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Testing Your Limits

Life with 2 1/2-year-old Anthony is one long series of negotiations. When I say, "Time for a diaper," he runs the other way. Rather than scooping him up (the fat lip I once got taught me that this tactic doesn't work), I begin bartering: If a cup of milk doesn't lure him, I offer a book or a toy to entice him to cooperate. Though some would call it bribery, I prefer the term "keeping the peace." The world would be a lot more settled if NATO negotiators were required to spend a week at my house.

If you live with a toddler, you've no doubt heard how important her defiance is to her development. But knowing why your child spends every waking moment trying to test your limits doesn't always make you feel better. You need serious strategies for getting through the day: "Power struggles are about the child's and the parent's needs. So to prevent them, you have to address both sets of needs," says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime.

With a little practice, you can even end up having your toddler cooperate without feeling like you've squelched her self-esteem. Consider these common scenarios and parent-tested solutions.

Stephanie Wood's last article for Parenting was "Happily Married...With Children," in the February issue.

They Won't Move On

"My three-year-old, Rook, has a tantrum anytime I want him to stop playing and eat his supper," says Brenda Lantinga of Richland, Michigan, mother of two.

What's really happening "Kids this age get very engaged in what they're doing, and that you have to be somewhere else means absolutely nothing to them," says Kurcinka.

How to handle it Transition, transition. "I say something like 'We're going inside in three minutes, so finish putting the sand in the dump truck.' When the time's up, I tell Rook to say 'bye-bye' to the truck. Remarkably, this works nine out of ten times," says Lantinga.

Keeping a favorite toy in the car can work wonders too. If the next activity seems appealing, you switch the emphasis from the negative to the positive: You're not leaving something behind; you're beginning another enjoyable activity.

It doesn't hurt to tie in a reward, says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University and dad of two grown children. It can be as simple as telling your child he can go down the slide an extra three times if he agrees to comply when you say it's time to go.

Take advantage of the opportunity to reinforce good behavior. When he leaves a friend's house without an outburst, you might say, "You behaved so nicely today. Why don't we read your favorite story when we get home?"

They Drag Their Feet

Ever since my daughter, Matilda, was 2, mornings have required some careful choreography — a half hour of TV time while snuggled in my bed, breakfast, toothbrushing, dressing, and the dreaded hair combing absolutely last. If one step is out of order, she erupts.

What's really happening Parents call it dawdling; experts fall back on the old frustration theory. "When parents are in a hurry, young children respond by dragging their feet simply because they can't organize themselves the way we can," says Kathy Levinson, Ph.D., a child psychologist in East Hills, New York, and author of First Aid for Tantrums. "Then they become frustrated that they can't keep up, and kaboom!"

How to handle it Avoid such phrases as "hurry up" and "do it quickly." They put more pressure on your child. And try not to lose your temper: "If you start yelling, you're both going down the tubes," says Levinson, who has a 3- and a 6-year-old.

If you need to leave the house in the morning, do some planning the night before — set the breakfast table, take out clothes, organize backpacks — and rise early enough to be ready before your toddler. This way, you can devote the necessary time to her. Five-minute warnings also help: "We're going to get dressed as soon as Barney's over," for example.

If you oversleep or have to rush, make a game out of your routine. Have a race while putting on her clothes or climbing into the car. Do what you have to do to get out the door. If an attempt to brush your child's teeth will result in ten minutes of water play, skip it. If she wants to wear certain clothes, let her. Sometimes you just have to do whatever it takes to avoid a tantrum.

They Dodge the Diaper

"Davie, my sixteen-month-old, cries, kicks, and tries to wriggle off of the changing table when I'm putting on a diaper," says Elena Howard of Lakewood, Washington. "I try to give him a toy or play a game. If that doesn't work, I just pin him down and try to go as fast as possible."

What's really happening Your child not only doesn't want to stop what he's doing, he also feels that being whisked away for a change is an invasion of his space.

How to handle it Show some respect too. "Come into the room with a diaper in hand and say, 'You need to be changed in a few minutes,'" suggests Kurcinka. "Then wait for him to finish what he's doing or suggest he bring his toy with him." This is also a good age to start to engage your child in the process — you can give him the opportunity to pull down his own pants, for instance.

They Balk at Baths

"My two-and-a-half-year-old doesn't always want to get into the tub, so I tell him all he has to do is wash up and then he can come right out," explains Tina Chambers of Sardinia, Ohio. "But then he wants to stay in the tub, and I have to insist we say goodbye to the water."

What's really happening It may seem like your toddler is doing this just to aggravate you, but she really isn't capable of that kind of thought process yet. More likely, it's the old transition issue coming back to haunt you yet again.

How to handle it Getting in the tub should be a no-brainer — water and kids are a natural. Up the fun factor with some new bubbles, games, or bath toys. Imaginary meals can be concocted with water and a few kitchen utensils. Or play beauty shop during shampoos. Then, when it's almost time to come out, give a warning. If you still meet with resistance, pull the plug. "When the water is drained and she's getting cold, your child will be happy to come out," says Levinson.

They Fuss at Mealtime

The kitchen table is anathema at my house. Both of my kids would rather do anything than sit still for an eternity of ten minutes. Anthony acts as if he's being poisoned unless he's fed standing up and doing three other things.

What's really happening "It's hard for a toddler to stop and eat. His main developmental task is to do — to find out what things are and how they work," says Kurcinka. Sitting at the dinner table is exactly what he doesn't have in mind.

How to handle it You should never force your child to eat, but you do want to encourage his coming to the table and being part of the family, says Kazdin. To promote this process, set a kitchen timer for five minutes and explain to your child that he has to sit down with the family and spend some time together even if he's not hungry. During those five minutes, be sure to engage him in conversation. Then when the timer goes off, he can return to whatever he was playing with.

"This is the age when you're shaping approximations of behavior," notes Kazdin. You're establishing a family ritual that he'll come to enjoy as he grows older. And if you're lucky, he may even swallow something.

They Play Favorites

"Liam, our two-year-old, is so attached to my husband. If I go into his room to get him after my husband's gone to work, he becomes hysterical," says Alice Donohue of Blauvelt, New York. "And on the weekends when my husband's home, he has to take Liam everywhere he goes or Liam has a fit."

What's really happening Many toddlers favor one parent over the other — the one who's around more or the one who's missed. Whatever the cause, it's almost always just a stage.

How to handle it If the desired parent is often out of the house, have him step in whenever possible. If the child misses him that much, they should be sharing more time together. It's also a good idea to create special jobs for each parent — Daddy always does the bath, for example, or Mommy always reads the bedtime stories — then try to stick to them, since toddlers tend to appreciate routine, says Kurcinka. That way your child has time with each parent and knows she'll have some moments with her favorite one to look forward to.

If both of you are readily available and your toddler still favors you, then your mate should take a look at how you interact with her. Maybe it's a simple case of Daddy making a game out of diaper changes or Mommy being more gentle when she helps her child get dressed.

They Fight the Stroller

"Davie has fits when we put him in the stroller because he likes to walk," says Howard of her 16-month-old son.

What's really happening Think about how you'd feel if everywhere you looked there was an adventure beckoning: grass to run on, colorful aisles in the grocery store, or glittering toy displays and escalators to ride on at the mall. "Of course your child wants the control and freedom to check things out," says Levinson.

How to handle it Don't try to run errands or go shopping when your child is tired or hungry or has been cooped up for a while. "Morning's the best time because most kids are happy and satisfied," says Levinson. "Bring snacks and toys to keep your toddler entertained."

Even then, lower your expectations. No tot is going to sit contentedly for long periods of time. Do one or two errands fewer than what you have on your list.

Also watch for signs that your little one's had enough. If he's whining to be carried, tell him it's time to go home. He'll shape up at the mention of leaving if he's just testing you. But if he goes along without a fuss, he really is ready for a break. "We sometimes forget that kids can't always do what we can, so why try to force them?" Levinson says. "Timing is everything."

Timing, that is, plus an extra dose of fun. A trip to the grocery store is much more palatable if you tie in a ride on the mechanical horse outside or a stop at the library down the block. And forget such ultimatums as "You have to take a bath." Try hinting instead at entertainment of carnivallike proportions — "How about helping me make shampoo sculptures in the tub?" say — and see if that doesn't get you a little more cooperation.