Toddler Testing – 3 Steps To End The Nightmare

Hi Janet,

Could I ask your advice again? So Audrey is great (GREAT!) at independent play. She can spend quite a long time happily playing with her basic simple toys and babbling to herself. Except, in the mornings, when I am trying to get breakfast ready, lunches ready, dishes done, and stuff ready to get out the door, she is really clingy. I don’t understand. If I am sitting still in the afternoon hanging out with her, she is happy to go off and play on her own. But if I am not able to sit down with her, that’s when she is attached to my leg. The solution is probably just to do more stuff at night so I have less to do in the morning and more time for her, but I need time to relax and the evening is all I have. Thoughts? I know you will be able to shed some common sense on my morning routine nightmare! Thanks in advance!


Hi Kathleen,

Yes, you can always ask my advice. Not only am I flattered, I’m thankful for a clue as to what I should be writing about.

But before I reply (if you’ll please excuse me), I’m going to find my amateur psychoanalyst hat…………….. Okay, hat’s on.

Hmmm! Now let me get this straight: your daughter enjoys playing independently, has a marvelous time, does not need you at all when you are sitting still and relaxed, hanging out, completely available to her. And yet, when you are busy in the morning with chores and activities her personality shifts dramatically. She becomes a leg-hugger — dependent, clingy, needy, helpless, desperate for your attention. Interesting!

This could mean one of three things:

          a.  Your daughter is not a morning person.

b.  Acute Kitchen Phobia. She’s unable to contain her fears when her dear, kind, vulnerable mother engages with knives, stoves, microwave radiation, garbage disposals, potato mashers, and the terrifying “snap” of Tupperware containers and zip-lock sandwich bags.

c.  She’s a toddler…doing her job.

Toddlers test. Testing limits is what they are supposed to do and is a healthy and important step for them as they build independence. Testing tries our patience, but if we handle it calmly, it can provide valuable learning experiences for our child, give her the sense of security she needs, and bring us closer.

The situation you describe often sends parents lunging towards the nearest TV remote, and understandably so.  Keep holding off if you can, because she will pass through this phase soon. TV or videos in the morning would get Audrey out of your hair (and off your legs), but it could begin a habit for both of you that will undermine her great ability to play autonomously (besides encouraging her to zone out in the beginning of the day when she could be putting her energy to more productive, “brain active” use).

Here are some thoughts for giving Audrey clear boundaries in the morning and for dealing with toddler testing in general.

Pay attention.

Toddlers enjoy independent play when we balance it with periods of our undivided attention. Maybe you are already doing this, but I encourage you to sit with Audrey in the morning while she has her breakfast. Try not to be distracted by other things during those few minutes. Make that time as intimate as possible. Tell her that when she is finished with breakfast, you will do your work in the kitchen and she will have…


It’s easier for toddlers to relinquish testing when they feel they have a little control. Giving Audrey choices lets her be the one to decide how to behave helpfully. One example could be asking her to choose to either play in her safe play area or sit in a special chair (or pillow on the floor) and watch you. Another choice might be playing with playdough (the special homemade kind that you’ve set aside for her to use only in the mornings…see recipe below), or her set of farm animals (or another toy you might designate “mornings only”).

Project confidence, acknowledge feelings, and hold firm. 

If she doesn’t accept these choices gracefully, or if she plays for a short time and then returns to you, try not to get upset or give her behavior much attention. Just calmly, comfortably, matter-of-factly tell her that you know she wants you, but you are going to be busy for 15 more minutes (or whatever), and you are looking forward to sitting with her as soon as you’re done.  If she continues, even if she grabs your legs, hold tight, stay calm, try not to let it bother you, and ask her again to please sit down or go and play in a kind, but authoritative way. No pleading. If she seems upset, acknowledge it, “You’re really having a hard time letting me do my work today.”

If you can be confident and unemotional during all of this, she will probably lose interest in testing. It’s most important to project assurance. She’s not falling apart (although if she has a gift for drama she may seem to be). She’s not a ‘poor baby’. She’s a strong girl who needs boundaries like all children do. If you melt and give in, get annoyed or angry, she may continue to be distracted by her need to test instead of feeling free to play.

Now, let me frame this by saying that, in my book, you are doing a wonderful job. (And Audrey sounds like a terrific girl.)  And also, I certainly don’t have all the answers. These are just some ideas, and they may or may not work for you. I would love for you to give me an update. I’d also love to hear suggestions from anyone reading.

All the best,                                                                                                                                                                               Janet

Playdough recipe (it’s edible…just in case) from Don’t Move The Muffin Tins (A Hands Off Guide To Art For The Young Child) by one of my favorite speakers and educators Bev Bos:

What You’ll Need: A saucepan; two cups flour; one cup salt; one teaspoon cream of tartar; two tablespoons oil; one teaspoon food coloring; two cups water.

How To Proceed: Mix ingredients in saucepan and stirring constantly, cook over medium heat until dough leaves sides of pan. Remove from pan and knead for a few minutes.

Comments: This is a very smooth, pliable clay. We store our clay in a tightly closed plastic container. Fifty children play with it every day, and it lasts for weeks. We don’t find it necessary to refrigerate the mixture.


I share a complete guide to boundaries with toddlers in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Roseann Murphy says:

    This scene must be played and replayed in household across the land!! The description of Audrey’s behavior is identical to many many toddlers’ behaviors whether it is morning, noon or night.
    Your “RIE remedies” for coping with this behavior are extraordinary…the explanations and expectations are clear, Kathleen is able to maintain family peace while Audrey is able to hold on to her self-respect.

    It is possible that Audrey was not aware of her Mom’s need to get these chores done. Letting her know what is expected will more than likely lead to a more relaxed morning…maybe not the first try…but after a time or two of repetition…mornings will be glorious.

    The question and answer format to your blogs are extremely insightful…I thank you for this excellent parenting site.

    1. Roseann, thanks for your corroboration and the vote of confidence! And I agree, making our expectations clear is key. After all, that’s what we’d do with a spouse, friend or older child.

      1. This article was very helpful! Janet do you have articles about setting boundaries with a just turned three year old?

        1. Thank you! All of my discipline articles (and my book) are relevant for three year olds.

  2. Janet, this is exactly what I needed to hear and be reminded of. Thank you so much for this advice.

    I think the key for me is that I get so focused on what I need to get done that I don’t focus enough on Audrey. My expectation that she will just behave is unrealistic, without me putting in the effort to set that boundary and blend it with giving her the attention she needs. I stress too much and she picks up on that, which is the opposite of projecting confidence.

    Thank you again.

    Also, I blogged about asking you for help.

    1. Kathleen, yes, I think Audrey needs a little focused attention before you dive into your work, but please don’t beat yourself up and definitely don’t stress. The great thing about giving her that attention first, and then being upfront and clear is that you can then proceed confidently, do the things you need to do without guilt, even if she objects. You are setting the situation up for her, but also for you.

      I just read your post. It’s wonderful! Thank you!

  3. I am currently dealing with this with my 2 year old as well. Janet, I agree that they are testing boundaries.
    One thing I’ve figured out as well, is that I could have my ‘knitting project’ all set to go when I am needed to just be present to her, and we are both enjoying ourselves. I’ve even been able to ‘relax’ and read chapters of a book, while in the same room with her and she is ‘busy’ with her toys.

    When I get up sometimes she is fine, and sometimes not. In either case, I go on with what I am doing, and either she joins me or she doesn’t. If joining me in the kitchen, I always have ‘jobs’ for her to do for me, such as cleaning spots on the floor, or ‘doing dishes’ with unbreakables in the sink. If she has a fit – still in the living room – and is not coming over to me in the kitchen, I do gently pick her up and bring her into the me in the kitchen and she gets immediately busy. I guess I’m not thoroughly convinced that she has the inner capacity to come to me when feeling so upset. Maybe when she is three?

    1. Monika, wonderful to have those blissful times engaging in activities near each other. And I like your ideas about cleaning spots and doing dishes.

      The relationships we develop with our children are highly individual and can be complex. Your last sentences intrigue me… Does your daughter wait for you to come when she’s upset because that is what she’s used to? Or does she need you, but feel unable to go to you, as you say? Interesting!

      1. my first thought on this was that maybe the child doesn’t feel confident in her own ability to choose to go to Mom. So as she gets a little older, the child will gain that ability as she chooses going in the kitchen more often.
        Being two seems so hard!

        1. Alexandra says:

          I once noticed, my son who is 2, now, when he was upset didn’t feel okay to come to me. I felt sad/guilty for not giving him confidence to come to me when in need. So I began telling him months when he’d be in need. Name, I am here for you. I love you and respect you and you can come to me when you feel unsure or upset, for anything.

          Then I wait a pause or two and say, can I give you a hug? Then I wait for his response which is usually he will run to me.

          Sometimes he will say no and be sad or say no and be angry and I will say ‘okay, I am here for you. I see that you feel sad or angry or upset. I will be here for you when you are ready. I love you. ‘

          1. I can relate to this. And the way you handle it sounds like a great approach. Thanks for posting ♥️

  4. Another great post, and great advice Janet. A few more suggestions of practices that I have found helpful when working with/caring for toddlers: Sometimes busy, transitional times of the day(typically mornings and evenings, in most homes), can be somewhat confusing or anxiety provoking for toddlers. Besides starting with focused attention, and giving choices, it can sometimes be helpful to narrate, or broadcast what you are doing as you are doing it. “I am clearing the breakfast dishes from the table now, and then I will put them in the dishwasher.” “Now I am getting ready to sweep the floor.” “In a few minutes, I will be ready to play/sit with you.” It can help some children to understand time if the adult sets a kitchen timer, and says something like, ” Mama is going to work in the kitchen for 15 minutes while you play with your toys. When you hear the bell, then it will be time for us to play together.” I understand that it’s not always possible to include your toddler when you’ve got household chores to accomplish, and sometimes it’s not even safe to do so. I love your suggestion of having special toys or activities that come out just in the morning, Janet. But, toddlers are generally really curious about how real world things work, and often they are quite capable and very willing helpers, and including them in whatever you are doing doesn’t take any more time than it does to peel them away from your legs when they are clinging to you, and protesting independent play. The little guy I care for is just 18 months old, and he plays independently for long periods of time- except in the morning when I am cleaning up the kitchen, and starting laundry, etc. So I just include him in the process. He helps in all kinds of ways- by bringing me the broom, by placing clothes in the washer, by matching socks from the dryer, by carrying items out to the recycle bin, by picking up toys and putting them in the toy baskets. We work side by side, and he is so proud and happy to be participating in what I consider to be necessary but dreaded chores, but he considers to be fun, quality time together. I can’t help but smile. This routine we have arose out of J.’s desire to be included in the daily morning activities in some meaningful way. His Mom and I were both surprised when I arrived one Monday morning, and J. excitedly ran to his room, and tried to push his laundry basket out of his room and down the hall to the washing machine. He knew it was the day we always wash his laundry! I hope some of these thoughts will prove useful to your readers!

    1. Lisa, thank you for this fantastic advice. The scenario you describe with J. is truly heartwarming! And I totally agree that transitional times are often difficult for toddlers. The intense relationship children have with their parents can make cooperation a little harder to come by, but your suggestions are most definitely worth trying! Magda Gerber always reminded us that children want to actively participate in life.

      Again, thanks so much for sharing these experiences!

  5. This all sounds so familiar so great to read everyone’s experiences and suggestions.

    My 21 mth old daughter too is pretty good at independent play but I found recently that she was super clingy in the mornings and I could not get anything done. Then a light bulb came on and I realised that she just needed some one on one time because to her, she had not seen me for several hours, even though she was asleep. So now we cuddle when she has her morning milk, look at books or what ever she brings to me to play with. 20 mins seems to do the trick.

    I have posted before but worth maybe mentioning again, when I need to get kitchen stuff done, like washing up, I give her a saucepan and uncooked pasta with some plastic cups/bowls and she is happy to just play by my feet. Just recently too I have made her her own cupboard spaces in the kitchen that she can reach with all her own kitchen things anytime she needs. (I’ve been reading some books on how to bring Montessori into your home to help your children become more independent).

    No doubt things will all change tomorrow 🙂

  6. I need help asap i have a baby boy hes 1year and 5 months like 4 months ago we move to a better apartment the problem is that he has his own room he had always sleep alone since he was small well in this new apartment he doesnt like his room specially at nights he gets very scare to even go in at 1tst we thought he was acting that way cuz it was a new place but no his room get very strange in the nights u can hear all kinds of noise and he wakes up crying during the night very bad me and my husband think theres like a ghost or something like that in his room i am even scare to go inside his room cuz i get a verry bad feeling and i always feel somebody is watching me i hope u can help me and give me a advice cuz i cant take it anymore theres a lot of tension in my house.. thank u i hope to hear from u

    1. Hi Denise. One thing I know for certain… If you are getting scared and a “very bad feeling”, you’re baby is going to get a very bad feeling, too. It seems that you should sleep in the room with your boy or bring him into your room until you can become comfortable about his room… Remember that It can take a long time for children to adjust to a move. His old apartment and room were all he ever knew. It’s a huge transition. It’s hard for me to know if there is really something wrong with his room or if these feelings are the result of your boy still transitioning. But he will never be comfortable with the room until you are…and you have to feel completely 100% okay about it.

      Sorry, I wish I could be of more help!

  7. Dear Janet

    I am so glad I’ve read this post, I was having the same difficulties as Kathleen with my little one who is 10 months old. He manages to occupy himself while I’m not around or just busy getting my jobs done. But in the morning he seems to be very clingy and wouldn’t let me do anything. So I have to leave everything and pick him up. I will try doing what you said above, hopefully it will work for me. Again great post

  8. Great advice. I had a similar situation with a lovely girl who arrived to our toddler class early each morning. I needed to get the environment prepared and teacher things taken care of so that I could be present for the rest of the day. I made playdough and kept it in a special basket with some fun tools (spoons, rolling pin, etc) just for her and any early birds. They loved it and began to ask for the playdough as they arrived. It became a special time. Good luck!

  9. Mornings can be rough for us too. I think after the long separation and calm of night, my 19 month old can be overwhelmed by our bustling morning routine on busy days. We used to start our mornings by nursing, but he recently dropped that and now gets a banana when he wakes up. I drink my coffee and sit with him while he eats his banana and that seems to help him then be able to play with toys or our dog while I make Daddy’s lunch and breakfast. Some days he is literally into everything seemingly undoing anything I am trying to do from trying to carry the dog’s water to him spilling it everywhere to turning the knob on the dishwasher causing it to start and stop over and over. We’ve learned to just put the water on the counter when our son is in the kitchen and flip the circuit breaker to the dishwasher so he can turn the knob all he wants. On the days he wedges himself between me and the counter to stand on my feet while I am preparing food I will try offering a special toy or task such as a wet rag for the floor. I have used those techniques while I prepare dinner, but somehow hadn’t thought of it for the morning.

  10. My son did or does the exact same thing! The morning are our hardest time. I actually did and still do resort to TV at times. This worried me at first but honestly it doesn’t seem to interfere with this play autonomy. He is now 4 and takes TV with a grain of salt. He much prefers to play/create than watch TV. I am not a media advocate but when it allows one to get breakfast made, lunch packed and ready for a full day spent having non-media fun with their child I think the “risks” are worth it. I couldn’t have gotten out of the house many mornings without it. Try other means first but when all else fails i don’t feel guilt about reaching for the clicker and i don’t think anyone else should either.

  11. Hi Janet,
    My 7 1/2 year old does a variation of this – but at dinner time. After school we stay and play a bit then when we get home, she plays with her older sister, then reads awhile. But when it is time for me to start getting ready for dinner, she often wants my help with her activities – such as beading, crafts, wants her password for online extra school activities (reading with questions then points and prizes). When I tell her my hands are wet (chopping food or rinsing salad) and I have a fire (something cooking) on the stove, she starts screaming that I’m mean, she hates me and I’m so stupid and all those snooty insults. I try to ignore her, but I can’t leave the stove, and she goes on for a very long time to the point that I feel disheartened.

  12. Hi! I want to share my success story 🙂

    My 16 month old son is also struggling with independent play, especially when he has spent the day at daycare. When we get home, I always make sure we have our little time together (20-30 minutes) before I start doing any chores. But even this won’t stop him from whining and crying when I am buzzy cooking or washing dishes.

    Yesterday, I acknowledged his feelings and try to ignore him, but even after 5 minutes he was still crying. I asked him if he wanted to sit in his highchair and watch me. He said yes. I put him in the highchair and he was fine after that. A little later in the evening, I had to do something else in the kitchen. He came to me, whined a little and went straight to his highchair, touched it and looked at me. He didn’t say a word, but I knew he was saying: “Mom, I want to sit in the highchair and watch you!”. I found it so cute and so clever from him to do. I was so proud of him and so proud of myself at the same time. 😉

    I LOVE the RIE approach. It is really helpful to me since one of my biggest challenge as a parent is not to have “emotional responses” to my child’s behavior.

    I am so glad to have the help I needed! Thank you so much!

  13. This is great, but my toddler moves on to destruction when I try to calmly tell him that “I am working or doing this for x amount of minutes, please go back to your play.”
    I spend the morning with only him, eating breakfast at his table with him and talking with him. I then transition him to his “yes” area where he can do what he wants mostly, but if I leave him to do anything else he protests. He comes over to me to hand me things or ask me to play, or pull on my computer, or pull down whatever I am working on… If I stay strong there and firm in telling him I need time to do this, but I will go play with him when I am done, he then will throw blocks and items at the wall, or something else destructive. He knows that this stops me from doing my task to come over and stop him due to safety.

    He is potty trained mostly, and sometimes he will urinate and announce that he has had an accident, because he knows this will stop me from working to pay attention to him. I get him new clothes and have him put them on himself, as he does when he has accidents, but he is given that little bit of attention he desired.

    I’m not really sure how I can better deal with these issues.

    1. This is my issue as well. What happens after you reach the point where talking, comforting boundaries steps above turn to the child screaming and crying at the top of their lungs throwing things? It’s all because she wants me to cuddle with her all day but I can’t. Do I continue my task and keep talking to her calmly etc. Is that the point I should be concerned as abnormal behavior?

  14. Hi Janet, we have a similar situation in our house with our 2 year old son, however to get our attention, he doesn’t grab our legs…he will climb gates, throw large items/generally destructive, climb stools and get on the counters-even when we think we have a safe environment, he will find something to prove us wrong. He is physically strong, and seemingly fearless, so as a result, I am unable to do much housework at all during the day (even folding laundry-he will throw folded clothes on the floor). I hate doing it, but he stays buckled in a high chair (as long as he will tolerate, which isn’t usually much at all) if I have to get things done. Even with coloring and stickers, needs to be buckled, because he runs off and draws on walls and furniture. Other friends kindly suggest I multitask while he plays, but my son is not as easy going and mellow as theirs. I always feel exhausted and behind, because I have to put it all off until the evenings. And I know many kids his age don’t use high chairs and have more freedom. Any suggestions on how to keep him safe while I do light, daily housekeeping?

    1. Hi Jennifer – I would be as preventative as possible and calmly, lightly handle the testing behavior with a “ho-hum” attitude, not giving it any power or negative attention. It’s very, very typical stuff. Strapping him into a chair gives him the message you can’t handle him. But I believe you can, and I think he will feel much more safe and secure if he can get that message from you consistently. It’s when the issue feels settled for children that they can relinquish testing.

  15. Just what I needed! My toddler shows these same behaviors in the morning as well. I notice our mornings are better if I give him some undivided attention before getting right into my mornings and tasks. That’s not always possible sometimes though so this is extremely helpful.

  16. I try to involve my toddler in the morning routine. She is 3.5, but can fetch her own water, cut soft fruits with a butter knife, put jelly on her toast, fetch her lunch box, and help unload and load the dishwasher. She does not do these things perfectly, but I try not to correct her contributions. I could do this stuff myself faster, but her helping keeps her engaged and happy

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