Q: 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: You are not alone. For some children, flexibility and toddlerhood just don't go together. The truth is what looks and feels like total inflexibility is a natural and important part of your child's 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.
At the same time, the world is becoming less predictable. They have a lot more to manage each day as they take in new experiences and encounter new people. To feel secure, they try to control whatever they can. This need for sameness and predictability makes routines especially important. As trivial as it may seem, using the same bowl or wearing the same pair of shoes may be an important ritual that helps your child feel safe and "okay."
Temperament also plays a big role in a child's flexibility. For example, children who are more cautious and slow to warm up often need more consistency to feel safe and so may seem less flexible than their more easygoing peers.
While it's important to respect your child's unique needs, it's equally important to help her learn how to adapt when things don't go her way. One way to do this is by setting sensible limits. Learning to accept limits helps children function successfully in the real world with all its rules and expectations.
When your child makes a demand, before you respond, ask yourself whether you want (or need) to fight this particular battle. Children need some opportunities to make choices for themselves. This builds their confidence, self-esteem, and thinking skills. For example, your child wants to wear mismatched clothing to preschool. While it may not match your fashion standards, the floral/stripe outfit isn't harming your child's development. This may be a "safe" choice for her to make for herself.
But when your child is demanding something you don't feel is appropriate, see it as an opportunity—a teachable moment. You can use the following steps as a guide to helping her learn about limits and become more flexible. In the example below, a toddler has asked for his favorite blue bowl with the train on it, instead of the red one his father has given him.
- 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 he wants that blue bowl…often, this is when tantrums start.)
- Set the limit: But the blue bowl is dirty and we can't use it right now.
- Offer limited choices that are acceptable to you. You can use the red bowl or the yellow bowl. Which would you like?
- Help him cope with his disappointment by problem-solving: After you come home from child care today, when the dishes are clean, you can use the blue bowl for your snack. 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 cereal, let me know. (It is important to limit the back-and-forth negotiation as it is very rewarding for children to engage their parents in this way and is more likely to intensify the situation versus resolving it.)
- Don't give in once you have set the limit. It is critical that you stick with the limit, despite your child's protests. If you give in, he learns that if he throws a fit and fights long enough, he'll get what he wants. And it makes it harder the next time you try to enforce a limit. Let him know in a compassionate way that you see he is having a hard time. Offer him comfort and some suggestions about what he can do to move on, such as getting involved in an activity together. If he won't accept any help or attempts to redirect him, let him have his tantrum and pay as little attention as possible. Any attention, even negative, is very reinforcing to children and tends to prolong the behavior.
The two's are a challenging time because your child is growing and changing so rapidly. This is what also makes older toddlers 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 child is set on controlling his world…and so are you. Both of you need to adapt to this new relationship. (And it's good practice for when he becomes a teen!)