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The 5 Traits Moms Need to Survive (and Enjoy!) Toddlerhood

Here I am, sitting on the floor of my 2-year-old's room, my back to the door. She's also on the floor, several feet away from me, but she's naked, kicking, and screaming. Kate didn't want her diaper changed. She doesn't want to get dressed.

Meanwhile, I'm trying a new tactic. While Kate screams and I watch her, occasionally reminding her that everything is okay, I'm writing this article in my head. The topic: qualities that will help the parents of toddlers survive  -- and even benefit from  -- typical scenes like this one. Right now, for instance, I'm working on achieving perspective (a cooler, calmer one) in the face of out-of-control emotions. It doesn't come easily to me.

Now in my second go-round through the trials of the toddler years (Kate's older sister, Anna, had her fair share of kicking-and-screaming episodes that I somehow managed to endure), I've been reminded more than once that raising kids is about my personal growth as well as theirs. "Having a toddler will challenge you in new ways  -- ways that require some of the most mature, empathetic, sophisticated, and confident behavior that a human being can muster," says Ross Thompson, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Davis.

This includes marshaling great patience, stamina, creativity, determination  -- and a robust sense of humor. But in order to make it through (and beyond) your child's irrational, exciting toddlerhood with a sense of fun and without going crazy, also allow these five traits to blossom in yourself:

#1 - Curiosity

You can have many emotions and reactions when your child turns around, stomps his foot, and shouts "No!" after he's been asked to do something. But a desire to understand your toddler's knee-jerk negative reactions to every suggestion you make will turn such behavior into an interesting puzzle rather than an act of defiance.

By seeking info on what toddlers can grasp  -- which emotions and types of thinking their little brains can handle  -- chances are you'll find that your child's actions are just right for his age. So that kid who says no to everything isn't trying to make you angry, he's just experimenting with a powerful word.

Dana Pang of Haleiwa, Hawaii  -- a mom of two, ages 3 and 7  -- remembers her frustration during her older child's toddler years. When she couldn't figure out what was causing her little girl's tantrums, she took a step back and tried to be objective. Soon she noticed that her daughter was sensitive to minor physical discomfort  -- sometimes it was just the seam in her sock literally rubbing her the wrong way  -- especially when she was hungry. "I had to be a clue seeker and a detective," says Pang. It might take a great deal of patience to keep your cool as your tot flails his arms and legs in sudden protest of one of his favorite dinners. But when you finally determine what he's trying to tell you (he wanted to close the closet door himself), it'll help calm you both down.

#2 - Perspective

"If will and personality were reflected in body size, two-year-olds would be six feet tall," says my friend Debby Greene, mom of 6-year-old twins and a 10-year-old daughter in Big Sky, Montana. During her kids' toddler years, Greene says, she found herself losing a sense of proportion all the time. "When I'd get sucked into some emotional tussle with my twins, their problems just seemed so enormous  -- and the kids themselves literally seemed to take up a massive amount of space in the room." When this happened, it helped to look down and see how tiny her kids actually were, Greene says. "'Look how small they are,' I'd say to myself. And it reinforced that I was the bigger, wiser, more experienced one, not them."

Any kind of visual cue can help snap you back to a more appropriate point of view, says Maurice Elias, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "Try putting something on your refrigerator that reminds you to take a step away from the situation  -- like a stop sign," says Elias. "It'll help you regain the perspective you've lost."

For some moms, repeating a mantra (anything from "I am the adult" to "I'm doing the right thing") is effective. Perhaps most important, talking to your spouse and friends about your day-to-day struggles can keep you from blowing a tantrum out of proportion.

However you regain your perspective, it's a skill to foster, for your own sake and for your child's. It can help you control your anger, make better decisions, and more fully enjoy being a mom. It can also make it easier to focus on your priorities, reminding you of what the vital lessons are (no hitting or biting) and which ones will come with time (give her a couple of years and she won't sob when you forget it's her job to buckle her car seat).

#3 - Initiative

Debby Greene's daughter probably would have lived without her pacifier at age 2. Kate could have been weaned at 18 months. And my friend Nettie Quackenbush's 3-year-old, Ellie, might have been able to go to sleep on her own (without a parent tucked in beside her) some time around her second birthday. Instead, and despite our complaints, these habits lingered on until  -- surprise!  -- we all took the initiative to end them.

Even when we're openly bothered by our child's habits  -- whether it's thumb sucking or dragging a blankie everywhere  -- we often allow them to continue because we worry that changing the situation would be difficult or maybe even traumatic. It probably doesn't help that parents have vivid recall of how certain behaviors were allowed to begin.

For Quackenbush, of Big Sky, Montana, letting her 8-month-old cry it out at night was a nightmare for both of them. Reading books, telling stories, and getting into bed with her daughter each night was a far easier alternative. But children change rapidly, and parents can miss the fact that their child has outgrown certain needs. When Quackenbush finally decided it was time for Ellie to go to sleep on her own, she expected a battle. Instead, the 3-year-old happily kissed her mom goodnight. "It was one of those 'aha' moments," she says. "I realized Ellie had been letting us pamper her to bed and we'd been going right along with it."

So how do you know when you should help your child ditch his Binky or favorite bedtime ritual? First, try to recognize your role in allowing habits you don't like to continue. You might be holding on to what you think your toddler needs as much as he is, and if that's the case, it's time to let go. Once you're open to the possibility of change, it's easier to see where and how your child will adapt.

#4 - Mental Toughness

I asked my husband to keep Kate out of our bedroom one morning after he retrieved her from the crib. He oversees 800 employees at work, and, from what I've heard, he's no soft touch. But Kate, he explained as he brought her into our room and put her on our bed, simply demanded to see me. Faced with an insistent toddler, it seems that even the most strong-willed of us will cave under pressure every once in a while.

The problem with losing our resolve is that toddlers  -- like most kids  -- are always looking for a crack in the wall of parental determination. If you give in too often, or even appear to be receptive to their pleas, you begin to lose your credibility. "Kids will play off your ambivalence," says Elias. "When they think you can be broken, they go after what they want with full force." Your counterattack: Be firm and determined enough that your child knows that you mean what you say.

To develop the mental toughness you'll need in the face of pure toddler  -- style persistence, try to remember that you can and will survive whatever your little one throws your way. "It helps to disengage yourself emotionally from the fight," says Elias. "When your child doesn't want to get in the car seat, she isn't trying to thwart your plans  -- it's not personal."

Oftentimes, parents fear upsetting their child. But crying and disappointment are simply part of growing up. If you back down on decisions you believe in, you're doing your toddler a greater disservice than if you let her weep in apparent misery. Fits and tantrums can be hard to handle  -- especially when they feel like public displays of your lack of control  -- but it's important to let your child know that you're the one who calls the shots.


#5 - Empathy

We'd all like to think of ourselves as compassionate with our kids. But sometimes the illogical whims of a toddler are tough to comprehend, let alone empathize with. Take Madeleine McLaughlin, a 2-year-old from Brookfield, Connecticut. She can't bear to find a strand of hair on her bed but will walk around with a full diaper, claiming nothing's in there. "I want to say, 'Can't you see the irony of it all?'" says her mother, Mary.

But as a mom of three kids under 4 years old, McLaughlin has learned a different sanity-saving strategy. "What I've come to realize is that just because I see the big picture doesn't mean my child does  -- and that's okay." This is exactly the right approach, say experts. You have to feel that your child's goals are valuable and important (within reason), even if they aren't important to you. And being able to do that in an empathetic way is key. "A toddler needs a lot of help managing emotions," says Thompson. "What's tricky is managing your own feelings at the same time."

Of course, even empathy has its limits. "I will bow to Madeleine's demands only to a point," says McLaughlin. "I can't cater to her every whim, especially because they change so rapidly. But if we can meet halfway and I can understand that she has limits too, then we can coexist without both going absolutely crazy."

And while some semblance of sanity might feel like the ultimate goal on most days, it's the big picture that counts. "Friends will say to me, 'I could never have kids, I'm too selfish,'" says McLaughlin. "To that I say, 'Have a kid and you'll learn how not to be selfish.' I don't think you are ever truly grown up until you have kids."


Barbara Rowley is a contributing editor and the author of Baby Days. Her last feature for Parenting was "Simple Truths All Moms Can Use," in the October issue.