A Toddler’s Do-It-Myself Attitude Ends In Tantrums

In this episode: A parent writes that her 2-year-old is deep in a “want to do it myself” phase. While she recognizes her son’s need for autonomy and self-sufficiency, she admits that she often runs out of patience, which results in him having a full blown meltdown or tantrum. She’s wondering how she might “set limits so it doesn’t take forever to do things but also respect his need for independence.”

Transcript of “A Toddler’s Do-It-Myself Attitude Ends In Tantrums”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’ve got a note here from a parent who says that her son is in a want-to-do-it-myself phase. He wants to do things himself, but she’s finding that he’s not able to, and she ends up doing it for him, and then he ends up having a tantrum. What should she do? How should she handle this healthy desire for independence that he has?

Here’s the note I received:

“Hello. My two-year-old is deep in a want-to-do-it-myself phase. I really want to respect his need for autonomy and self-sufficiency, but I’m having a hard time creating a structure around the timing aspect of that. For example, he asked to do something himself, go up the stairs for bath time, take off his pants before getting his diaper changed, putting a toy away, and I oblige, but then he delays and won’t do what it is I’m telling him needs to happen.

I usually give him a few warnings. ‘I’m happy to let you do this yourself, but it has to happen now, and if you don’t do it, I’m going to do it for you.’ Often, we give a three-two-one countdown as well. ‘I’m going to give you a countdown, and then I’m going to do it for you.’

What seems to happen, more often than not, is I end up doing the task for him, carrying him up the stairs, which results in him having a full-blown meltdown and tantrum, which can last for 5 to 10 minutes until he fully exhausts himself. While he’s tantruming, I try to remain calm and validate his frustrations by explaining, ‘I know you are disappointed, but I gave you chances to do it yourself, and you didn’t take them, and now it’s time to take a bath, change diaper, et cetera.’

Last night, this happened, and it ended up with me having to change his diaper while he was having a thrashing, kicking tantrum, which is, obviously, really unpleasant for both of us. I’m not sure if this the right approach, as I want to set limits so it doesn’t take forever to do things but also respect his need for independence. Thank you so much for any help or advice you can give.”

Okay, so it’s wonderful that this mother understands that the toddler years are all about children becoming more autonomous and wanting to stretch their wings. It’s great that she’s trying to accommodate and encourage that in her son. I am imagining she has acknowledged, as I would advise doing when he does do things himself, “You did that. I saw!” and really acknowledging his accomplishments, showing him that we see, that we appreciate, that we’re validating what he’s done. I’m imagining that this mom has done that.

What could happen is that children get the message that, “This is important to my parent as well. Not only do I like to do it myself, but my parent is praising me for that.”

Ideally, we’re not doing some big praise that kind of makes it so much about us, but we’re doing that acknowledging with a lot of connection, looking in his eyes, nodding our head, “Yes, I saw. You did that. You were working really hard on it, and you figured it out,” that very connected way of encouraging our children that focuses on them in a way that still allows them to really have ownership. That’s one of the reasons to be subtle in the way that we praise. Again, it’s really more the word ‘acknowledgement’ that describes it more accurately.

Either way, this little boy has figured out that doing it himself gets his parent’s attention, so that’s one of the things that he’s going to. It’s a kind of a test. I think he does really want to be able to do it himself, but he’s also kind of using that as a way to stall, as this mother notices. He’s saying, “I want to do it myself,” but then he’s not going forward with that. He’s using an effective tool that he has seen will maybe work with his parent because she wants him to be able to do things himself, so he’s using that to kind of open up this space to show resistance, which is actually another way that toddlers explore and demonstrate their independence. “You want me to do this? Well, then I don’t want to do this. I’m going to put the brakes on,” and now he’s got this great way of doing it, “I want to do it myself.”

The examples that she gives are mostly the times that I would expect a child to put the brakes on or have difficulty. They’re transitional times: going up the stairs for bath time, taking off his pants before getting his diaper changes, putting a toy away. It’s the end of something and the beginning of something else. Toddlers have an especially difficult time with these transitions, and they really need more help from us and a little more momentum from us going through and a lot of understanding that this is the place they’re going to get stuck. There’s going to be chance for quicksand in these transitions, and that actually would be the time I would least expect my child to be able to make choices, even follow directions. They get stuck. Those are the times children need our help.

Understanding that going into this and then, when he does say, “I want to do it,” himself, you could still honor that, but honor that with a lot of awareness that there’s a very good chance he’s actually going to stall after he says that. I’m going to need to move him through, and I wouldn’t wait too long. As soon as you see that bit of stalling start, pick up the thread right there.

Let’s say going upstairs for bath time, “I want to do it myself.” “Okay, I’d love you to. You know what? I’m getting the feeling you need a little helping hand.” Then you might give the choice, “Do you want to hold hands, or should I pick you up?” Then he says, “No,” or he says, “I want to hold hands,” but then he’s not taking your hand. Then I would jump to, “Okay. Looks like you want me to pick you up.” I wouldn’t leave big gaps there. I would come into this with awareness that my child will probably have difficulty with these times and needs that extra help.

What I wouldn’t do is create distance, which I’m sure this mother doesn’t mean to do. But by saying, “Okay. If you don’t do it, I’m going to do it for you,” without meaning to, she’s challenging him there, which is actually creating distance instead of pulling him close as her little baby bear that needs help during these times.

The countdown, I actually would never do countdowns. I’m not a fan of anything like that. I don’t even like timers very much because it’s like, “Now I’m going to call out these rules, or I’m going to bring these numbers into it.” It’s pulling us apart instead of bringing up together, getting between us and our child instead of seeing this guy where he is. He’s not somebody that needs the right negotiation to convince him and explain how much he needs to do what he’s doing and how, if he doesn’t, then I’m going to have to pick him up. He’s not in a cerebral, let-me-figure-this-out-and-make-sense-of-things place. He’s in a little-guy, little-baby-toddler-guy, lost, I’m-in-between-and-I’m-falling-and-I’m-getting-stuck place. He just needs help. He needs our arms around him, figuratively or sometimes literally, and to carry him through figuratively, sometimes literally.

Take his hand, carry him up the stairs, right away, with love, with an expectation that this is part of our job to walk him through these transitions. By doing that, she can avoid all this wasted energy, all this energy she’s putting into, “Okay, if you don’t do this, then I’m going to do that,” and, “Three, two, one.” I’m sure it doesn’t feel good to this mom, and it doesn’t really feel good to her child either when we’re treating our child like we’re bargaining with them across a table or that we’re kind of annoyed with them. We’re not happy with what they’re doing, and that comes through.

I want to relieve parents of doing all that work that really, more often than not, as this mother is noticing, leads to full-blown tantrum. Now we’re angry because we’ve put so much energy into trying to make this work for him and trying to get him to do the things that he really needed us just to help him carry him through.

The want-to-do-it-myself is wonderful when he’s rested and in his best form, but in these times, it’s going to be a recipe for failure trying to do it himself, so give him that little window and notice right away, no, it’s not going to work, and don’t try to talk him into making it work. It’s a losing battle.

Sometimes children do go into a tantrum, especially at the end of the day when we have to do these things, when we have to help them through the diaper change, and getting out of the bathtub when it’s so cozy just to be in there, and you just want to stay in there til you turn into a prune. I mean I feel like that too. I don’t want to get out of the shower.

Children this age are so much more sensitive and inclined to resist these transitions, especially when they’re tired, so expect a tantrum. If you come into this early with confident momentum … and that’s one of the posts that I recommend most to parents. It’s called “Confident Momentum.”

Maybe we feel like we need to give our child more time and more chances and more opportunities to do it themselves, but we can’t treat transition times and bedtime rituals as we would their playtime when they’re solving problems that they’re initiating. Or even when they’re getting dressed and it’s not a rushed time. They’re trying to do their button, and they really want to do it themselves. Even then we may end up doing something minimal to help them get over the hump. “I’ll hold the button hole open for you while you try to put that button through.” There’s usually a way that we can participate that still allows them to do something themselves, but helps them to be successful at it.

Doing it themselves when it’s about caregiving and transitions is also a time for connection. It’s not me waiting here for you and standing away from you. It’s supporting you. It’s participating with you, but wanting you to be able to participate as much as you’re able.

Then, when there is a tantrum, this mother says, “I try to remain calm and validate his frustrations.” Wonderful. But then she says, “By explaining, ‘I know you’re disappointed, but I gave you chances to do it yourself.'” That’s not really as validating as this mother wants to be. That is more explaining and kind of telling him how he messed up. I know she doesn’t mean it that way. I’m sure she doesn’t mean it that way but, “I know you’re disappointed but I gave you chances to do it yourself, and you didn’t take them, and now it’s time to take a bath.” It’s like going over all his impulsive behavior and saying, “See, you really blew it, and then you should have listened to me,” and all this. Well, he couldn’t listen, and he couldn’t do it right then. He just couldn’t do it.

Especially if we want to encourage autonomy, and independence, and that self-confidence that children need to be more independent and autonomous, we can’t be kind of reminding them of how they’ve blown it. So I would consider where that’s coming from. I think it’s actually this mother’s a little annoyed that she did give him chances, and she tried so hard to do the right thing, and it didn’t work, and he ended up having a tantrum, and she had to do this.

I believe she’s probably saying this, again, not consciously, and she definitely doesn’t mean to, I’m sure, but I think she may be saying this because she’s annoyed and wants to say, “Hey, you know, this isn’t fair. I did everything right and …” That’s the kind of thing that we do feel around children no matter how respectful we are. We do notice how unfair things are and how hard we try and it’s not appreciated, and that can be very, very frustrating, but that’s something we want to share with our partner, with our friend, somebody close that’s not our child, because all that does is make him feel less connected and less good about himself, all the things we don’t want.

She says, “I’m not sure if this is the right approach, as I want to set limits so it doesn’t take forever to do things.”

Right, so that’s understanding that he needs some momentum from this mom and some carrying through, and the limit is really not even a limit. It’s a noticing of him slipping into stalling. And this happens when children are leaving the park, trying to get out the door, or sometimes they’re very creative about it. They stop, and they really need to look at that spot on the sidewalk right there.

I would practice observing your child. Observe your child playing, and you’ll learn so much about them. You can tell the difference in a child who’s really trying to do something himself or is really interested in that spot on the sidewalk. You can see the difference. I mean children are very obvious, which I love about them. It makes my work a lot easier. They’re not really good at masking, and that’s the endearing thing about them.

So, see through it and don’t get caught in that web doubting yourself, “Oh, gosh. What if he does really need to do that?” You can tell. You can tell when a child is stalling versus when they are totally captivated, and then they’re captivated with their whole body. You can see that.

They’re really fun to watch, but they’re also easier to read, and we got to read out children in these situations. Yeah, it’s great for him to do stuff himself, but not when it’s in this context of testing, stalling, getting stuck. Help him get unstuck. That’s respecting his needs at this age, and that will bond you every time we do this, even if it’s with a tantrummy guy. They feel that love and care for them when we’re not angry, when we’re not annoyed, when we’re not impatient because we bought into their wonderful little schemes, stalling schemes. I hope that helps.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.


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

  1. As usual, great advice about supporting a child’s developing autonomy and at the same time getting the things that need to happen, to happen. Thank you, Janet.

  2. Thank you so much for another great podcast!

    I would like to ask you for more advice, about when confident momentum is not enough. My 2y8m old REALLY doesn’t want to change clothes.

    It has been a power struggle with nappy changes for months (with better and worse periods) and the situation is much calmer since he started using the toilet a couple of months ago. Still, he would hold pee for hours, rather than going when we suggest to (after getting up, before going out of the house). We are mostly letting him decide about this, bringing him to the toilet only before bedtime and before going to daycare.

    About the clothes (mainly before bedtime and in the morning), at least half of the times it ends up with me taking off his clothes and putting on new ones while he screams, kicks and shrieks, shouts “I don’t like this!! I don’t want this!! I have decided!!!”, grabs onto the old clothes and fights the new clothes. At the end he’s exhausted, often covered in sweat, distraught and keeps on screaming for a few minutes before coming back in my arms and crying for a bit more.

    I feel awful.
    I try to give him options on when to do it, on doing it on his own and on clothes (usually one of these choices at a time), but he’s not really interested in any of this. I try to limit his time to answer one of these options, but the power struggle it’s already on! He doesn’t come near me, runs away and says things like “Then I go away!” or “Then I hit you!”.
    The times he comes on his own, half of these go well and half of these he’s really struggling with staying there long enough for the whole process to be over and will start screaming/kicking.

    Sometimes doing something silly works (suggesting the pants go on the head, or singing, etc.), but it’s completely inconsistent.
    I have described natural consequences “if you don’t put your pajamas on, you will be cold while sleeping”, I have empathized “I don’t like to change my clothes either” “I know you really don’t like this, I’m sorry”, I have described what others do “Everyone puts their pajamas on to sleep” also with books showing bedtime routines.

    There’s nothing that makes this transition easier at least some of the times.

    1. Let him have the natural consequences 🙂

      if he is cold at night without pajamas he will tell you and then you find a new plan together.

      He can decide if he needs an extra blanket to cover himself with at night or maybe he just wants a pajama top or just the bottoms.

      I would like for my daughter to wear pajamas at night… Not only because they are adorable and I bought them and it’s the picture in my mind of what I want to have happen, but also because “it’s what you do.”

      Apparently not, according to my daughter and your son. I love myself so much more when the words out of my mouth are, are you ready for bed? OK let’s go get some books… She just wears underwear to bed and one night she was cold and the next day I said, would you like some help to figure out nighttime sleeping, because it’s either pajamas or something in which you do not wake me to cover you. I wear pajamas so I am not cold at night, what would you like to do so you can have a good night’s sleep?

      This is just a casual conversation during breakfast or on a walk. Never in the moment.

      My daughter is going to be five, but she has fought clothes for a couple years now. I had to let go of a lot of what I thought should be done and I pay much closer attention to connecting with her. I am not going to let clothes come between us. So, I suggest really really really finding all of the ways you can say yes in your day, so that when you absolutely must say no you feel 100% confident. And the way you help your child through that transition feels just like an abundance of love. Unruffled.

      Something that keeps me coming back to this wonderful site is adding 10 years to whatever my daughter’s age is, as frequently as possible, especially when we’re having an issue, and I ask myself: will my beautiful daughter, 10 years from now, turn and walk away from me during a similar moment or will we be working together? Because when she is a teen I will not be able to pick her up and move her to where I want her or take her clothes off and put the clothes on that I want.

      I scour this site and read or reread as many articles as my time allows, but certainly at least once a day, so that I can let go of my own preconceived notions, my own upbringing, and really learn to see my daughter as the individual that she is.

      Your little boy is so lucky to have you, because it’s so obvious how much you care for and love him. Any question you have can be found answered on the site… Keep reading & listening. Transitions no longer scare me… And I never in a million years thought I would be able to say that.

      1. Thank you so much for your reply! 🙂 it is both very sweet and very rational.
        I think letting him be more responsible for these choices and their consequences it’s the only thing we can do to ease the situation.
        Thanks for putting it in such a loving way and to remind me to think more often about the end goals!

        1. You are certainly welcome! Your son is saying a lot to you and Janet’s site, her many articles, all help you to learn what he is actually saying: it’s not really about the clothes, for example. It’s blissfully so much more than that and you will rise to each occasion with such an awareness of your role in his life. Keep reading and re-reading. You will begin to welcome the ‘challenges’ because that is when your son is calling on you, unruffled, to help him through something. The old paradigm melts: child is being problem/bad/oppositional and the truth shines through: child is asking for help in the only manner he knows how.

  3. My two year old (28 months) does this behavior when it comes to going potty. She has been potty trained for about 3 months, and as a natural progression of potty training, she has been wanting to do more of it herself, which is kind of the point of toilet training, so of course we give her the opportunity to do any/all of it herself – she wants to walk there herself, put the toddler seat on the toilet herself (or choose to use the little potty in her room instead), climb up herself, wipe herself, do hand-washing steps herself, etc. And also, it seemed that perhaps her request to do the whole thing herself (with a little help from us at the end) was perhaps a request for privacy, which I felt should be respected if she is now feeling that she needs that. So yay, that is great! — she is learning to more independently do this independent skill. And at first she did do these things promptly because she really did just want to try to do it herself. BUT now that we have been letting her do it herself (because she should do it herself, and because she can do it herself), she seems to have figured out that ” do it myself” is now a handy tool for stalling. So she says “I do it” but then doesn’t do it, so we are having this “confrontation” (her saying she wants to do it herself, but then not actually doing it) with every single step of the process of going potty. She does this a little bit with getting dressed too, but especially with going potty. Most other transitions go quite well; she is generally pretty easy going and will often just do what is requested, and otherwise responds well to being given two choices (“Do you want me to lift you out of the tub or do you want to climb out?”).

    So back to the potty process…when she says “I do it” and then stalls, I don’t know the right way to step in and do it for her, and in some aspects, I can’t really do it for her (like I can’t make her eliminate if she is choosing to hold it in). It’s hard because there are a million mini-transitions in the whole act of going to the bathroom (leaving play to go there, taking clothes off/pushed down, climbing onto and off of the toilet, putting clothes back on, washing hands and all the steps that entails, etc.) and she handles some of these reasonably well when given two structured choices, but others not so much.

    So if she says she needs to go potty but then doesn’t take herself to the bathroom or little potty chair, I have tried stepping in and saying “You say you want to do it, and you’re not going there by yourself, so it looks like you need some help” and then picking her up and carrying her there (although perhaps I didn’t do this promptly enough), but then she will refuse to sit on the toilet and has a tantrum, and I physically cannot bend her into a seated position and force her to sit on the toilet (nor do I feel that I should be physically forcing her onto the toilet, and even if I can/do force her to sit on the potty, I can’t force her to eliminate). How do I handle this “do it myself attitude ends in tantrums” behavior specially related to toilet use?

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