and that you will provide the support he needs to help him cope with life’s challenges.       
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My 1-year-old will not stop touching the television remote. What’s going on? He has plenty of toys with buttons. I don’t understand why he is so interested in this!

Such is the way with toddlers: Their most frustrating behaviors are often both normal and developmentally appropriate. In this case, your child is imitating behavior he has seen you do and is showing you how connected he is to your actions and words. He is also learning that to be successful, he needs to explore and find out how things work. Toddlers love the idea that they can impact their world. It makes them feel competent and confident. Playing with buttons on the remote control offers the tantalizing possibility that poof the magical machine will come alive because of their actions. To your son, the remote control is really no different from his other toys that focus on cause and effect (like a jack-in-the-box). It’s just more exciting because the grown-ups use it. Children love to imitate the actions and behavior of the adults in their lives. Your child sees you touching the remote control and wants to touch it, too.

Children’s uneven development when it comes to communication makes setting limits confusing for parents at times. Because toddlers can understand and respond to commands (like “stop” “more juice?” or “get the ball”), parents assume they also have the ability to stop a behavior after being told “no.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the case—at least not quite yet. Although children are developing this skill throughout their toddlerhood, it takes time for them to master the self-control necessary to resist their own very strong impulses. (Any of us who have been on a diet over the holidays can relate.) 

What can you do? Some parents choose to put the remote control out of reach and not allow the child to touch it until he is older. Other parents choose to create opportunities for the child to learn to use it appropriately. For example, you could have your child turn the television on when you are planning to watch a show and turn it off when you are through. This models for the child that there are times when touching the remote is okay, and times when it’s not. You could also choose to have “remote time” when your child is allowed to turn the television on and off and then, when remote time is over, it goes back on the shelf. At the end of the day, the goal is to teach your child how to explore within limits.      Back to Top

 

My 1-year-old absolutely hates being in his car seat. He screams and cries as I'm buckling him in and fusses most of the time that we're driving together. Any suggestions for getting him to relax?

Car seat protests are totally normal and expected, as kids who are beginning to develop exciting new physical skills such as walking don't like being restrained. Even though we might empathize with our children’s feelings, the use of the car seat is a limit we can’t be flexible on. 

The first step is to try to head off your toddler’s car seat protest. Let him know in a calm voice that you understand how he hates to have to get into the car seat, but that it's a rule because it keeps him safe. Although he may not fully understand your words, he will pick up on your empathic tone. Over time, he will grasp the full meaning.
 
Give him a choice about something he can bring in the car—a healthy snack, book, or small toy. Or put together a bag of special toys just for car rides. Many children dislike the car seat because they don't like having it forced on them, so find other ways to give your son a sense of control. For example, ask him if he'd like to get into the car seat himself or have you place him in it. Avoid negotiating or bribing him. (“If you sit down, you can have ice cream when we get home.”)   This rewards him for his protest and teaches him he can negotiate rules with you.
 
When he objects to being buckled in, stay calm and firm, but avoid being angry, which will likely make him more agitated. Ignore his screaming and flailing as much as possible and calmly explain to him, “I am going to hold you firmly now so I can get your car seat buckled and keep you safe.” Then secure him in his seat. The more calmly you deal with this, the quicker he is likely to cooperate.
 
If he acts up during the car ride, ignore his antics and divert him by talking about what you see as you drive. Put on some music your child enjoys. Sing or tell him stories. One mom pre-fills a bubble pipe before getting in the car and blows bubbles at stoplights. Another parent saves her daughter's weekly TV time for car rides. By remaining calm, and some trial and error, you'll find what works for you.          Back to Top



Washing and brushing my 12-month-old daughter’s hair has become a battle. She screams if a drop of water gets on her face, and she won’t hold still to let us brush her hair. What can I do?

Unlike adults, few toddlers place any importance on how they look. From their perspective, hair brushing, face washing, and nose wiping are simply annoyances that interfere with exploring and having fun.  

It is possible that your daughter is either frightened or very sensitive to the feeling of water splashing in her face and the tug of the comb through her hair.  Children who have this kind of tactile (touch) sensitivity tend to be reactive to a range of tactile experiences such as finding certain clothes uncomfortable and itchy, or disliking seams on their socks and tags in their shirts.

What can you do about grooming battles? For hair washing, you can use a handheld sprayer or support her as you lean her head back into the water (like we do at the salon). There are bath visors (sold at baby stores) to keep the water off your child’s face. You might introduce regular water play into your daughter’s routine so that she has some fun, positive experiences with water. Consider letting her wash her dolls in the kitchen sink as this may help her feel more comfortable washing her own hair and body. 

As for hair brushing, try wide-toothed combs and lots of detangling solution to make combing a bit easier. To distract her, give her a favorite snack or an interesting toy to play with. You can give her a brush she can hold onto or use to brush her own hair, a doll’s, or a stuffed animal’s hair. If all else fails, you can decide whether combing her hair is a necessity or if you can let it go for now. Most likely, as she gets older and can help out with this task—feeling more in control of what happens to her body—she will be less resistant.            Back to Top

 

My 16-month-old is in that phase when he wants to do everything by himself, from opening a lollipop wrapper to pouring his own milk. He’s too young to do some things without making a mess or getting hurt—he even wants to cut his own food with a knife. How can I reason with him? 

You can’t. Sixteen-month-olds are not rational beings, so forget any strategies that include reasoning! What you can and should do is congratulate yourself. You have obviously nurtured in your son an eagerness to learn and a strong sense of self-confidence—two key ingredients for his healthy development. Indeed, curious, confident kids can be a handful—just as you describe—because they want to do everything by themselves. The good news is there is a lot you can do to encourage his sense of competence while also keeping him safe and yourself sane.

Engage him. If he wants to feed himself, but you don’t have all day to wait for him to get an ounce of food in, you can give him a spoon to feed himself while you use another spoon to get most of the meal in his mouth.

Find safe alternatives. There will certainly be times when you have to just say, “No.” Setting these kinds of limits is your job. You can explain, “These sharp knives are for Mommy and Daddy to use.” Then show him how he can use his hands to break up certain foods or help him use a safe, blunt plastic knife.

Be his coach. When he gets frustrated because he can’t do it “all by myself,” label his feelings: “It makes you so mad when you can’t open the jar!” Introduce him to the words:, “Help me please.” Then provide the assistance he needs to master the challenge without doing it all for him. This may mean holding your hand over his as you unscrew the top. It leaves him feeling like he has been part of the solution.

Let your child practice new skills within limits. For example, if he wants to pour his own milk and he won’t let you help, consider taking the milk and cup outside or lowering the door of the dishwasher, which provides a pint size table where you don’t have to worry about the mess. You can also pour a little milk into a smaller child-sized container for him to pour into his cup. If these are not options for you, you can insist on pouring the milk for him. Later, though, give him lots of containers he can fill and empty out in the bathtub—this will allow him to practice pouring so that one day he will be able to pour his own milk.

Invite him to be your helper. Offer lots of opportunities to involve him in activities you’re doing, like mixing pancake batter or putting together a new toy. This will allow him to try out his skills without your having to say “no” so much.          Back to Top

 

My 17-month-old has started yelling "No!" to every question I ask, even when it's something good like going to the park. Does she understand what this word means? How should I respond?  

Although toddlers have varying grasps of the meaning of “No!” they understand its power because when they try it out themselves, it almost always elicits a big reaction. “Nooooooo!!!” gets an even bigger one. Nothing delights a toddler more than your attention, be it positive or negative. 

If your child is test driving the use of “No!” and her sense of power, take a breath, stand there, and do nothing. The most powerful and effective reaction to behavior you want to discourage is no reaction at all. Don’t take her literally because turning down a trip to the park is probably not what she means to do. She’s just testing to see what response she gets. So surprise her—tell her with a smile, “You are so good at saying ‘No’ loud and clear.” Or, try a silly response like saying “Bo! Mo! So!” in response to her “No!” It also helps to avoid asking her questions (“Are you ready for bed?”) that aren’t really a choice.      Back to Top



My 18-month-old refuses to brush her teeth. We have a power struggle every morning and at bedtime. What can we do? 

This is a very common problem among toddlers. After all, why would they want to brush their teeth? The key to solving it is finding out what's causing your daughter's resistance. Is it that she’s trying to assert some control? Most children this age will protest anything they know is important to their parents. What better way to feel powerful at a time when kids have so little control over so many aspects of their lives? Another possibility is that your child's gums, teeth, and mouth are sensitive, and tooth brushing actually feels irritating to her. Or perhaps she doesn't like the smell or taste of the toothpaste (if you are using toothpaste at this age). Children who have this kind of oral sensitivity tend to also have other tactile (touch) issues such as finding certain clothes uncomfortable and itchy, as well as disliking seams on their socks and tags in their shirts.

If you suspect your daughter is trying to assert her independence, forcing the matter probably won't work. It’s usually more effective to find a way to offer your daughter some measure of control, but still get her to brush. A good solution is to give her some choices: Let her decide from among a few different kinds of toothpaste or choose her own toothbrush. You can also allow your daughter to decide at what point in her bedtime routine she wants to brush.

Using natural consequences can also be effective. Explain to her that if she cooperates with brushing, there is more time before bed to read an extra book. Or, let her know that if doesn't want to brush her teeth, she won't be allowed to have any sweet snacks because not brushing means the sugar in sweet treats remains on the teeth and can cause cavities.

If you suspect that an oral sensitivity to brushing is the issue, then you may need to try a different way to get your daughter's teeth clean. Amy Light, a pediatric dentist in the Washington, DC, area says that all toddlers need for good oral hygiene is some kind of washing and stimulation of the teeth and gums after meals and before going to sleep. Your daughter doesn't have to use a toothbrush or toothpaste. You can clean her teeth by using your clean finger, a tooth finger brush (it fits over your finger), or a washcloth to wipe away the plaque and food residue on her teeth. If your child is sensitive to taste and smell of toothpaste, you can get flavorless kinds in most pharmacies.         Back to Top

 

When he doesn't get his way, my 18-month-old will scream at the top of his lungs, which is embarrassing when we are out in public. What's the best way to get him to calm down? 

You're not alone. Most parents have experienced being in the middle of the grocery store with a toddler who is “melting down.” One of the biggest challenges of parenting is separating ourselves from our children’s behavior.  When we react emotionally, we tend to be less effective than when we look at the situation objectively.  

The rule of thumb when a child is losing it is to stay calm. Although this is no small task, having a big reaction when your child is “losing it” can prolong his tantrum. Remaining calm allows you to think more clearly and plan a response that is more likely to help him get back in control.

Next, acknowledge his feelings. “You really, really want that cupcake and are really, really mad that mom said no.” Remember, it’s not the feelings that are the problem, but how he is expressing his feelings. Until their feelings are acknowledged, most children will up the ante and act out even more intensely (e.g., public outburst) to show you just how mad they are. The first step in teaching your child how to effectively manage his strong feelings is to label them so he can become aware of and eventually learn to control them.
  
So how to gracefully handle your toddler's public meltdowns? Picture this: Your son starts screaming when it's time to leave the playground. You say, with compassion: “I know you want to keep playing and are sooo mad that we have to leave the playground.” Putting his feelings into words shows you understand. This often has a very soothing effect and also helps him ultimately learn self-control.

As he continues to scream, calmly continue taking steps to depart while remaining cool. Then set your limit with as little emotion as possible: “It's time to go.” If he refuses to get in the stroller or car seat, pick him up and place him in, firmly but not angrily. There is no reasoning with a child when he is out of control. The more stoic and matter of fact you can be (even as you use all your strength to strap him in!), the better. Completely ignore his screaming so he gets no attention for it. Instead, keep talking to him in a calm voice using very simple words, “I know, you’re having a hard time. That’s okay. . . . We are driving home for dinner now. Let’s see, what should we cook tonight?” Talking in a compassionate, soothing voice can be calming to him; and, just as important, it is a way to soothe yourself during this stressful time. (Another benefit of handling these incidents calmly and confidently is that it can prevent that unpleasant experience of hearing other adults around you offering criticism or unwanted advice about how to manage your child’s behavior!)  

As unpleasant as tantrums can be, try to see them as opportunities to help your child learn to cope with difficult feelings—a skill that will help him all his life.          Back to Top



My 18-month-old refuses to sit in his stroller. This is a problem because he can't walk for very long and then wants to be held when he gets tired. Any ideas on what I can do?

Giving choices to toddlers is a great way to engage their cooperation. When you are going out, tell your child in advance where you are going and what you will be doing. (Being able to anticipate what will happen next is very reassuring for young children.) Let him know that he can walk for as long as he likes and then when he’s too tired to walk anymore, he will need to go in the stroller. Tell him that you understand he doesn’t like sitting in the stroller but that this is not a choice—he is too big to carry. Handling the situation this way shows that the two of you are going to work together to make riding in the stroller easier. Perhaps he can choose some favorite small toys and books to play with and read while sitting in the stroller.

At around 18 months, children are developing their symbolic thinking—the ability to use their imagination. This new skill can be a real asset. You can suggest that your child bring his favorite stuffed animal or action figure to push in the stroller: “Bear is soooo tired! He wants to sit and be pushed by you—his big friend.” Or the two of you can pretend the stroller is a race car and your son can sit in the “driver’s seat” and honk to his delight. Games like these put your son in a position of power and help develop his imagination at the same time.     
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My 18-month-old has started having tantrums whenever I say no to his demands/requests, like when he wants to push the stroller even though he can't see where he’s going and will run into people. In the past, I could easily distract him—I would offer him another toy and he'd be fine—but now he screams his head off if he doesn’t get what he wants. I'm just not sure how to respond. Help! 

 

First, pat yourself on the back for doing such a great parenting job. You have clearly nurtured your son’s self-confidence and desire to learn and explore. But curious, confident kids can be a handful because they want to do everything by themselves. The good news is there is a lot you can do to encourage your son’s growing independence while keeping him safe and yourself sane.  

Offer alternatives. If your son wants to push the stroller but is a danger to himself and others, you can bring along a lightweight toy stroller that he can be in charge of steering while you push the big one. Tell him that he can push the stroller in the park or backyard when you get home.  

Limit the choices and words. Sometimes tantrums emerge when a toddler gets overwhelmed or confused. This is especially true when physical skills are rapidly developing while language and thinking skills may be emerging more slowly. 

 

Be his coach.  Label his feelings: “It makes you so mad when you can’t get the block to fit in the hole!” Then give him the assistance he needs to master the challenge without doing it all for him—like holding your hand over his as you drop the square block into the square hole. This helps him feel he has been a part of the solution and builds his confidence.

Let your child practice new skills within limits. For example, if your son wants to pour his own milk, consider pulling a stool up to the sink and letting him try to pour from a child-sized plastic pitcher. If that's not possible, explain that you will pour the milk, but after breakfast he can pour water from plastic cups either outside or at the sink or bathtub. 

Invite him to be your helper. Involve your son in “real” tasks. This makes him feel competent and helpful. For example, he can pitch in with mixing pancake batter or tossing laundry into the dryer. At the grocery store, he can count out the apples as he drops them into the bag you’re holding.          Back to Top

 

I can't get a handle on my 20-month-old's moods. He wakes up happy, then 5 minutes later he's furious at me for not letting him pour his own cereal. I never know if he wants my hugs or will shrug me away if I try! Is this normal?

Toddlers are a lot like teenagers, which means they can be very moody. Your child’s temperament is a big factor in all of this. Some kids are easygoing and flexible and their moods are more stable. On the other end of the spectrum are kids who have intense emotions and reactions. They are either ecstatic or enraged, and their moods are variable. They also tend to have a difficult time making transitions, such as going from sleep to waking, or switching from one activity to another. These children are generally very sensitive and absorb everything going on around them. Taking in so much means they can get overwhelmed easily and feel out of control, which leads to their intense responses.

Sometimes our toddlers’ mood swings upset our own sense of calm and makes us feels like sitting on pins and needles—we’re just waiting for the next reaction. This can be particularly challenging when parents are sleep deprived, pregnant, or overworked and trying hard to maintain a sense of balance and stability. 

Be it due to his age, temperament, or both, the good news is that there are ways to help your son regulate his moods and feel more in control. Helping him learn how to manage his feelings now will help him develop self-awareness and the ability to calm himself and cope as he grows.

Try to stay calm. When your toddler is having a difficult time, he needs you to be his rock. If you have a big reaction too, his emotions are likely to intensify, making it difficult to help him calm down.

Validate his feelings and put them into words. “You're angry that I won't give you another cookie.” By letting him know with words that you understand can help him calm down.

Label your own feelings and moods. Your child is watching you very closely, which makes you his most powerful and important teacher. You can be a model for how to cope with difficult feelings. “I am so very tired today. It is making me really cranky! I am going to sit down for a few minutes to take a break. Why don’t you come sit next to me, and we can read a book and relax together.”

Offer advance notice about when an activity is about to end. “When we finish this last book, we're going home.” Or, “When the buzzer sounds, it's time for your bath.”

Help him feel more in control by giving him as many choices as possible. “Do you want the blue or red cup?” Or, “Do you want to read books before or after brushing your teeth?”

Anticipate blowups. Gently remove your child from potentially explosive situations. Try redirecting him by getting him engaged in a different activity. Or distract him with another toy.

Provide creative ways to talk about feelings. Cut out pictures of people with different expressions and label their feelings together. Talk about the feelings of the characters in the books you read together. Make faces in the mirror that express a range of feelings. This can be a great way to teach your child appropriate ways to share his emotions.

Keep in mind that high-intensity kids tend to be very passionate, creative, and delightful people. So hang in there!         Back to Top



My 2-year-old always has to have her way—from what she wears to the bowl she uses for cereal. How can I get her to be more flexible?

A flexible toddler—is it possible? Actually, what looks and feels like total inflexibility is a natural and important part of your child’s growth, and signals a leap in her development. Two-year-olds are at a stage when their sense of self is emerging. They are strong willed, they know what they want and don’t want, and they have the communication skills to tell you just how they feel. The good news is that usually strong preferences do not indicate a future of inflexibility, but rather an attempt to exert selfhood.

At the same time, children this age are very actively engaged in the world around them. They have a lot more to manage each day as they take in new experiences and encounter new people. Their world becomes less predictable. To feel secure, they desperately seek to control whatever they can. This need for sameness makes routines especially important. As trivial as it may seem, using the same bowl may be an important part of your child’s daily ritual and help her feel “okay.” 

It is also in the toddler years that the concept of ownership is beginning to take root. This new understanding of “mine” is important to your child’s growing sense of self. You can see how their sense of ownership and need for predictability can lead toddlers to want to assert more control over their world.

Furthermore, temperament plays a role in how flexible children tend to be. Children who are feisty, big reactors, as well as children who tend to be cautious and slow to warm, often rely very heavily on consistency to feel safe and in control, and thus may seem less flexible than their more easygoing peers. The challenge for parents is how to respect their child’s unique needs while helping her learn how to adapt when things don’t go her way. An important part of how you do this is by setting sensible limits. Whether it’s about choosing what to wear or what dish to use, accepting limits—that she can’t always get what she wants—is an essential part of a child’s development. It will help her function successfully in the real world with all of its rules and expectations.  

So when your child is demanding something you don’t feel is appropriate, see it as an opportunity—a teachable moment. The following steps can help her become more flexible while respecting her temperament, acknowledging her feelings and needs, and offering her real choices.

Decide if the behavior needs to be modified, which is also known as “choosing your battles.” Get clear on why you don’t like the behavior and balance that against what you think your child needs. For example, can you allow your toddler to wear mismatching socks when you are someone who values coordinated clothing? 

Also, consider the circumstances. If she is in a more vulnerable place, perhaps due to illness or a major change such as a move or a long separation from you, or she’s simply having a bad morning—you may decide to modify your expectations.

If you do decide to set the limit, read on:
 
Validate your child’s feelings. “I know you really want the blue bowl. It’s your special bowl and you don’t like using other bowls.”  (If you skip this step, your child is likely to “up the ante” and show you just how much she wants that blue bowl . . . often. This is when a tantrum generally starts.) 

Set the limit. “But the blue bowl is dirty, and we can’t use it right now.” 

Offer limited choices. All of these choices must be acceptable to you. “Do you want the red or yellow bowl?” If she insists on blue, simply reply, “Blue is not a choice. Do you want red or yellow?”

Help her cope with her disappointment by problem solving. “Tomorrow morning, when the dishwasher is done, you can use the blue bowl for your cereal.”If your child doesn’t accept the choices you’ve offered or has a tantrum, remain calm and reinforce your expectation: “Okay, it doesn’t look like you want either bowl. I’ll leave them here on the counter. If you change your mind and want to use one for your ice cream, let me know.”

Don’t give in once you have set the limit. She will just learn that if she pushes hard enough, she’ll get what she wants. This will also make it more difficult the next time you try to enforce a limit. Stay calm and let her know that it’s okay to be disappointed and upset. Then disengage from her so she does not get attention for the tantrum. 

The twos are a challenging time because your child is growing and changing so rapidly. This is, however, what makes them so interesting and fun. Up until now, most parents have enjoyed a feeling of control over their child’s day-to-day life. Now, your daughter is dead set on controlling her world . . . and so are you. Both of you need to adapt to this new relationship. (It’s good practice for when she becomes a teen!)        Back to Top

 

My 2-year-old, who has been using utensils to eat for a while now, has reverted to using his fingers most of the time. Should we force him to use utensils?

Two-year-olds delight in using their senses to explore the world. Fingers are perfect for eating because toddlers can touch the food and explore its texture. It is often easier to use fingers than to coordinate the small muscles in their hands to use a fork or spoon.

It is important to keep in mind that young children often take steps “backward,” especially when they are experiencing spurts in their development, such as when they are learning to use their bodies in new ways (e.g., they can now run and climb) or their language is exploding. Over time, as they adjust to their new developmental stage, they regain the skills they seemed to have “lost.” 

But never fear, children are driven to move up the developmental ladder and act like big kids. In the next few months your son's small muscle coordination will improve, which means that using utensils will be less challenging. Until then, keep setting his place with a fork and spoon and give him positive feedback when he uses them. You can set some limits around using fingers by reminding him that playing with food is not allowed. Remember, 2-year-olds are like mini teenagers. When they know something drives you batty, they're likely to do it even more. So try not to force the issue. Turning it into a power struggle is more likely to prolong his desire to turn every meal into finger food. Letting him make his own decision to use utensils makes it more likely it'll happen sooner.      Back to Top

 

How can I control the ever-escalating routine that my 2-year-old demands as part of being put down to sleep? She has to have every stuffed animal in just the right place in her crib. Then the blankets have to put on in a particular order, and so on. If something isn't just so, we often have to start over again! I know that part of it is simply a delaying tactic, but it's starting to drive me a little nuts! 

One mom tells the story of dreading her daughter’s bedtime routine that had become totally unmanageable. One night, after an hour of kisses, stories, rocking, singing, and blanket placement, her child asked for a final hug and she snapped at her, "Fine, but this is IT!" In that moment, this mom thought to herself: “Whatever happened to bedtime being a warm, nurturing time?” After an hour, she describes feeling “trapped and at the mercy of a very small and sleepy dictator.” What started out as an easy to comply with “just one more” becomes bedtime stalling, leaving parents feeling manipulated and frustrated with their child.

For many children, though, going to sleep alone in a darkened room is the most challenging separation they encounter each day. A long bedtime routine can be an important coping mechanism that helps them prepare for being separate from their loved adults overnight. When parents show their (understandable) frustration about bedtime, it is likely to only increase their child’s insecurity or fearfulness, as well as fuel their need for a longer bedtime routine. However, stalling may not be the only motive at work. A child’s temperament should be considered. Children who have a strong need for routine and order to feel safe and secure may heavily rely on the structure of a rigid bedtime routine.

Whatever the underlying cause, here are some steps you can take. First, begin to set some limits with your child that respect her need for a consistent routine and closeness with you, but that are manageable as well. Be sure to make them incremental. For example, if you usually read five or six books before bed, have her pick three or four and eventually get down to the number of books that are acceptable to you. If you usually rub her back for 20 minutes, gradually reduce this to 10 and then 5 minutes. If bedtime involves strategic stuffed animal placement, let your child pick her three favorite stuffed animals, rather then the whole menagerie.

It can also help to prepare your child for bedtime. Consider creating a poster or chart with pictures that show the steps in your routines (such as bath, books, good night kisses) that you look at together. This may make her feel more in control and therefore more safe and secure. It may also make the separation from you easier when it’s time to say good night. Hopefully soon it will be sweet dreams for everyone—you included.        Back to Top




My 25-month-old is terrified of the doctor. Our pediatrician could not be nicer, but my daughter screams and cries when the doctor tries to examine her. Everything seems to scare her, even the things that don’t hurt like the stethoscope. Any suggestions for making doctor’s appointments go more smoothly?

This is quite common as two important developments are taking place for 2-year-olds. First, they are becoming symbolic thinkers. This means they can use their imaginations, which leads to fears about what “could” happen. They are also developing greater body awareness and are focused on the fact that their body belongs to just them.

Trying to talk to your toddler rationally about why she shouldn’t be afraid often doesn’t work because 2-year-olds are not yet logical thinkers. However, it is important to reassure her that you will be with her throughout the visit and that you will help her manage. In addition to your support, you can build on your child’s growing language and pretend-play skills to help her work through her fear by:

Validating and labeling her feelings. “You are scared. You don’t like it when [fill in the blank with things you know she doesn’t like].”

Reading stories about going to the doctor. Ask your librarian for recommendations appropriate for your child’s age. 

Playing a pretend game about going to the doctor with one of your child’s favorite dolls or stuffed animals. You can be the doctor first and then your child might want to give it a try. Follow her lead to see where she wants this playacting to go. For example, if she tells you her “baby” is scared, you as the doctor can say, “I know it can feel scary. But I will be very gentle. I will take good care of you, I promise.”

Telling your child about the visit in advance. Find a good time, before your daughter’s appointment, not before bed, to let her know about her upcoming visit. Make a plan for what the two of you can do if she is feeling scared. For example, bring a “lovey” (a special doll, stuffed animal, blanket) to the appointment, or tote along a favorite book to read. You might want to offer to do something fun after the doctor visit so she can look forward to a happy ending. “First the doctor, then the park.”

Telling the doctor about your child’s fear. Although we assume doctors are sensitive to the feelings of young children, the pediatrician doesn’t know your child as well as you. Let your child’s doctor know what works best for your child. “It really helps when you tell Jasmine what you are going to do ahead of time.”Having your daughter sit on your lap during the exam can also help. Most of the exam can be done this way. 

Afterward, no matter how she responds to the exam, let her know how proud you are of her for getting through given how she feels about it. Although she may never love going to the doctor (who does?), you can use this experience to teach your daughter how to cope with a fear—an important life skill.     Back to Top

 


My 2½-year-old is suddenly insisting that I feed him all of his meals, even though he's been adept with a spoon for almost a year now. He won't eat anything unless I humor his requests. What should I do?

This kind of behavior is actually fairly common. Although it may seem like a contradiction at this age, when most children are eager to be independent, the ability to do more on their own can sometimes lead to regression and a desire to be taken care of in “babylike” ways. These kinds of behavioral changes often happen when there is some change in the child’s world, for example, a new sibling, or a change in routine, such as starting preschool. Learning new skills in one area, like learning to ride a tricycle, can lead to regression in other areas.    

Although it may seem like taking a step backward, meeting your son’s need makes it more likely he will give up this demand more quickly. Once he sees you will let him choose how he wants to be fed and knows you will be there to take care of him, he is able to move on. You are not giving him anything to rebel against. When you resist meeting the need and “make” him feed himself, you run the risk of turning this situation into a power struggle that will likely make him more determined to be fed by spoon. 

So it’s best not to make a big deal about it. Be very matter of fact in your approach. At each meal, ask him how he would like to eat. If he asks you to feed him, go ahead while maintaining the rest of your mealtime routine. Talk about what he is eating, what you have done or will be doing that day, and so on. Make it as normal as possible. By taking this approach, you’ve removed the power struggle from the interaction and soon the spoon will be back in your son’s hands.        Back to Top



My 3-year-old, Millie, is so persistent she’s driving us crazy. When she asks for something and we deny it, she insists, “I want it! I want it” over and over. What can we do to help her accept “No” as a final answer?

It’s in the job description of a 3-year-old to be persistent. This trait helps your child accomplish many things, such as mastering a new puzzle or learning to pedal her tricycle. A child’s temperament is also a factor. Some kids are extremely unwavering (like Millie), whereas others are more go with the flow and cooperate more easily. What’s important is that you encourage your child to reach her goals while accepting limits. 

For those who push hard, like Millie, it’s important to be clear and consistent about rules and limits. If these change a lot (e.g., one day she can throw the ball in the house and the next day you take it away), the child learns not to take adults seriously. This makes it difficult for her to know what decision to make. She’ll keep testing you to see what your reaction will be this time.  

The following tips can help your child understand and follow the limits you set:

Let her know you understand her. “I know you love books and don’t like when it’s time to stop reading and go to bed.”

Set the limit. “We can read two books before bedtime.” Remember to use short sentences. It’s difficult for children to process lots of words when they are upset.

Give her a choice within limits. Show her three or four books and have her choose two.

Make a plan to help her cope. Perhaps suggest she choose a third book that you put in a special place on her shelf that you read when she wakes up in the morning. These kinds of strategies can help her cope with having to wait.
 
If the pushing continues, be firm but avoid a prolonged back-and-forth interaction or negotiation. The more she can engage you, the more rewarding it is for her: “You have a choice—you can settle down and read this last book, or you can go to sleep now. We can’t read while you’re arguing.” If she doesn’t stop, hug her and put her to bed. Avoid showing any anger or intense emotions as that will encourage her to argue. The more matter of fact you can be, the better. If you are consistent in limiting the negotiation and setting the limit, she will more quickly learn the rules and adapt.

Make time to connect in positive ways. Finding pleasurable activities to do together can be a great source of comfort for both of you, and over time these activities may decrease the protest when she can’t have what she wants.        Back to Top

   

I try to explain to my 3-year-old the reason why we have certain rules (like no touching the TV) or why we can't go to the park right now, and she will just throw a tantrum. Other times, she seems to really understand complicated ideas. When can I start using logic with my child? 

Between approximately 2½ and 3, children begin to understand the logical connection between ideas—the why of things—which is the reason they start to ask “Why?” about almost everything. It is a major milestone in their overall development and in their understanding of how the world works. 

However, this stage can be very confusing and exasperating for parents. The inconsistency you’ve described in your daughter’s behavior is a perfect example and is due to the fact that a 3-year-old’s grasp of logic is still pretty shaky. One minute they seem very reasonable and wise, and the next minute act totally irrational. This is coupled with the fact that 3-year-olds are still working hard on managing their strong emotions that can interfere with, and often trump, their ability to act as rational beings. 

Other factors will also influence how easily and rationally your child accepts and responds to your logical explanations. Is she tired or hungry? Is it something she really wants to do or has been anticipating? Is she a temperamentally intense, persistent kid? These variables can strain her ability to act (and think) like a “big girl.” 

So when you tell your daughter she can’t have cake for lunch because her body needs healthy foods to grow strong, she may quickly comply. But when you tell her she can’t go to the playground before bed, she might completely lose it. You’re left feeling confused—why is one explanation more difficult to understand than the other? The answer is: It’s not. It’s just how a 3-year-old processes the world. 

At this point, it is best to explain the rule matter-of-factly and to be consistent in the follow through. If your daughter throws a tantrum, validate her unhappiness/anger/frustration but don’t give in as this will just make the tantrum a successful tool for her. It will also confuse her about what the rules really are.  When your actions match your words, she will learn the rules much more quickly.

The effort you put in now to be clear and consistent with rules when your daughter is 3 will pay off when she is 15 when explaining why her bedtime is 7:30 and not 9:00 has turned into explaining her curfew times. 

Until then, enjoy your passionate 3-year-old and rest assured that understanding logical connections and family rules is a skill that will gradually unfold over the next few years.          Back to Top

 

This resource was made possible by generous funding from the Carl and Roberta Deutsch Foundation.

Terrie Rose, PhD, LP, 
                    Founder & President, Baby's Space/Tatanka Academy
                    Ashoka Fellow

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