How to Help Our Indecisive Toddlers

“The toddler is a terrible, terrific, tiresome, true, torn human being. There are times when he believes he owns the world; and at other times, he believes all the world is his enemy.”  – Magda GerberDear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect

Hi Janet,

My daughter will be 2 in a week, and I’ve been watching her freaking out lately in a very specific way.

Here’s how it goes: If I am helping my daughter get dressed because we have to be somewhere relatively soon, she’ll suddenly say “No shoes!” or “No coat!” I will generally sympathize with her because she may have wanted to dress herself. So I explain why we are doing it together.  If she continues to say “No Shoes!”, I might guess, “You don’t want to wear those shoes?” She will always say no.  I will ask, “Do you want to wear a different pair of shoes?”  And she will say Yes.  So I get a different pair, and we will begin putting them on together.

Then she will yell “No shoes!” and then throw them.  I tell her we have to put shoes on because it’s time to go, and she will say “Yes shoes!” and run to get them.  Then “No Shoes! Yes Shoes! No! Yes!” and on.   Lately, she’s taken to saying “Different shoes!” or “Different coat!” right away.

Another example: Sometimes she will wake up in the middle of the night and ask for water, and it’s the same thing: “Yes water! No water! Want Mommy’s water! Want my water!  Don’t want water!  Want to go back to bed and lie down holding the water!”  And meanwhile, I know she’s thirsty, so I offer her the water or put it back on the desk while she’s machinating in her own crazy way, or tell her calmly that we can’t lie down with the water because it will spill all over her.  In this case, of course, it’s exhaustion standing in the way of her getting what she wants, but the point is that I want to help her through this stuff as effectively as I can.

Sometimes I try echoing back what she’s saying, asking questions about what the issue is.  Sometimes I just stand back and let her have her own battle.  Sometimes I talk to her about indecision and how hard it is to make up our minds when there are choices, and that there’s always tomorrow to wear the other thing. Sometimes, I have the tantrum with her, yelling at the shoes or water too.  This seems to be the quickest route to her getting through it all.

Any hints for me that will help us both through this interesting phase of my daughter’s growth?

Thanks for all that you do!

Elisabeth

Hi Elisabeth,

First of all, kudos to you for your patience and compassion in these frustrating situations. I actually had my own “a-ha” moment reading your note, because I’m embarrassed to say that I can totally relate to your daughter’s indecision “meltdowns” around getting dressed. You’ve made me realize that my struggles aren’t about not having enough clothes, or even the right clothes, but actually because I’m feeling tired or anxious. At times like those, making any decision can seem overwhelming. The lessons we learn from toddlers!

Your daughter’s behavior is also a classic manifestation of the internal battle toddlers face as they struggle to develop more personal control and independence — their “will”.   Psychologist Erik Erikson deemed this developmentally appropriate period of conflict (which lasts from approximately 18 months to 3 years of age) “Psychosocial stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt”.

So, the first thing to know is that these struggles are normal and not to be feared. Here are a few hints for helping your daughter through these episodes:

1. Perspective is the first step for responding in an attuned manner to our children’s behavior. As I mentioned, “indecision meltdowns” are developmentally appropriate. They are impulse driven, not something young children can control. So, this isn’t conscious manipulation, “misbehavior” or a signal that we’re raising an unruly child who needs us to teach her a lesson.

Gaining this perspective helps us to remember to breathe, remain calm and get the emotional distance we need to accept our child’s feelings, rather than perceiving the meltdowns as our “fault” and/or believing it’s our responsibility to make them stop.  Although acceptance gets a bit easier with perspective and practice, I don’t think it is ever possible to feel entirely comfortable when people we love, especially our own children, are struggling. Witnessing our children’s emotional struggles is one of the most challenging, and the most important, aspects of parenting.

2. Connect by accepting and acknowledging your child’s perspective, however unreasonable it might seem. Acknowledging joins us with our child right where she is, keeps us in the moment, and allows her feelings to be expressed.  I suggest saying only what you know, because that will help you to be accurate. Avoid assuming, projecting into the situation or rushing your child through her feelings. If she’s having a full-blown tantrum, it’s best to just quietly accept, maybe nod your head until she’s calmed down enough to hear you and accept your help.

So if she is saying “No shoes! No coat”, I would simply reflect, “You are saying NO, you don’t want to put on your shoes or your coat. You don’t feel like doing this right now.”

Focus on calmly settling into that feeling with her, rather than guessing at the cause or trying to resolve the issue. If she continues to be upset, you might repeat, “You really don’t want to get dressed this morning.”

Sometimes this is all children need to be able to move on: the assurance that we are really hearing them. Alternatively, acknowledging is seldom effective if it is used impatiently or as a calming “tactic”, because children sense those agendas.

If your daughter tries to put the shoes or coat on herself and you see that she becomes frustrated for that reason, then acknowledge: “You want to get those on and you’re having such difficulties. That’s so frustrating, isn’t it?” Again, stay right there with her and allow her to express these feelings before you offer to help.

Elisabeth, I believe having a tantrum with your daughter has been “the quickest route to her getting through it all” because like acknowledging, joining her in a tantrum shows her you understand. However, I don’t recommend imitating her tantrum, because that might make her feel ridiculed or shamed (although it might be a good release for you!). Simply acknowledging your child’s perspective works best, because it is respectful and honest.

Let’s quickly take a look at your other responses in order to understand why they weren’t helping your daughter…

Sometimes I try echoing back what she’s saying, asking questions about what the issue is.  If “echoing” means acknowledging — wonderful. But it is next to impossible for a toddler to think reasonably enough to answer questions while she is upset.

Sometimes I just stand back and let her have her own battle. She needs more support.

Sometimes I talk to her about indecision and how hard it is to make up our minds when there are choices, and that there’s always tomorrow to wear the other thing. The first part of this is getting there, but “there’s always tomorrow” is downplaying the moment, or trying to talk her out of her immediate feelings.

3. Minimize choices, especially during transitions like getting dressed, because these tend to be the most challenging times for toddlers. Toddlers are already in the midst of a massive transition toward greater autonomy, so you can imagine how overwhelming it is to make a bunch of minor daily transitions on top of that. Besides, toddlers live in the moment, so although they want to go to the park, they don’t necessarily want to do what they need to do — right now — in order to get there. Offering toddlers just two options gives them a better chance of resolving the situation feeling autonomous rather than overwhelmed.

4. Help by making choices for your toddler when she cannot.

If she continues with “Yes shoes, no shoes”, I would acknowledge: “It’s so hard to decide, isn’t it?” allowing her that feeling as well. And then, finally: “This is so very hard for you today. Here, I’m going to help you.” If you’ve allowed her to express her feelings fully, she will probably be open to your help.

If you want to give her the choice of another pair of shoes, I would present this either in the very beginning, or as, “Oh, hey, I just realized there’s another option. Would you like these or the red ones?”

“Another example: Sometimes she will wake up in the middle of the night and ask for water, and it’s the same thing: “Yes water! No water! Want Mommy’s water! Want my water!  Don’t want water!  Want to go back to bed and lie down holding the water!”

In this case, your daughter clearly needs you to be the one to choose for her, while again acknowledging her feelings. I would make it a point to be very calm and boring so as not to awaken her more. As always, don’t buy into the drama. Nod your head to let her know you accept her feelings and (if she can hear you) acknowledge, “Wow, you woke up and wanted water, but you are unsure. You sound very confused and upset.” And then, when she is calmer, “Here, I will hold this cup for you while you drink.”

I hope this helps!

Warmly,

Janet

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