Care and Feeding

I’m Worried About What My Toddler’s Horrible Behavior Now Means for His Future

This is a bad sign, right?

A toddler crying.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m starting to lose my mind a little over my 2-year-old’s whining, whether over movies, Mommy’s phone, cake, and wanting to take “Mommy’s car” somewhere. This morning, he woke me up with a tantrum over wanting to look at photos on my phone. Every time we tell him no, or even, “Not now. After dinner,” there’s 20 minutes of “Cake now!” Is this normal? How do I handle it? Do I need to never give him cake or movies or the phone (because he shouldn’t be rewarded for whining!), or is it OK to just stick to my guns if I’ve told him, “You can have that after dinner”? I don’t want my kid to end up being the whiny one who can’t stand to hear no. And while I know that persistence is a trait that will be good for him to later in life, I’m also starting to have visions of him as the adult who won’t take no for an answer. Is this just a phase all kids go through? How do other parents handle the whining and crying after they’ve said no?

— Cake NEVER

Dear Cake Never,

This is indeed a phase many, if not most, kids go through. It does not portend a future as a person who won’t take no for an answer (nor even a near-future as a whiny 4- or 5-year-old). He’s 2. He’s struggling because he’s leaving babyhood behind and becoming a child proper. If you think he’s making you miserable—and I am not downplaying your actual misery! I know this is awful for you—just stop and think for a minute about how miserable he is. And he has the great disadvantage of not even knowing why he’s so miserable.

I feel for you, because this phase is a particularly hard one—not least because it’s one of the first hard ones—but there is no magic formula for enduring it. Does it help at all if you think of this as a learning experience for you? Because there are many hard phases ahead—so many ways he will temporarily make you miserable? (No, I didn’t think it would.) How about this? This stage will pass. He will become more reasonable.

Still, while you wait for that to happen, you will need to find some strategies to help you both get through this. I don’t think punishing him for his normal 2-year-old behavior (“If you whine about cake, you will never have cake!”) is going to help either of you. Calmly sticking to your guns is a good idea (“You may have some cake after dinner”), although I know it’s not easy. Staying calm in the face of a screaming child is a real challenge, but it’s a challenge worth trying to rise to. Keep in mind that your modeling calmness in the midst of emotional chaos will be useful to him in itself. And repeat silently—this is your mantra—that your child is going through a developmentally necessary stage for him, that it won’t last forever.

The conventional wisdom—ignoring tantrums when possible, refrain from yelling, etc.—is worth paying attention to, too. Beyond this, I myself have found that the strategies that work best for handling any difficult periods with our kids are the ones that best fit the temperaments of the human beings involved—both the child and the adult. My own kid was a lot like me, even when she was very little, so I tended to talk things through with her. Obviously, this doesn’t work for every parent and child. But I had (and still have) pretty much endless patience for conversations about feelings, and it turned out that my tiny daughter did too, and that it helped her to process and deal with them. Her father, on the other hand, was driven mad by listening to the two of us “go on and on” about her feelings of frustration or confusion or anxiety or sadness. He doesn’t find that sort of talk helpful at all. And unlike me, he was very good at calmly, silently waiting out her freakouts, which didn’t faze him. That was a much better strategy for him, and she was also enough like him so that this worked, too.

So let me ask you: What helps you when you’re feeling thwarted, frustrated, or just plain old unhappy? Is there a chance that there’s something in what soothes you that you could employ with your toddler? And if it’s already clear that his personality is very different from yours, can you take a step back from your own distress and consider what might comfort and calm him at least a little?

Meanwhile: I wish you fortitude. Now, and 12 years from now, when he rolls his eyes every time you open your mouth.

— Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I have an 8-year-old Girl Scout. A few times a year, her troop has overnight events, and parents are welcome to attend. I always feel like I’m missing out on some mother-daughter bonding time, but I really don’t want to attend these things. Sleeping on the floor in a room full of little girls doesn’t appeal to me—I’m an introvert, and the whole idea is stressful. The troop always seems to have enough chaperones, and my daughter never asks me to go, and doesn’t seem to mind I’m not there. My daughter and I have opportunities to do other things with just the two of us. Plus, I feel like this is a chance for her to be a little more independent and do things with other people besides her parents. Am I a terrible mother for not wanting to do Girl Scout overnights?