Monday, June 4, 2012

Why are toddlers so ORNERY?

Think of a day when you were running late, couldn't find your keys, spilled coffee on yourself and some very important papers, your boss said you had to work the weekend (you had other plans), and you are just so FRUSTRATED because nothing seems to go right for you.


Welcome to the world of a toddler. 

She gets dragged out of bed to go to daycare, has to leave her special toy at home, hates having a wet or messy diaper regularly, constantly seems to have stuff stuck on her, and mom and the daycare provider just keep making her change her plans to throw/hit/tear/mess up and other kids keep TAKING HER TOYS!!
OHHHH! 

We don't handle it well when we have a bad day, and for toddlers, every day is a frustrating battle of not being able to do what they want to do when they want to do it. 

Think about it. Toddlers have a sudden paradigm shift that leads to their frustration. Before, if they were told they couldn't do something, they pretty much accepted it and found something else to do, or just threw a fit for the heck of it. At this paradigm shift, a toddler suddenly KNOWS:


It's not that I CAN'T do it - 
It's that I WANT to do it, 
I CAN do it, 
BUT YOU WON'T LET ME.


"Didn't I say no dumping on our heads anymore?
Pretty sure I did."
I had a 1year-old today having a battle with the play fridge door. It simply would not do what she wanted it to do. Even a week ago, she would have simply found something else to do and moved on. Not today. Today she kept at it for a good long while, shrieking at the top of her lungs every once in a while when she couldn't get it do what she wanted it to do. (I never did figure out what that was or I could have helped. She let me know she was NOT interested in help.) She was beyond frustrated, but she KNEW that there had to be some way to make it work. She would stop for a minute, study it, try it again, and again, and again... and finally, eventually, hit it and shriek. Then do it all over again. Toddlers are nothing if not determined. You have to respect that.

I tell my clients that if your child isn't ornery as all get out between 18 months and 3, then they either have a very passive personality, OR lack... imagination, curiosity, leadership, intelligence, confidence, opinions, and/or security. A normal toddler explores her world, tests every boundary (often) and demands her way. This is a good thing. The smarter they are, the earlier it happens. It is up to us as caregivers and parents to teach them self control and appropriate behavior, to the toddler's frustration.

However, if they hear a constant barrage of NO, DON'T, STOP, and are reprimanded constantly for their curiosity and quest for knowledge, then what does that say to them about the person they are? What does it tell a toddler, a new little human being, when those who are his entire world, his parents and caregivers, are yelling at him, make angry faces, jerking him around, possibly HURTING him when all he's trying to do is LEARN and EXPLORE? He must be BAD. That is not the environment or self-image we want for our children. 

How do you minimize this frustration? 


  • Create a toddler-friendly environment. Put up, lock up, and block. Many people say to re-direct. Which is great if it works for your child. But many toddlers you could beat black and blue and they still will keep trying to do what you are trying to get them to STOP doing. So, put up anything you don't want your toddler to mess with. You can get it back out when they are 2 1/2 and have the ability to make a conscious decision about their actions. Use latches and gates to keep them out of areas, drawers and cabinets, but leave some places, like the plastic storage container drawer, available for them to explore at will. Just remember to wash whatever you use out of there first! If they are really beyond belief one day, use a large gate enclosure to act as a super play pen to keep your toddler contained while you have a breather. If you have an infant, and are concerned about your toddler being too aggressive, then the infant's items, such as an exersaucer, can be placed within the enclosure. You can see, but your toddler can't touch. Block outlets, computers, TVs or anything you don't want them to reach but want to be able to access. Put them out of reach. Make the environment such that a toddler simply has a variety of good choices to make and your relationship is one of playing and laughing, not one of constant herding and reprimanding.
  • Teach your child what TO DO. A toddler remembers very little of what you say, so make it count. Rather than saying, "Don't run!" where all he hears is RUN!, say "Walk, please!" Positive, teaching, good manners role-modeling. It's all good. Rather than saying, "No throwing!", try "Roll the ball, please!" then show him how if you aren't certain he knows. Rather than saying, "NO! Don't touch!", try "That is mommy's, you play with your TOYS" and remove him to his play area. Try to stay away from NO and DON'T. They limit a child's world, imagination, and self-respect.
  • Allow the child to make choices. Teach appropriate behavior and provide acceptable alternatives that focuses the child's attention on what she is going to do, rather than dwelling on what she may NOT do:
    • "You may NOT tear up books. Would you like to SIT down and READ it nicely or would you rather put it away on the book shelf and go play BLOCKS?"  
    • "Ice cream is for dessert. You may have some after dinner. Do you want to COLOR or play PLAYDOH until dinnertime?" 
[They will note emphasized words better, so use it to your advantage in getting your meaning across.]
Often the child will decide to do something else entirely. As long as it is appropriate behavior, then that is fine. Remember that your goal is to TEACH your child how to CHOOSE appropriate behavior, not simply to do what they are told. That requires some freedom of choice and action. Don't nit-pic the small stuff or demand or expect perfection. They are LEARNING

D helped take N's clothes off of her then put them on himself.
She's running around naked.

  • Plan for transitions. You probably wouldn't like suddenly having a major project with an impossible deadline thrust upon you when you are working on something else. Toddlers view being wrenched away from their play [i.e. WORK] in this same manner. Transitions are HARD at this age. Give them some heads up about what's about to happen and involve them in the activity rather than just forcing them willy-nilly to your agenda. 
    • "We are going to the grocery store this morning. You can play for a little while and then we'll have to leave."
    • "We are leaving in a few minutes. Is there a toy you want to take in the car? That one? Okay. Now the rest we have to put away, please."
Imagine going to an alien world and having them frustrated with you because they expect you to learn a new language, societal norms and appropriate behavior within two years, when you haven't got a clue. Oh yeah, and you are a fully formed functioning adult, not starting from a newborn state. I doubt you could do any better at it than these toddlers. Keep your expectations realistic. They are new to this world and have no prior knowledge to base their choices upon.

Rogue crayons found...and used.
"Do we write on our playhouse? No?  What do we write on?"
"YES, we write on PAPER!"
The child had to clean it off and lost crayon privilege for the week.
If a child is completely out of control, let them be. Put yourself in their position. If you are in a horrible mood, do you want someone trying to cajole you out of it or yell at you for it? NO, you want to be left alone to wallow in your feelings. Everyone has that right. When your child wants your attention or affection or assistance, she will come ask for it in her own way. 

If you need to get somewhere and your child is being uncooperative, then sometimes it's just too bad and they have to go kicking and screaming if that's what it takes. Hopefully it won't get to that point, but a few minutes of freezing temperatures between a warm house and warm car if your toddler won't put on her coat won't harm her one bit. If she arrives somewhere in her pajamas because she wouldn't get dressed, as long as she's covered, so what? Be flexible. This stage doesn't last forever, and you will teach your child that her choices have consequences, rather than you being the bad guy and MAKING her comply.

Remember that a child doesn't actively act out unless she is confident and secure in the love and care of the person she is challenging. That's why toddlers are usually the worst with their mothers. However, if you receive reports of your toddler acting up at daycare regularly (daily, hourly...), take heart. It means they feel secure, confident and loved enough by their caregiver to act very ornery indeed.

Update 1/4/2013:

I was just on a Circle of Moms forum question last week that really saddened me. A mom asked what to do with her 15 month old who kept playing with the back door, which she wanted to remain open. [Obviously they don't live in the North!] He wasn't hurting the door or anything, but he wasn't minding her. She stated that she had tried time out, swatting his hands, taking away priveleges and toys, etc. and nothing seemed to be working and SHE WANTED HIM TO STOP!

First off, toddlers are hard wired to be stubborn for a reason. If you fell down as often as they do, would you keep trying to walk? If you had never formed a word, would you work at it endlessly like they do until you got it right? They are created with stubborn determination because it is was so necessary for their survival until we got comfy lives here in the last 100 years. 

I would like each of you reading this to go check out a door. It's not just a door to a toddler. It is a towering magnificent machine that they can CONTROL. They can make it move. They can make it bang. The door knob jiggles delightfully. The hinges may squeak just a little bit. When it moves, the shadows dance. The sunlight sparkles off the surface. When it's dark, the light and dark contrasts are even more fascinating to observe and manipulate. With absolutely every new experience, every new discovery, brain connections form. Learning takes place. Understanding of how the world works is shaped. 

If a child is not harming another living thing, or damaging something expensive or irreplaceable. LET THEM BE.
Tags: toddler, ornery, behavior, development, preschool, childcare, daycare, tantrums, fits, screaming, defiance, child development, child behavior, child, discipline, parenting

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