Understanding willful toddlers

I’m generally a happy and optimistic person.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had dark moments, but for the most part I enjoy my life and am grateful for it.  However, when I’m with a toddler who seems intent on pushing my buttons, I am hating life.   It seems like no matter what I do to please the little tyrant, I’m still fending off testing behavior hour after hour.

Here are a few empowering thoughts, assumptions, questions, and some dialogue that have helped me change gears and reconnect with a young person after I’ve felt frustrated or hurt:

Q: My 20 mo. old son is throwing things in clear defiance of my wishes.  It seems like he WANTS to upset me.

New interpretation: He’s just asking to play.

Challenge: How can we make it a safe/fun/mutual game?

Inside Shelly’s head:

Oh no, he’s going to throw that.  “Stop!”, He throws it anyway and aims at something breakable but misses.  “Wow, I’m so glad you aimed away from the flower pot!  That flowerpot is fragile and breakable and it would be expensive to replace it.  Hmmm, I wonder what would be good to throw something at…Oh!  I know!  Let’s throw beanbags into the special hole we made!  I want the red beanbag, which one do you want?  I’m going to throw it into the hole.  Can you make it into the hole? C’mon!  Let’s go get the beanbags!”

Q:  My 18 mo. old daughter uses a blood curdling scream when she wants attention and sometimes for no reason that we know of.

New interpretation: She’s curious how I’ll respond.

Challenge:  How composed can I remain?

Inside Shelly’s head:

How would my best self respond?  Calmly.  The less I react, the less power her actions have and the easier it will be to redirect.  I will remain calm and remind her to use an inside voice.  If she continues I will either leave the room or take her outside to scream.  After she screams, I’ll get really close to her and whisper in her ear, “Let’s use our inside voices.  And if you need to scream, let’s go outside.  Which one? Inside voices or outside?”

Your practice this week is to find a new interpretation for a challenging situation with your kids.  And then come up with a challenge for yourself that you will meet with gusto.  I would love to hear how it goes!

Have a great week, Shelly

P.S.  If you’d like to see an email exchange I had with my dear friend and yoga instructor Kendra about her challenges with her young son, keep reading.  I think her questions and my responses will be useful for anyone who has a willful toddler at home.

Kendra:   I definitely feel tested these days by my son saying ‘no’ (or ‘no way’) when I ask him to do things

Shelly:  At 21mo. Trent is still pretty young to consistently help out with things like putting toys away and cleaning up in general.  You can ask or even insist that he help, but if I were you, I’d invite him and then go ahead and clean up myself happily if he says no.  Essentially you’re modeling joyful tidiness and taking pride in your home environment.  He will likely join in more often the more fun it seems to do so.  And when he’s two and a half to three years old you can begin to require a few consistent cleaning tasks.  For now, it’s more about fun, play, and helping out joyfully.  When you can get him to happily put one toy away consistently, then move on to three toys.

Kendra:  The other night when I asked him to help me put all his animals away, he said ‘no’ & threw one of them at me.  It didn’t seem like it was out of anger – more just testing…

Shelly: It sounds like he’s looking for a boundary here.  I think I would let him know that it’s never OK to throw things at people, unless you’re playing catch.  You might be dramatic in your response, like “WHOA!  A flying dinosaur!  I’m so glad that didn’t hit me.  That would really hurt.  Do you remember which things are OK to throw? I’m going to put the animals away now.”  You don’t want to give too much energy or attention to the behavior you don’t want.  Instead, redirect his attention to something you DO want.

Kendra:  He also does it with hitting the windows – something that is never ok, and I do try to give him options, like he can hit the wall or the drums or the couch, just never the windows – he will look right at me & hit the window.

Shelly:  Awesome job offering him alternatives!  Again, this is a boundary issue.  This one is a little bit trickier because a broken window is a huge hassle.  Luckily he’s still small enough for you to physically remove him if you need to.  I have a couple of suggestions here.  First, out of sight out of mind.  If there is a window that he hits most often I would barricade it, cover it with a curtain or find some other way to make it disappear.  If it’s a window that you need access to, I would make a point of stopping whatever you’re doing as soon as you see him considering hitting the window.

Because he’s so young, he’s unable to stop himself from following through on most of his impulses, so asking him not to hit the window when it’s within reach isn’t going to be effective (until he’s a little older).  Instead, I’d run right over there and move him away from the window and THEN say, “We don’t hit windows.  Windows are breakable and fragile.  If you want to sit next to the window I will sit with you to make sure the window is safe.”  Then as you build trust by close supervision you can relax your supervision over time.

Kendra:   He is simultaneously often very clingy – hanging on to my leg while I’m trying to make breakfast & wanting to get up & be held & nurse a LOT.

Shelly: This is totally normal and a little bit crazy making.  I wonder what would shift if you had some dedicated snuggle time on the floor in the kitchen before breakfast.  Maybe you can head this off at the pass?  Also, consider setting him up with a fun food prep activity at his high chair before you start breakfast.  He could slice a banana with a butter knife, or mash a banana or other fruit with a fork or small potato masher. He may even be able to peel an apple orange or banana. If you want more ideas for activities he can do on his own, let’s talk on the phone so I can get a better idea of his small motor skill level and coordination.

Kendra:  but then also throwing things at me, which really triggers me

Shelly: “Trent! You may NOT throw things at me.  If you’d like to play catch then go get a ball, but if you throw things at me I’m going into my room where I feel safe.”  When you take away your attention every time he throws something at you, he won’t get the emotional response he’s interested in.  In this instance I think it’s better to walk away than to give him further attention.  After you’ve established the boundary to your satisfaction, you may even choose to ignore the offense and simply walk away whenever it happens.  I think it will cease within a few weeks if you’re consistent with this.  However, if he knows that he’s producing an interesting emotional response in you, he’ll be compelled to do it again and again because he’s so curious about his own power and the emotional connections and disconnections between people.

Kendra:   Or, when I’m changing him:  he’ll kick me – playfully – but when i tell him not too (or that mama doesn’t like that because it hurts), he smiles & thinks it’s a game & does it more & I just do not know how to get my point across!

Shelly:  In this case I think he’s asking you to play with him.  If you can find a different game to play during changing time that’s even more fun, he’ll quickly switch his focus.  You could try “this little piggy” or eating his feet or raspberries on his tummy, you might play peek-a-boo with a blanket, or just surprise him with a loud “BOO!” and get him giggling.

Kendra:   The other day culminated in me sitting on the floor, crying & Trent laughing at me.

Shelly: I’m so sorry.  That does not sound fun.  It sounds like you could begin to work on some empathy skills with Trent too.  As you’re reading books or experiencing interactions with others just put special emphasis on the emotional content and ask him questions about it.  “Do you think that little boy is feeling happy or sad? Wow, that looks like hard work, would you like to go help? or Lucy looks sad, I’m going to give Lucy a hug to help her feel better.” etc.  Trent won’t be able to experience a lot of empathy until he’s out of the parallel play period and interacting directly with more peers, but you can begin to give him some information and insight into the emotional worlds of others now.

Most importantly, don’t forget that you are doing an AMAZING job of mothering.  You are incredibly skilled, caring and compassionate most of the time, so give yourself a break once in a while.  It’s OK to set strong boundaries and even to lose your composure once in a while.  Trent knows that he’s loved and cared for.



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