Toddler keeps changing demands - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 3 Old 07-11-2012, 04:44 AM - Thread Starter
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I am trying to understand my toddler's behavior.

She seems to feel wronged by things, for instance, she wanted to pick up the cup but she didn't tell me that she has to do it so I picked it up and she bursts into tears and hides in a corner. I try to clarify that she is upset because I picked up the cup and I ask her to use her words and tell me that she wanted to pick it up. Then I put the cup down and let her pick it up. But her frustration will switch to something else and instead of picking up the cup she will want me to come get her and bring her back to the cup. She will not move one inch towards me so that I can get her. Sometimes I can't physically get her when she is behind the table so she stays really mad because of that.

It seems like if I give her what she wants, which I don't mind doing when I figure out what she wants, then she switches her frustration so she can stay mad. It doesn't seem like she wants to get what she wants. In the middle of a fit she will also contradict herself first saying she doesn't want me to follow her to get her blanket and then getting mad at me because I am not in the room next to her.

Things don't go any better if I refuse her demands, like not letting her walk down the stairs in front of me. I am happy to walk far in front of her and not touch her but I will not let her walk first. She is 2 1/3 years old. I have told her when she is 5 she can walk in front of me and I am consistent about this every time. I also give her timeframes about other things that she is not old enough to do, like walk in busy parking lots but that only helps some times.

Please help!
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#2 of 3 Old 07-11-2012, 04:57 AM - Thread Starter
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I read your response to another mom saying that the child is trying to get emotions out. I still don't know what exactly to do. Do I just sit there? Do I try to talk about the thing that was the start of the fit but not the real issue? Do I try to talk about fear? I homeschool and stay with my daughter all the time so she must have big feelings because we are together and she has a pretty good life. My daughter is very verbal, she often talks in paragraphs so we can usually communicate well.

I just don't understand how I actually help her.
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#3 of 3 Old 07-11-2012, 03:44 PM
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Sorry - in my first response I had only seen your second note.  Now I have read both of them. And I see what's happening.


Yes, your intuition is right on target that your little girl has some big feelings she needs your help with.  So when you give her what she wants, she switches to a different "demand" in order to stay mad.  That's because her upset is not really about that specific demand. She just needs a chance to cry.


All young children have big feelings. The world is a scary place to them and everyone is bigger.  They feel pushed around a lot even when we try to prevent it. (For instance, she needs to hold your hand in the parking lot and you will not let her go ahead of you down the stairs.) These are the limits we need to set for safety but toddlers can't be expected to understand yet why they're so important.  So naturally they get disappointed, or angry.  When they get angry at us, it scares them.  And even just becoming aware that we can leave them is a terrifying thought.  If we left, they would die.  So every toddler has some big feelings.


So when she gets upset because you picked up the cup, don't take it personally.  If it wasn't that, it would be something else.  She just needs to show you her upset and will use any opportunity.

When kids have big feelings going on, their prefrontal cortex --which handles rational thought and words -- is not in charge.  While she in the throes of big emotion is not the time to talk. It will just make her feel analyzed and unsafe.  Asking her to use her words is like asking me to speak Spanish when I'm upset.  Sure, I took classes in high school, but on my best days it's an effort for me to speak Spanish.  When I'm upset, I just can't think clearly enough to get access to those words.  For your toddler, that is what English is like when she's upset.  Fight or Flight or Freeze kicks in and she does not have access to logic or words.  So that is not the time to ask her to use her words.  She just needs you to empathize with her upset.

Her asking you to retrieve her is so sweet! Often because kids don't want to feel their upsets, they hide from us. They may even yell at us to go away.  But when we ask them later, they did not actually want us to go away.  They are secretly hoping that we will demonstrate our love for them by following them into the thicket of emotion that is swamping them to retrieve them and bring them back into the warm circle of our love.  So you can say things like: "You can't come toward me, can you?  I want so much to reach you.  I love you so much.  I want to hug you to me.  You are behind the table...I can't reach you...but I will never give up....I will get there somehow to touch you with my love....Hmm...  Can I crawl under?...Can I move the table?....Can you just put your arm out so I can touch your finger?....Together we will find a way to get you into my arms again!"

You playfulness might be just what she needs to defuse the tension with giggles, and get her to run to you.  OR she might need you to prove that you still love her, even though she is mad at you.  In that case, she might turn her back and cry.  That's ok.  She is showing you her upset, which is exactly what she needs to do.  You have created enough safety by saying you WANT to get her, and enough distance for her to feel the distance between you (which may very well be what is distressing her to begin with, so it may be necessary for her to create that distance in order to feel it and cry.)


So when she's upset, your goal is to create safety so she can share her upset. The way to help her is to stay compassionate when she gets angry.  Just be empathic about whatever is setting her off, even if you know that is not the real reason she's upset.  Then she can go under the anger to the tears and fears that are driving it. Here's an example of how you do that:


So in a way, you do just sit there, but it is very hard work, because you really focus on her and empathize with her upset.  I find that often makes me get tears in my own eyes, and that's a good thing, because it brings her more in touch with her feelings also.  If she'll let you hold her, great.  Often -- when kids are releasing fear -- they need to thrash and struggle and they can't be held. So just stay nearby until she's ready for a hug.


Does that make sense?  Please let me know if I haven't answered your question!

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