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Understanding Your Temperamental Toddler

A toddler's headlong quest for independence can be charming, entertaining, and often hilarious. But sometimes his antics can challenge even the most easygoing mom or dad. So it's important to remember that when a 1-year-old exhibits Jekyll-and-Hyde-like mood swings, or a 2-year-old's every other word is "NO!" or the derring-do of a 3-year-old has you wondering if he'll survive preschool, he's not trying to be so trying: It's all part and parcel of this particular stage of childhood. Most important, your toddler will eventually outgrow it.

Meanwhile, it helps to understand why toddlers do what they do. A guide to the hallmark quirks of the 1- to 3-year-old set.

From the Parenting Guide to Your Toddler, by Paula Spencer, with the editors of Parenting, published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Mood swings

One minute your child has all the presence of a prince and the patient wonder of an explorer. Then  -- bang! In the nanosecond it takes you to say something as innocuous as "Here's your juice," he reverts to the angry inflexibility of a dictator. To a toddler, there's only the here and now. The block-tower crash that was so distressing five minutes ago may seem like ancient history, as he's moved on to the delightful sight of a cement mixer outside the living-room window, or the discomfort of a dirty diaper. Take these whims in stride. When feasible, shift your attention along with your child's. A predictable routine can minimize his upsets, but won't eliminate them. Just don't take personality morphs personally.


"No" is a powerful word. "No, we can't stay at the park any longer." "No more cookies." "No biting." Little wonder that a toddler loves to say the word herself  -- a lot. It's emphatic. It bears the indelible stamp of one's personal opinion. And it implies control, a precious resource at this stage.

Many toddlers use "no" indiscriminately  -- even when they mean "yes." They may just like the sound of the word. Sometimes, in the frustration of being misunderstood, "No! No!" is the only thing that comes to mind while a child is struggling to get her desires across. So that it's not echoed back more often than you'd like, reserve "no" for real danger  -- such as when she's grabbing a hot pot on the stove or tottering toward the top of the stairs.


Stubbornness can turn into inflexibility: Your daughter insists on wearing dresses only, or your son demands that his bedtime ritual follow a specific order, and if you say goodnight to Godzilla before Elmo, all hell will break loose. The child understands that by standing firm, he can (sometimes) make others do as he wishes.

The best course: Indulge such behavior whenever it's not really a big deal. Your child derives a sense of security from these extremes. For instance, Sarah Pierce, of Seattle, says, "At bedtime my twenty-three-month-old son, Adam, says goodnight to the characters in the pictures on his wall. He'll say 'Night-night, bellhop' to one and 'Night-night, llama' to another. Then he's ready to sleep."

If the request is unreasonable or inappropriate  -- your child wants to watch television during dinner, for example  -- refuse calmly but firmly. You may have to weather some tantrums. But ultimately, when it comes to your child's welfare, you're the boss.


All parents find a toddler firmly attached to one of their legs at some point. It's both endearing and frustrating. Clingy spells are common for 1-year-olds; often they're a physical demonstration of anxiety triggered by a stressful situation, such as a birthday party or a new childcare arrangement. Working parents may experience such exaggerated shows of affection at the end of a long day as their child attempts to reconnect.

Whatever the source of your toddler's clinginess, your role is to provide the reassurance he craves while not babying him to his own detriment. After all, a child can't do much playing and exploring while attached to your knees, koala-style. So make sure you give him plenty of attention.

If you have to leave your tenacious toddler for a moment, say "I'll be right back," and don't be long. Even when you need to get something done that requires more time, like cooking dinner, reassure him with your voice. Caress his head as you pass by. Or let him follow you around. Find simple ways he can help, which will distract him from his need to physically hang onto you. Say, "I have to fold this laundry now. Can you put all the white clothes in a pile for me?"


Here's a sound bite from your toddler's head: "Hey, I've got a lot of things to do today, Mom! You can't expect me to lie still while you change this diaper and snap all of those snaps back up, can you? Look  -- there's my favorite book. Sorry, can't wait forever for you to finish down there. I'm outta here!" Even if you think you're an ace diaper changer, juice pourer, and walk taker, you're probably not swift enough for your little mover and shaker. If she's thought of it, she expects it done.

You can't expect a 1-year-old to be patient, but you can help minimize her impatience. Responding quickly (within reason) to requests for food or drink will help avoid meltdowns. (A healthy snack never hurt a toddler, even a few minutes before dinner.) If your child wants something that you simply can't or don't want to provide right away, distract her. She'll gradually learn to wait, so you can actually say, "Wait a minute," and she'll be able to, at as early as 2.


Toddlers are insatiably curious. When they see something interesting, they go for it, whether it's a toy just out of reach or a ball that rolled into the street. When they feel like trying something, they do, just for the sheer experience of swinging a bat in the house or removing a diaper all by themselves. Your toddler can't help herself  -- at least not the first time. She can, however, learn what's appropriate and what's not. To keep your child safe, and to set desirable limits without squelching her wonderful curiosity, your best tools are a watchful eye and a childproof space. Calmly redirect your explorer to more desirable activities. (If you shout or get mad, it becomes a game that she just wants to try more.)


Being contrarian

You say yes, I say no. You say stop, I say go. Sometimes a 2-year-old truly holds an opposing view from yours. More often, though, he just likes to be different  -- it's another way for him to control his universe. This tendency can get frustrating, of course, when you're trying to dash out the door and your child won't let you zip up his jacket. Sidestep power struggles by remaining calm yourself.

"TV has become a battleground for our nineteen-month-old daughter, Libby, and us. She turns it on and I turn it off. This can continue for half an hour," says Barbara Morgan, of Tacoma. "So I turn the TV to a channel we don't get, and when she turns it on, she sees snow instead of cartoons or real people, and turns it off herself."

Don't get sucked into an argument, because you can't win. Appeals to reason are lost at this age, and your child may simply think it's a fun game to say the opposite of whatever you ask. Instead, follow through firmly and consistently when it matters, and give in when it doesn't.


"You put my shoes on." "Come here, Mommy!" "Wear this hat, Daddy." A toddler can issue marching orders as crisply and firmly as a commander in chief. And woe to the parent who ignores the command or drags her feet executing it. Your child sees herself as the center of the world. It's only natural, therefore, that she believes all things  -- and all people  -- revolve around her needs. Besides, it makes her feel great to act like you, who (to her way of thinking) order her around all day long.

For these reasons, you can't entirely rein in the commands. You can, however, nip tyranny in the bud. Teach your child to couch her requests with "please" and a pleasant tone of voice. Agree to reasonable requests once she's asked nicely, but don't always jump just because she asks you to. Consider, too, whether nonstop orders are a bid for your attention. Maybe your bossy child is really asking you to put down the newspaper and play with her.


Growing up doesn't happen in a straight line. Toddlers are especially vulnerable to backsliding into old habits you thought they'd outgrown, such as waking in the middle of the night long after they've been sleeping through, or begging for the bottle you discarded months ago after they switched to a cup.

Change can trigger such a dependency on familiar ways. "My daughter Kelly Anne was potty-trained before she was two. Then we moved to a new house, and she regressed," says Ana Morales, of North Bergen, NJ. "Instead of forcing her to use the potty again, I told her to use it when she felt good about it. By allowing her to make the decision, she could have some control over the situation. I never brought it up again. After about five months, it worked."

Sometimes toddlers lapse in one arena while they're concentrating on developing a new skill. Or it may simply take a while to fully absorb a new accomplishment, so they'll take two steps forward, one step back. Whatever paths your child takes as he traverses the tricky terrain of toddlerhood, let him be the guide (when it's safe and sane to do so), and you'll both be more likely to enjoy the trip.