How to handle a strong-willed toddler

I love this girl more than life itself, but boy can she be challenging!
I love this girl more than life itself, but boy can she be challenging!

“Wow, my toddler is SO even-tempered and obedient!” said NO PARENT EVER.  You usually hear, “Wow, my kid NEVER listens to me.”  I try to soften this by saying I have a strong-willed toddler.

Toddlers test their boundaries like it’s their job. It almost seems like they are a mission to see how often you can “No!” in less than a minute.  I sympathize with all toddler parents.  It’s not a cake walk, and it’s not supposed to be.  I’m not a child development expert, but I have three little kids and it seems pretty typical for kids to hit a certain age (like in my house 11 months, 2 years old and again at 4 years old!) and realize, “Hey, I have an opinion!”  The hard part is they don’t have the language skills or rational thought processes to execute what they want.

So, what’s a loving parent to do when their kid makes them want to pull their hair out?!

I have always relied on Positive Parenting to address behavior issues, but I admit I have my parenting struggles.  Then I learned I had to change how I parent my oldest daughter and moved away from strictly using Positive Parenting techniques to become a more Mindful Parent (which jives with my connection to Buddhism).  I learned my oldest daughter was very text book with Positive Parenting and what worked so well for her, does not for my younger daughter.  My little Miriam is exhibiting her strong personality and will power EVERY chance she gets and I cannot fault her (because she’s exactly like me)!  My friends have similarly powerful personalities to contend with in their children.  Instead of butting heads with my children, I try to work with the system.

Question: How do you handle a strong-willed toddler who fights the bedtime routine?

“How exactly do you go about convincing your 2 year old something is her idea? I think we need to do this with my 3 year old, specifically at bed time.  She has been fighting the routine (teeth brushing, potty, jammies…).  She is fine with the going to bed part, it’s all the stuff that comes before it, which has been our routine for many months, which has become a struggle.  I know she is just flexing her opinion muscles…  So, as a former rebellious tot yourself, what do you advise?”

Answer: Make everything a fun game, use distraction (which is sometimes a complete fail), provide choices they can decide upon, offer some sort of control

Here is a typical scene. It’s time to go upstairs to get ready for bed.  Ilana (darling child she is), trots over to the steps and starts climbing up.  Halfway up the stairs she stops because she realizes Miriam, her twin sister, is not climbing up too.  She asks for Miriam and calls for her (which is adorable to see in a 2 year old).

Miriam does not like taking commands…

…unless it’s something she wants to do like throw trash away or get a treat. So I matter-of-factly say, it’s time to go up and I go upstairs without her following me.  I don’t look back because I know she’s looking for a reaction from me, which fuels her playfully insolent behavior.  I don’t make a big deal out of it her behavior because Miriam likes making everything a game.  Also, she doesn’t want to stay downstairs by herself.

I just start to head up with her sisters and 30-60 seconds later, Miriam comes running to catch up. I will make it all a game for different stuff, but coming upstairs is just the start of the routine.

Once we’re upstairs Miriam fights brushing her teeth.

I leave the toothbrush on the sink (with toothpaste ready to go) and say, “It’s time to brush teeth, either you can do it, or I can do it. It’s your choice.  You decide how you want to brush your teeth.”  If she wants to do something else like jump on my bed or play, I say, “I need you to brush teeth first, then we can play.  I can brush your teeth, or you can brush your teeth. You decide, and then once you are done, we can play.”  (The incentive of playing helps her make a decision quicker.)

I emphasize the you in these sentences because I want her to know she has control of her destiny here (or at least the next 5 minutes).  I can SEE the wheels turning in her head as she weighs her options.  She doesn’t want to brush, but she wants to play.  She knows she has two options for brushing, so she decides what to do.  I don’t go to battle over it and while she’s weighing her options.  Instead, I busy myself brushing someone else’s teeth, or getting jammies and nighttime diapers out (so I’m still being productive).  If I walk away and wait for her to decide in another room (she usually comes running to follow me with her toothbrush in her mouth).

Diaper change before bedtime, she wants to run and hide.

This is a game and it’s cute, so we go with it.  She likes to run and “hide” and then we get her.  She used to really fight the nighttime diaper, but I realize she just wanted to play and make it more fun.  I tell her we can play for a few more minutes and then I need her to help me get her diaper on.  Toddlers naturally want to help, so I capitalize on the fact I need her help.  This gives her a monochrome of control.  Once she hides and we retrieve her, she’s at the changing table.  There is button art right above the changing table, which she loves to touch.  I tell her first we need to get her diaper on, then we can touch the buttons.  I use a lot of “first, then” statements (thanks to Early Intervention for that tip).  This helps her understand we will do what she wants, but I need her to first help me with something.  Needing her help is a great tool because what toddler doesn’t like feeling needed for a job?

As an aside, this works great for cleaning up too… they want to watch a movie or have a treat, first we need to clean up, then we can do X.

While Miriam is touching the button art, I put her jammies.  It’s fun for her to be a little off balance (and I don’t mind her practicing balancing this way) and zipping up her jammies or pulling pants/shorts on is easier when she’s standing.

Adventure is out there button art
Button art my girls like to touch while getting changed.
If she starts to get really upset or cry about something, then I try to mirror her feelings back and validate how she’s feeling.

“You don’t want to get your diaper on.  I know you don’t like getting your diaper changed.  Let’s do it really fast and sing a song too.  Which song do you want to sing?  Do you want Itsy-Bitsy Spider or ABC?”  This is classic distraction, but again I’m giving her a choice in song while still staying in the realm of getting done what I need to get done: the diaper change.  I become super animated and goofy with the song to distract from the diaper change taking place.  Distraction always helps.

Another good idea (got this from a friend), is offering a challenge. “I bet you cannot get undressed before I get your toothbrush ready! I bet you cannot get your jammies on before I [fill in the blank]!”  This works great because it’s exciting, especially for naturally competitive kids, and you still get them to do what you need!

My hubby says we’re constantly negotiating and the mental energy this requires is exhausting. YES.  Miriam is the kid keeping me on my toes right now.

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