My Challenging Toddler

There’s so many polite euphemisms I’ve used to describe my daughter: “Challenging”, “Strong Willed” “Determined” and “Intense” (by which I mean “difficult” “combative” “stubborn” and “throws tantrums… a lot”) She’s always been like this, since she was a brand new baby, I’ve been shocked by how intense she can be.

There have been many times I’ve looked at my wonderful little girl in the middle of a massive meltdown and wondered “Where have I gone wrong?” But when I’m calm (and she’s calm) I look back and I do know that this is the right path for us.
It might be not be the right approach for all people or for all children, but it’s what works for us.

About a year ago I read a great blog post, (which I’ve been unable to find since – or I’d love to reference it) – basically it described that since infancy, children rely on their parents for their most basic survival needs, to be fed, warm, loved, clean and safe. As babies get a little bit older, they become aware of more than just their most basic needs – they have wants! However, toddlers don’t necessarily have the ability to recognise the difference between wants and needs. So, when their parent, the person they trust and depend on to keep them alive and well, deny them what they perceive as a need, they might get scared, angry, frustrated or confused, or all of the above. The blog post that I’d read explain that they’re not trying to manipulate, they’re not spoilt, or being “naughty”. Their feelings are real, even if the danger is not.

This was an idea that resonated with me when I looked at how my little girl reacted to being denied something she wanted.

“More buttons!”

But I can’t give her everything she wants, there’s usually a good reason I’ve said no. She can’t play with the sharp scissors, she can’t have my medications, she can’t always take toys off her brother without waiting her turn, she can’t always eat whatever she wants – whenever she wants it – the “no” is necessary. Sometimes what she wants isn’t actually even physically possible, like the time she screamed at me because I wouldn’t undo more buttons on her top –because there were no more buttons! I can’t undo buttons that don’t exist!

With my eldest, when he had a tantrum, I would sit on the floor and I’d tell him “You can’t have the chocolate right now, but you can have a cuddle.” He’d usually have a few more little angry shouts at me and then fall into me and sob until the pain of it had passed.

With my little girl, if I make the same offer, she often reacts fiercely. She’s screamed at me, she shakes, stamps her feet, throws herself at the floor, if I approach her she’ll push me away and might even hit, kick or bite me. I’ve had times where I’ve had to stand up and walk away so I could breathe because adding my own anger and frustration to her feelings most definitely would not help. But usually I can take it. I tell myself over and over that I have to show her that everything is okay, that she is actually safe. I’ll wait for her to calm down a bit before offering her a cuddle again. She does eventually wind herself down enough to then seek comfort from me. I do this so she knows while she can’t always get the thing that she wants, she can always have me.

Often I find if she has had a big explosive cry she’ll either have a sleep, or be more cheerful for the remainder of the day – as though she just needs to vent her frustration (don’t we all?).

That’s okay, I didn’t need my calming herbal tea…

Have I had doubts? Absolutely. I don’t know how she’ll “turn out”, but in the last year she’s come so far. The tantrums she has are less often, over quicker and usually less intense. I’m sure that’s partly due to her development, being able to better communicate and being somewhat more rational, but I’d also like to think I’ve had some influence!

Something else that’s reassured me is that on three different occasions I’ve had health professionals compliment her attachment to me. This is what I’m aiming for – a secure attachment to base the rest of our lives on.

I must have done something right.
I think I must have done something right.

And she’s not just challenging and intense. She’s thoughtful – she often asks for “two” of everything so she can give one to her brother. She’s so affectionate, she loves kisses and cuddles, when she hugs someone she loves she holds on tight and snuggles in close. She role plays nurturing so sweetly with her dolls. She sings, dances and makes her own fun. She has a sense of humour that makes us all laugh every day. She’s incredibly brave, she wants to do things for herself and she’s great at solving problems. She’s gentle with babies and animals – even the way she plays with her dollies shows me how much kindness and compassion she has in her. She wants to play cooperatively with her brother, just sometimes her complex and intense emotions get in the way. Also, being determined, strong willed, having a solid sense of self and personal space, being fiercely independent with wanting to do things for herself, problem solving, while being securely bonded, are all things that will serve her as an adult – they just don’t always serve me right now.

So, my job isn’t to mould her into someone that’s easier for me to handle, my job is to be there to support her unconditionally to be the amazing person that she is.

I’m not saying this is easy and I’ll share some of strategies I used to try to make all our lives a bit easier.

I TRY to:

Use positive language and give specific instructions. This is a bit of a childcare thing, telling children what they should be doing, rather than chastising them for what they shouldn’t do. We say things like “Remember, feet stay on the floor” or “Couches are for sitting” because you’re telling them exactly what they should being doing rather than focusing on what not to do, especially younger children, they sometimes hear the “… Jump on the couch!” and miss the “Don’t.” Or use a gentle reminder like “I’m sure you meant to take your shoes off outside before you came in” – which gives them the benefit of the doubt especially if it’s something they normally do, they’ve just forgotten.

Be consistent. It’s hard enough for little people to learn what’s expected of them if the expectations keep changing. I try also not to say no unless it’s absolutely no, it’s okay to say “let me think about it” before saying no, because I try not to go back on my word if I say “no” even when I’ve said “no” too hastily and I want to change my mind. (This is something I struggle with though.)

Be flexible. Yeah, contradicting advice, but every day is different, every situation is different, and some days I have to pick my battles on the small stuff.

Plan ahead. If we’re going out I have a rough idea of where the parents rooms, or play spaces are. I try to be organised with some snacks and drinks. And also if I’m running late and start to rush and stress, that’s when she’s most likely to start to fight with me – which as you could imagine the situation rapidly deteriorates. I try to give myself lots of time and not overschedule.

Reflect. Not for EVERY SINGLE tantrum, but if we have a clearly bad day, or a situation where I felt totally out of control, I try to work out what went wrong, what I could have done differently, was she hungry, tired, bored, over stimulated. Sometimes there’s nothing that could have been different, sometimes it is what it is, but other times I can improve on what we’ve done.

Have realistic expectations. Even if I do everything “right”, she will still have tantrums. I can’t stop her feeling what she’s feeling; I can just do my best to prevent, divert or console. Also, I need to have realistic expectations of myself – if I don’t always stay cool and calm, I try not to beat myself up over it, because I’m human too.

Redirect rather than distract. Sometimes a bit of a “hey look! A bird!” helps, but mostly it just upsets her more. It can be more effective (and longer lasting) to give her some space to express herself and then suggest a new activity; or suggest we get a drink of water and something to eat (especially if I suspect she’s just HANGRY).

Time In rather than Time Out. When I do have to remove her from a situation, where she’s either putting herself at risk or she’s hurting or upsetting someone else (usually her brother) I take her to her room – and shut myself in there with her. She can’t go into “time out” for the time it’ll take her to calm down because sometimes she can cry for a good 10-20 minutes! That is just too long to be separated in a time out space.

Let her know what’s happening. I feel like I spend all day saying “5 more minutes“just once more”that’s the last time”. Or giving her short sequences of events so she knows what’s coming up “I’m going to change your nappy, then we’ll get some shoes on and then we’re going to go pick up Jasper from school.” It does help her a lot, as surprises and sudden change can cause her to react, even if it’s something she wants to do – her default answer is to shout “no”, so if I make a sudden demand of her, she’ll fight me, whereas if I give her a few minutes, usually she’ll go along with the change without too much complaint.

Give her options. Giving her a little bit of control goes a long way. No more than 2-3 choices though, so “Do you want toast or cereal for breakfast?” “Do you want to go in the carrier or sit in the pram? “Do you want to wear shoes or boots?” “Do you want to go to sleep in your bed, or mummy and daddy’s bed?” etc

Explain natural consequences. Rather than chastising Katelyn for her “behaviour”, I’ll let her know what the consequences of her choices are – in a simple, age appropriate, way. I’ll tell her if she takes toys off her brother he’ll not want to play with her. Or tell her if she throws her drink again, I’m not going to give it back to her. Or if she’s rough with a toy, it’ll get broken and it’ll have to go in the bin. (And yeah I’ll admit then I do a bit of a “told you so” if she continues and the consequence occurs!)

Reconnect. This I think is so, so important with my challenging little person. Making sure, every day, I have special moments with her, so that I stay connected and sensitive to her (and if that helps her calm and connect to me, well that’s just a bonus.) So we do things like have a bath or shower together, “wearing” her, holding her on the couch while she watches her favourite TV show, or once she’s falling asleep after a long hard day I’ll lie with her for a few more minutes and smell her hair and cuddle up with her. She’s also breastfed, but breastfeeding when I’m stressed and overwhelmed, doesn’t always feel like a bonding experience – sometimes it makes me want to run screaming from the room. I usually feel more bonded with her when she falls asleep feeding, once she’s unlatched.

Taking care of myself. I have evenings where once their dad is home, I say “I’m having a shower”, and I go into the bathroom, lock the door, put on the water and pretend I can’t hear her screaming at the door. I can’t give her more than I have to give. Sometimes I do need that space from her, even just 15 minutes to wash my hair, brush my teeth and shave my legs; routine activities like these help me calm down, but do whatever works for you!

Do you have a “challenging” child? What strategies do you use – or find most helpful?


Rachel Stewart

Rachel is the founder of Parenting Central. She is raising two children, boy and girl, with her partner. Rachel is obsessed prams, car seats, carriers and all things baby. She has worked in the baby industry for several years, for both suppliers and also in a retail setting and has developed a passion for connecting parents with the right products to make their lives easier. When Rachel isn't playing with prams she's enjoys crocheting, drinking coffee (sometimes wine) and spending a little too much time on Facebook.

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