"A good ten percent of children I see could be called 'irregular,' meaning they don't follow set patterns of behavior," says Morris Green, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. "This has nothing to do with how they're being raised. They just have a behavioral style that parents must recognize and adjust to."
That doesn't mean you have to abandon all sense of order -- or even that you should. Tots who shrug off schedules still need the security of knowing what to expect. "Without some element of predictability in their mealtimes, for example, they may become anxious about whether they're going to eat every day," says Ruth Lawrence, M.D, professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.
Dr. Green recommends that parents establish a general schedule for a child who resists patterns, while at the same time easing up on their own expectations. For instance, if a youngster refuses to eat a full meal for dinner, give her a snack while the rest of the family eats. Then offer her another snack an hour later. The same goes for sleep: Tuck her in every night at a set time, but don't insist that she immediately close her eyes. Let her talk quietly to her stuffed animals or listen to a tape. If taking a bath each night leads to temper tantrums, consider a spot-check cleaning with a wet washcloth every other night instead of enforcing a daily 6 P.M. tub time.
When such flexibility isn't an option -- you need to drop your toddler off at day care every morning at eight before work, for instance -- getting organized the night before will limit resistance. Lay out an outfit and explain to your toddler what will happen when she wakes up, suggests Dr. Lawrence. Walking a child through the routine ahead of time will help prepare her for the real thing.