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Why do toddlers do this? 5 things your toddler does that drive you to the breaking point of your own meltdown

Written by Talkin’ Sleep Parent Coach Christina Kocharakkal M.sc., RP, RMFT

Oh toddler-hood. Do you ever feel like they just wake up with a mission to make your life miserable? It’s like they look in the mirror with that sweet, mischievous grin and say, “today is the day, we will break her/him/them… AGAIN!” * insert evil laugh here. * 

A giph of Bingo, a toddler character from Bluey a children's TV show, having a brilliant idea. In this case--how they are going to do their best to make the terrible day for their parents, and makes you wonder why toddlers do this?

How is it that they know exactly what buttons to push!? In a weird way, that would make them all geniuses wouldn’t it? Part of me wishes this were true. At least then, we could have logical and reasonable discussions with our toddlers and come to a mutual understanding and solution. Alas, if this were true, toddler-hood wouldn’t be so hard. But dang! 

It. Is. So. Hard!  

I see you, parents. Let’s be honest, I AM you! So what does this mean? We are all just screwed and breaking down crying in closets and showers daily?! Nah. I wouldn’t leave you hanging like that. I am here to let you in on a secret: toddler brains are doing exactly what they are meant to do and we are all just doing our best to support them as they do toddler things. It is truly not you, it is them 😂..  

Please join me below as I outline 5 things your toddler does that push you to your breaking points but are actually quite normal and not just specific to your toddler! Deep breath! Let’s get into it!  

1. NOO! 

“Do you want to come down? NOO!
Please be patient. NOO!
Here’s the snack you asked for. NOO!!!!
But you JUST asked for, NO!!!”

Sound familiar? 

You are not alone! Toddlers saying, “no ” is part of toddler-hood, believe it or not. They are not trying to push your buttons or drive you crazy. They are just exercising this new learned skill of agency. That is to say, they have learned that they are a tiny human, but human nonetheless, and have the ability to have a say, a vote, a voice. When they say, “no ” I invite you to hear them practicing their sense of agency, and using their voice to share their thoughts, opinions and feelings. This practice is something you want to celebrate and encourage!

Did I just say that out loud? Encourage my toddler to say no to me!?

I know it sounds crazy but hear me out. If they are able to say, “no” to you of all people, that means, a) they trust your bond enough to challenge it (give yourself a pat on the back!), and b) if they can challenge you, they are likely going to be more confident in challenging other people when need be – this is so important in their learning to be well-adjusted, independent, functional grown-up humans. By celebrating and encouraging these “no”s in toddler-hood, you are building their skill and agency to challenge questionable invitations in the future, to share their thoughts, opinions and feelings, and ultimately you are celebrating and encouraging them to be heard! 

2. I want to do it all by myself! 

It’s time to go sweetheart. Let me put your socks and shoes on for you.
No! I will do it all by myself!…
4. hours. Later…. 

Why do toddlers do this!!??? Just let me help you! I know that’s what you’re thinking right in these moments. You are not alone! It’s that time pressure that just gets you to the brink of your breaking point. But if you force the help, commence the kicking, screaming, flopping around and/or heavy dead limbs meltdown. They are purposefully trying to make you late or they just don’t care – right!?

Here’s another perspective,

They are tiny humans, learning the skill of autonomy. That is to say, they are learning they can be independent, self-sufficient, grown-up, tiny humans. You know that look. The look they get when they come and show you that they coloured in the picture, stacked that tower, poured that cup of milk (albeit, only 10% made it into the cup, but still!). That sparkle in their eyes filled with joy and pride! You know it. That sparkle screams, “I did it all by myself!”, as you stand there amazed and pretty damn proud, convinced your kid is brilliant and completely gifted.

That feeling they are inviting you to feel, is the feeling they love creating for themselves as well. So to them, they don’t know the difference between having all the time in the world to re-create that feeling v.s. being in a time crunch. All their little toddler brains see is another opportunity to get that feeling, that rush of feeling good emotions, that experience of making you proud. When you look at it that way, perhaps what needs to happen is better time management on our parts. Let’s set them up for success by anticipating they are going to want to practice their autonomy and create situations in which they can practice and you won’t feel the pressure to rush.  

3. Give ’em an inch, and they take a mile. 

Okay, you can have one more cracker and then all done. Toddler eats crackers and then whines/lunges for 2 more.  I said ONE more, I was already being generous and now they think they can have TWO!?! Ungrateful.

You are not alone! The truth is, they are not being intentionally ungrateful or manipulative. Rather, these toddler brains are learning the skill of boundaries. Boundaries are an excellent opportunity for them to test the limits and gain understanding of what limits are, how they can be pushed, what skills are needed to push them and lastly for them to experience your reaction to that push. Once we expect their push-back, we are more likely to tolerate it and support it.

How do we do this?

By holding that boundary in a loving way to show them some limits can be challenged and others are consistent. Toddlers thrive on consistency (but don’t we all?). The more you are able to create experiences for them that when you hold a loving boundary they can count on you to continue holding it, they are going to learn the difference between the times when they can challenge the limit v.s. when they have to accept it. The more you waiver, or begin to be inconsistent, they are going to learn that they just have to push for longer or harder to have that limit finally shift. They are just being toddlers and you got this! Stay strong. 

4. I don’t want to leave the park!! 

Alrighty my love, time to go home. It’s dinner time. NOOO I don’t want to go home! 5 more minutes!! * Throws themselves on the ground and starts crying *  

But I just gave them five more minutes… You are not alone! (see above for how to hold boundaries). Right. The thing is, transitions are hard enough as it is, and their toddler brains don’t have the capacity to understand the concept of time like we do. When you say 5 more minutes, that might as well have been 5 more hours to them. So when you say time to go, their experience is, it has literally only been 5 seconds! This is not fair! Commence toddler meltdown.

Instead, here’s what we can do.

Begin to teach them the concept of time in terms that make sense to them. For example, when at home, if they have a favourite 5 minute song, start associating that song with the term “5 minutes”. This way they are beginning to develop their understanding of the concept of what 5 minutes feels like. Then when you are at the park, when you say 5 more minutes, they can remember that song and better understand how long 5 minutes actually are.

Something else to consider is their toddler brains learning best from tangible, concrete visuals. For this, using a timer is always going to be helpful. Pull out that phone, set 5 minutes on the timer and ask THEM to press start. When the timer goes off, again ask them to turn it off. This motion will allow them to understand the concept of 5 minutes better and invite more cooperation from them when the timer goes off, signifying time to go home. It takes some practice for them to get used to the pattern, but as mentioned in tip number 3, consistency is everything.  

5. Stop fooling around and brush your teeth! 

Let’s do our bedtime routine! Toddler squirms and bolts out of the bathroom a million times.  

I don’t understand. We do the same thing every night. Why is the struggle so real!? You are not alone! They know what needs to be done, you know, they know how to do it, and yet, every night, they find anything and everything to prolong the long awaited bed time. It’s rough. To be honest, they do know what is happening: they know what the beginning of this routine means. It means they have to go to sleep soon. Depending on what sleep looks like in your home and the various different contexts at play, this could mean a variety of things for your toddler.

Let’s look at an example

If they are at day care most of the day, and they have only got to play with you for 30 min, as a result of you coming home from work, taking care of meal preps, other chores, and getting them ready for bed (all of which, let’s be clear are necessary tasks for you as the parent), still leaves them yearning for more time to play with you. Read this as, connect with you. Going to sleep then, might mean less time to connect with you and that makes it hard for them to follow through on the routine.

That’s how their clever little toddler brains find ways to get in some more time to connect with you, by for example, prolonging the routine (i.e. fooling around instead of just brushing their gosh darn teeth). Makes sense… AND also frustrating as heck, ‘cause by that point, you are exhausted, am-i-right?? Deep breath. You’ve got this. I invite you to find opportunities with-in the routine to fill that need to connect, so that they are more willing to follow through on the routine.  

I hope these insights have left you feeling less alone and I thank you for giving me the precious moments of your day to check out this post. We’d love for you to connect with us on our Talkin’ Sleep Instagram! If you feel you need some one-on-one support, please don’t hesitate to reach out and book a session with me, Christina, where I can custom fit the support you need. 

*PLEASE NOTE: The above is not an exhaustive list. The above is also not meant to replace the support of medical professionals. If you sense your toddler’s behavior is concerning, please seek the counsel of mental health/medical professionals.

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