In “Don’t Leave a Testing Toddler Hanging,” I shared four typical testing scenarios. I then offered some general guidelines for recognizing and responding to limit-pushing behavior. One of the parents commenting on that post asked if I could specifically address each of the example scenarios I’d presented at the beginning. She explained, “Seeing how techniques are applied really helps me learn how to model them.”
Me, too. I also appreciate an opportunity to clear up possible misunderstandings. So here goes:
Situation #1: Your 10-month-old spends the majority of your playgroup session climbing and squirming on your lap, using you to pull up to standing as you sit on the floor.
Parents might not recognize this behavior as a test or experiment because a) It usually begins early in toddlerhood when we are accustomed to responding to our infant’s more straightforward behavior (child expresses a need, we discern it and try to fill it); b) We might not be bothered by this behavior while our baby is small; c) We might even think it’s a good thing to let babies climb on us because we want to encourage their motor skill development; or d) We believe it is a reflection of our child’s need for closeness.
A child who is old enough to squirm, bounce, cling, and climb is also old enough to understand “I love having you on my lap, but I need you to sit still. If you want to climb or pull up, you can use that coffee table (or whatever).” I believe children need that limit to be clear so that they can make a clean decision to move away from the parent or stay close.
If the child continues to wiggle (which will happen even though he probably does understand our words – that’s what testing is), we follow through: “I’m going to move you off my lap, because you’re having trouble sitting calmly. You feel like climbing on me. That makes me uncomfortable.”
The key is to understand the difference between a want and a need. In the playing-on-the-lap example, there may well be a need for closeness and touch, but using mom or dad as a climbing structure is a want and, more than likely, a test.
The question the child asks in this situation, though not consciously, is “how much will you let me do to you?” When parents let this test go even though they’re uncomfortable or annoyed, or when they aren’t clear, it can become the child’s focus (as other tests do).
In a playgroup or other social situation (and even during playtime together at home), I would always allow a child to stay on my lap (without squirming) as long as he wishes. I highly recommend staying put in these settings so that children have opportunities to build confidence as free explorers, autonomously deciding when to leave and return to their parents (referred to by attachment theorists Bowlby and Ainsworth as their “secure base”).
Alternatively, I do not recommend coaxing children to leave us to “play with all those cool toys over there,” or “see what Joey’s doing,” etc. Children know when we are selling them on something!
Situation #2: Your 18-month-old can’t seem to make up his mind. First he wants to go outside. Two minutes later he wants to come back in. A minute later he wants to go out again.
Toddlers like to make decisions. Or do they? They’re not entirely sure. The toddler years are a time of conflicting, unbridled emotions that are often expressed though impulsive, defiant behavior.
I recently consulted with a mom whose three-year-old son was doing the opposite of everything she asked him to do. If she said “don’t,” she could count on him to immediately do whatever it was. It made me chuckle when she shared that her noncommittal responses like “either way is fine” would literally stop him in his tracks because he couldn’t think of an unacceptable option to take. (She had recently given birth to a second child, so his testing made a lot of sense.)
When we say “red,” toddlers have a very strong impulse to say “blue,” and then if we agree to “blue,” there’s a good chance they’ll need to revert to “No, red.” And so it goes.
To help extricate toddlers from these cycles of control and resistance, they need us to calmly make some of these decisions for them while acknowledging their perspective. Then we follow through by helping them follow our direction.
In other words, when a child changes her mind a second time (or maybe even the first time), and it seems unreasonable or impossible, we say, “I hear you wanting to go back outside. We’ll do that a bit later, after I’m done making your lunch. We’ll be staying inside for now.”
As always, our confident attitude and total acceptance of our child’s negative response to our decisions is far more important than the words we use.
(I share more details in “How to Help Our Indecisive Toddlers.”)
Situation #3: Your two-year-old isn’t ready to get into her car seat, regardless of your schedule. Her resistance and stalling seem to increase each day despite your patience and respectful attitude. When you’ve finally run out of time and need to place her into the seat yourself, she screams.
Car seats are the #1 area of resistance for toddlers, and who can blame them? There is not a single thing to like about being trapped in a seat when all your body wants is to move. On top of all that, you’re at a very willful stage of life. And you live in the moment, so “now” feels like “forever”. It’s almost impossible to anticipate a payoff for your discomfort, even if you know you’re going to Disneyland. With this perspective in mind, I share detailed advice in “Car Seat Struggles — Handled With Respect.”
Situation #4: Your three-year-old wants you to play with him when you need to make dinner. He howls and holds onto your legs. A few minutes later he hits the dog. At dinner time, he demands yogurt instead of the food you’ve prepared. Later he refuses to get out of the bath tub and get ready for bed.
When behavior unravels like this, it typically means that we have an exhausted, wound-up child with some feelings he needs to express, and the parent is not being clear enough about limits, because he or she doesn’t want an upset child. Then the child usually continues testing in a variety of situations until he feels the security of the parent’s leadership and can let his feelings flow.
Being clear means confidently asserting, “I need to make dinner now. I hear how much you want to keep playing. I was enjoying that, too. I’m hoping we’ll have time to play a bit more before bedtime.”
To emotionally disengage from our child’s testing behavior and remain confident with a limit we’ve set, it can sometimes help to sing a little tune in our head… “la-la-la”. Then, as our child is clinging onto our legs, we might casually acknowledge, “Hmmm… I feel you holding on… I’ll need to move your hands a bit so I can bring these things to the table. Or would you like to do it?”
If the child screeches, “Ow! You hurt my hand!”, even though we know we weren’t acting roughly or angrily, we just take their word for it and acknowledge, “That hurt you. You didn’t like the way I moved your hands. I’m sorry it hurt.” This is when the emotional release might happen (for our child, preferably, not us!). I recommend being present and accepting it in any form: screams, thrashing, unkind words. I’d do my best to relax and let it roll.
If our child tries hitting the dog, and we need to be elsewhere, I would move the dog to a safe place.
(Regarding the demand for yogurt at dinnertime, see #2, say something like, “These are the options we’re serving for dinner tonight. You can have yogurt in the morning.” When there’s resistance at bath time, see my car seat post recommended in #3, and again, when issues are non-negotiable, take decisive action.)
If you can’t relate to these examples I’ve shared, “Don’t Leave a Testing Toddler Hanging” might be clarifying, as it was for this parent:
You posted this the day after I had an incredibly bad day with my 2.5 year old, and it really helped me out. I knew we were stuck in some kind of cycle but I didn’t know what, and I wasn’t breaking it. I was also getting increasingly frustrated and upset with myself for not being able to stay calm.
At first, I honestly didn’t think my son would react positively to the approach offered. But I tried it anyway, and so far it has worked every time. Thank you!
I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my book:
(Photo by David Goehring on Flickr)