How to Help Our Indecisive Toddlers

“The toddler is a terrible, terrific, tiresome, true, torn human being. There are times when he believes he owns the world; and at other times, he believes all the world is his enemy.”  – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect

Hi Janet,

My daughter will be 2 in a week, and I’ve been watching her freaking out lately in a very specific way.

Here’s how it goes: If I am helping my daughter get dressed because we have to be somewhere relatively soon, she’ll suddenly say “No shoes!” or “No coat!” I will generally sympathize with her because she may have wanted to dress herself. So I explain why we are doing it together.  If she continues to say “No Shoes!”, I might guess, “You don’t want to wear those shoes?” She will always say no.  I will ask, “Do you want to wear a different pair of shoes?”  And she will say Yes.  So I get a different pair, and we will begin putting them on together.

Then she will yell “No shoes!” and then throw them.  I tell her we have to put shoes on because it’s time to go, and she will say “Yes shoes!” and run to get them.  Then “No Shoes! Yes Shoes! No! Yes!” and on.   Lately, she’s taken to saying “Different shoes!” or “Different coat!” right away.

Another example: Sometimes she will wake up in the middle of the night and ask for water, and it’s the same thing: “Yes water! No water! Want Mommy’s water! Want my water!  Don’t want water!  Want to go back to bed and lie down holding the water!”  And meanwhile, I know she’s thirsty, so I offer her the water or put it back on the desk while she’s machinating in her own crazy way, or tell her calmly that we can’t lie down with the water because it will spill all over her.  In this case, of course, it’s exhaustion standing in the way of her getting what she wants, but the point is that I want to help her through this stuff as effectively as I can.

Sometimes I try echoing back what she’s saying, asking questions about what the issue is.  Sometimes I just stand back and let her have her own battle.  Sometimes I talk to her about indecision and how hard it is to make up our minds when there are choices, and that there’s always tomorrow to wear the other thing. Sometimes, I have the tantrum with her, yelling at the shoes or water too.  This seems to be the quickest route to her getting through it all.

Any hints for me that will help us both through this interesting phase of my daughter’s growth?

Thanks for all that you do!

Elisabeth

Hi Elisabeth,

First of all, kudos to you for your patience and compassion in these frustrating situations. I actually had my own “a-ha” moment reading your note, because I’m embarrassed to say that I can totally relate to your daughter’s indecision “meltdowns” around getting dressed. You’ve made me realize that my struggles aren’t about not having enough clothes, or even the right clothes, but actually because I’m feeling tired or anxious. At times like those, making any decision can seem overwhelming. The lessons we learn from toddlers!

Your daughter’s behavior is also a classic manifestation of the internal battle toddlers face as they struggle to develop more personal control and independence — their “will”.   Psychologist Erik Erikson deemed this developmentally appropriate period of conflict (which lasts from approximately 18 months to 3 years of age) “Psychosocial stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt”.

So, the first thing to know is that these struggles are normal and not to be feared. Here are a few hints for helping your daughter through these episodes:

1. Perspective is the first step for responding in an attuned manner to our children’s behavior. As I mentioned, “indecision meltdowns” are developmentally appropriate. They are impulse driven, not something young children can control. So, this isn’t conscious manipulation, “misbehavior” or a signal that we’re raising an unruly child who needs us to teach her a lesson.

Gaining this perspective helps us to remember to breathe, remain calm and get the emotional distance we need to accept our child’s feelings, rather than perceiving the meltdowns as our “fault” and/or believing it’s our responsibility to make them stop.  Although acceptance gets a bit easier with perspective and practice, I don’t think it is ever possible to feel entirely comfortable when people we love, especially our own children, are struggling. Witnessing our children’s emotional struggles is one of the most challenging, and the most important, aspects of parenting.

2. Connect by accepting and acknowledging your child’s perspective, however unreasonable it might seem. Acknowledging joins us with our child right where she is, keeps us in the moment, and allows her feelings to be expressed.  I suggest saying only what you know, because that will help you to be accurate. Avoid assuming, projecting into the situation or rushing your child through her feelings. If she’s having a full-blown tantrum, it’s best to just quietly accept, maybe nod your head until she’s calmed down enough to hear you and accept your help.

So if she is saying “No shoes! No coat”, I would simply reflect, “You are saying NO, you don’t want to put on your shoes or your coat. You don’t feel like doing this right now.”

Focus on calmly settling into that feeling with her, rather than guessing at the cause or trying to resolve the issue. If she continues to be upset, you might repeat, “You really don’t want to get dressed this morning.”

Sometimes this is all children need to be able to move on: the assurance that we are really hearing them. Alternatively, acknowledging is seldom effective if it is used impatiently or as a calming “tactic”, because children sense those agendas.

If your daughter tries to put the shoes or coat on herself and you see that she becomes frustrated for that reason, then acknowledge: “You want to get those on and you’re having such difficulties. That’s so frustrating, isn’t it?” Again, stay right there with her and allow her to express these feelings before you offer to help.

Elisabeth, I believe having a tantrum with your daughter has been “the quickest route to her getting through it all” because like acknowledging, joining her in a tantrum shows her you understand. However, I don’t recommend imitating her tantrum, because that might make her feel ridiculed or shamed (although it might be a good release for you!). Simply acknowledging your child’s perspective works best, because it is respectful and honest.

Let’s quickly take a look at your other responses in order to understand why they weren’t helping your daughter…

Sometimes I try echoing back what she’s saying, asking questions about what the issue is.  If “echoing” means acknowledging — wonderful. But it is next to impossible for a toddler to think reasonably enough to answer questions while she is upset.

Sometimes I just stand back and let her have her own battle. She needs more support.

Sometimes I talk to her about indecision and how hard it is to make up our minds when there are choices, and that there’s always tomorrow to wear the other thing. The first part of this is getting there, but “there’s always tomorrow” is downplaying the moment, or trying to talk her out of her immediate feelings.

3. Minimize choices, especially during transitions like getting dressed, because these tend to be the most challenging times for toddlers. Toddlers are already in the midst of a massive transition toward greater autonomy, so you can imagine how overwhelming it is to make a bunch of minor daily transitions on top of that. Besides, toddlers live in the moment, so although they want to go to the park, they don’t necessarily want to do what they need to do — right now — in order to get there. Offering toddlers just two options gives them a better chance of resolving the situation feeling autonomous rather than overwhelmed.

4. Help by making choices for your toddler when she cannot.

If she continues with “Yes shoes, no shoes”, I would acknowledge: “It’s so hard to decide, isn’t it?” allowing her that feeling as well. And then, finally: “This is so very hard for you today. Here, I’m going to help you.” If you’ve allowed her to express her feelings fully, she will probably be open to your help.

If you want to give her the choice of another pair of shoes, I would present this either in the very beginning, or as, “Oh, hey, I just realized there’s another option. Would you like these or the red ones?”

“Another example: Sometimes she will wake up in the middle of the night and ask for water, and it’s the same thing: “Yes water! No water! Want Mommy’s water! Want my water!  Don’t want water!  Want to go back to bed and lie down holding the water!”

In this case, your daughter clearly needs you to be the one to choose for her, while again acknowledging her feelings. I would make it a point to be very calm and boring so as not to awaken her more. As always, don’t buy into the drama. Nod your head to let her know you accept her feelings and (if she can hear you) acknowledge, “Wow, you woke up and wanted water, but you are unsure. You sound very confused and upset.” And then, when she is calmer, “Here, I will hold this cup for you while you drink.”

I hope this helps!

Warmly,

Janet

 

Recommended resources:

Books

My book: No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

Your Two Year Old: Terrible or Tender by Louise Bates Ames

Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent by Magda Gerber

The Emotional Life of the Toddler by Alicia F. Lieberman

1, 2, 3, The Toddler Years by Irene Van der Zande and the Santa Cruz Toddler Care Center Staff

Blogs

Understanding Your Toddler – Why She Does the Things She Does and Lisa Sunbury’s many other toddler posts on regardingbaby.org

For the Love of a Tantrum by Darcy L. Walker, Core Parenting

The Tether  by Emily Plank, Abundant Life Children

Pushing My Buttons and the many other insightful posts on Educating the Heart

Let Your Feelings Flourish, one of my favorite posts on Teacher Tom’s wonderful blog

 

 

(Photo by Stephanie Chapman on Flickr)

22 Comments

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

  1. Thank you Janet.
    This is where we are at the moment. Mostly we can have a chat with X and she can make choices but at the moment water and shoes and bedtime getting dressed are the challenges for her at the moment. good to know some more tips and what we are doing is (mostly) right!

    1. Yay! Yes, simplify this for her as best you can.

  2. Wonderful advice, Janet. My seventeen-month-old son is starting to have meltdowns and I’m so happy to learn how to make these situations easier for both of us. One thing that currently works for me when he is having a hard time being told he cannot do something, is to always say, “You wanted to do ______ and you’re sad that I won’t let you do that. I’m sorry that you’re sad.” And the crying always stops and he hugs me.

  3. avatar Ken Odiorne says:

    Thank you Janet. I so appreciate the counsel you gave for Elisabeth’s near universal experience in parenting. While my kids are now flown, her description is so remindful of scenes from toddlerhood. As you observe, it’s important not to believe the inevitable meltdowns “to be our “fault” and/or believing it’s our responsibility to make them stop.” Practicing to keep the natural and debilitating frustrations experienced by our children from escalating our own stresses and doubts is crucial. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, but some situations will drive us to despair. The individual child’s development proceeds on its own schedule, and we must completely clear our own schedules if we’re to be fully prepared to do the work of parenting. It’s not something you can go back and do later. I hope your advice restored the hope and strength of your questioner, as it did for me.

    1. Wow, thank you, Ken. I so appreciate your perspective.

  4. Janet I love this post! Thank you! As a mom of a 22 mo old “spirited” child, I need reminders on how to give her more empathy and support during meltdowns. They sure can be scary, but I try to take them in stride and remember this is such a short time; it’s important to truly enjoy all the moments…easy and difficult!

    1. Thanks, Crystal! If these meltdowns are happening often or feel overwhelming or scary to you, I would actually concentrate on acceptance, rather than empathy. Acceptance can be the bridge to empathy, but it’s easier and requires less of our energy. With a spirited child, you’ll need to conserve your energy.

  5. As always Janet, fabulous, right on target, and completely where we are! How do you know these things? LOL!
    Great job!

  6. This post was so timely for me, and reaffirms the way that I have been handling my daughter’s indecisive behavior. One follow-up question, however. My daughter is 28 months, and lately we’ve been falling into the “yes/no” decision battles. Here’s an example: Let’s say we’ve just finished lunch time and her water cup is still on the table. I’ll ask her if she wants any more water, and she’ll say no. I’ll tell her that I’m going to put it away to keep it safe for later, since she said she doesn’t want anymore. Then she’ll scream, “I want it! I want it!” I often feel conflicted in these moments, because she told me she didn’t want it and I feel like I need to not encourage these yes/no battles. I understand that they are developmentally appropriate, but it makes it tough when these situations happen 20+ times in one day, and I indulge her when she changes her mind. This wear me out. And maybe my example of cleaning up her water cup isn’t a good example, because that isn’t harmful to leave as is, but it is just a simple example of a bigger idea. Any recommendations?

    1. My 3 year old has gotten really difficult with decisions just like you mention with the water. He will ask for water, then demand I dump it out. I often set it on the counter where he can reach it if he wants and then he can dump it in the sink if he wants, but I don’t do it for him because I know he will then get upset about that.

      At meal times we have the routine where once he decides he is done eating and gets out of his chair, then he is done until the next snack or meal time. He will test it by getting up and saying he is done and then trying to back track once I pick up the plate, but when we hold firm to the fact that he got up and said he was done, then he quickly gets over it and moves on, even if he has to scream a bit first.

      1. Jen, YES, this is the key: “…but when we hold firm to the fact that he got up and said he was done, then he quickly gets over it and moves on, even if he has to scream a bit first.”

        Never fear the scream! Trust that this is a scream that needs to happen.

    2. Shannon, I believe this is continuing 20+ times per day because of your conflictedness in these moments. Yes, you will get worn out if you keep indulging her in order to avoid her emotional outbursts. Instead, I encourage you to stick with a decision. You’ve asked her about the water…and she has clearly said NO, so trust that her screaming is something she needs to do. Acknowledge, “That’s so upsetting when you change your mind about the water and I’ve already put it away. Ugh, what a bummer” (or whatever words you’d use). And let her scream. I’ve become convinced that toddlers are emotional-release geniuses! They will unconsciously find a way to express their developmentally appropriate frustration. If you give your daughter this outlet the first time she tries for it, and then accept her strong feelings, she won’t need to keep testing.

      1. Oh, this is so helpful for me because my two year old is exactly the same. We often go back and forth with the “take it away”, “no, don’t take it” scenarios at meal times (as well as the “yes shoes”, “no shoes” example plus many others) and I need to remember to not be afraid to let her do what she needs to do – scream- even if it is at an inconvenient moment. Hard when there is a baby in the house too but I’m sure that’s contributing to the behaviour!

    3. Shannon!!! Thank you, this is exactly what my 2 and a half year old is going through. At lunch, here do you want applesauce, no applesauce, ok fine, YES, YES applesauce. Gets in trouble for hitting 1 year old sister, I come to talk to him, No Spank, Mama No Spank. I am not going to spank, you need to go say sorry to sissy and make sure she is ok. Yes spank, yes spank mama. Here is your car, No i don’t want cars, ok fine, yes yes cars. I am losing my mind. I have tried holding my ground and sticking through the battle, I have tried allowing him to change his mind. But it has been about 2 weeks of this nonsense and I need a different tactic.

  7. This post helps me a lot with our 2 year old. We’ve been having similar meltdowns lately and I realize now I haven’t really been listening to him. Thank you. I have a question though. Kind of off-topic, and I think I may have asked you this already a few months ago but cannot remember or find it, is there a similar website I can go to that’s more for parenting older children? I have a 7 year old. I’ve made countless mistakes with him and am trying to repair our relationship. I’ve read tons of your articles and while a lot of them do apply to our situation, I’m just wondering if there’s something out there more specifically focusing on older kids?

  8. My 2 year old son refuses to take a bath in the tub so we change to the shower and works well…

  9. Thank you for the suoer helpful post. I was wondering if you could give.me some advice on the following situation. How do I respond to this.

    Scenario 1. My two year old wants to eat a peach. I tell her we don’t have any peaches but she can have an apple or a plum. She continues to yell, ‘NO, Peach!’ then cries and screams. I usually say something like ‘I know you want a peach, they are very yummy but we only have apples and plums’.

    Scenario 2- 2 year old is playing with her baby doll and wants a blanket for it. I take her to our blanket stash but every blanket is ‘too big.’ By now she is beside herself because she isn’t happy with any blanket. I literally show her every item that could be used as a blanket from a square of toilet paper, a hanky, a tea towel and an actual blanket but this seems to add to her frustration. I end up saying something like, ‘ok, no more playing with baby doll as it is making you very frustrated” and we then leave the actually. I am not sure what else I should do.

    Please tell me this is somewhat normal. Any advice would be appreciated.

  10. Hi Janet,
    Awesome post. One of these days I hope to hug you in person! You have been a rock for me while raising my first child. I own your books and follow your blogs and daily emails. My question today kind of goes hand in hand with this post and I am stuck. My 20 month old is giving me a hard time every time we have to get her dressed. Options or not. She will curl up on her rocking chair and just smile at me, as I cannot change her in that position. I do offer for her to change on the floor or table, and for her to get dressed or for me to help her. I end up having to snatch her up and hold her down between my knees so I can dress her. I am afraid I am causing emotional damage by “holding down”. I go through the same thing with her teeth. Two options, no reply…I tell her that I will decide instead. Then my husband and I end up holding her down. Please help!!
    Thank you for everything and all you do!

      1. Thank you so much. I have not read that one until now.

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