Here you are, night #7,876 (but who’s counting at this point), and your two foes are staring you in the face: A whining toddler and a plate of barely touched broccoli.
You’re ready to scream, cry, pull your hair out and crumble into a ball on the floor — all at once. In your best moments, you calmly explain why broccoli is good for you. It has nutrients. It has fiber. It’s green, and green means good.
And in your not-so-best moments, your voice reaches a new pitch and some monster has inhabited your body saying things like:
“You WILL eat your broccoli. And you will eat it right now. And don’t think you’re getting any bedtime stories tonight with a show like this, young lady.”
Then you see it: One lonely alligator tear slides silently down her face. And you know you’ve lost. Not only is she not eating the broccoli, both of you are upset and no one is going to bed happy.
How did we get here? Or better yet, how can we never relive this fight again? Welcome to the age of Stubborn Independence.
Before you think all hope is lost, know this:
It’s not you, it’s them. Irrational behavior at this stage is not just normal, it’s a good sign that your toddler is hitting key developmental milestones. Your toddler is newly self-aware and wants to assert her independence in whatever small ways she can. However, according to Dr. Jeffrey Richker, “toddlers don’t have the reasoning resources of an adult. They want what they want when they want it. And they don’t have the ability to see the benefit of not getting something they want.”
Thus, an endless stream of nos and other tantrums. But if you can view these behaviors in the context of normal development, it is easier to be empathic and to preserve your own sanity.
Richker’s advice is to keep your responses short and sweet: “Many parents feel that it’s important to talk through everything with their child; however, it’s more beneficial to be consistent and not to entertain discussion. Over time, your toddler will learn that there’s no negotiation.”
However, when your own rational thinking has left the building, we’ve created this handy dandy flowchart (below) to help you decide when and if waging war with your toddler is really worth the effort.
But you won’t always have this decision tree in your back pocket, so here are five tips to keep in mind in the long-term:
Tip 1: Simply Don’t Do It
You may be tempted to argue with your toddler — do not. We repeat: DO. NOT. It simply doesn’t work. You are an adult with a fully formed frontal cortex. They can barely form coherent sentences. You have skills like logic and reasoning on your side. They rely only on raw emotion and gut feelings. And right now, their gut hates broccoli.
Tip 2: Bait and Switch
Good news: You have about 3,000 other ways to add healthy ingredients into their foods undetected. Options include but are not limited to smoothies, muffins, pancakes, baked pasta and even brownies. There are whole books dedicated to the topic, including this one: Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food, by fellow momma Jessica Seinfeld.
Tip 3: Pick Your Battles
If it’s a matter of syntax or getting facts right (i.e., “No, honey, Daniel Tiger has orange stripes, not green”), move on. Tiffs like this are not worth your time or mental and emotional energy. Instead, focus on behaviors that are dangerous, unkind or simply so annoying that you cannot live without correcting them. For example, make it known that running in the street (dangerous), hitting (unkind), kicking the driver’s seat (annoying) are forbidden. Then set clear, specific rules and logical consequences. Once discipline enters the picture, follow through. Lack of consistency confuses kids and undermines your control of the situation.
Tip 4: Offer Choices
Not only is this a great tactic to pre-empt a full-on meltdown, but providing your child with choices gives him an opportunity to exert control over his world, practice making decisions and learning how to deal with the consequences. Try this: “Would you like broccoli, carrots or both?” You’ll be surprised how many times he selects both. However, if he refuses either option, let him know that you will make the choice. Serve the veggies calmly and don’t address it again. He may throw a fit, and that’s OK. How else will he experience the consequences of his actions and learn how to make decisions that get him what he wants?
Tip 5: Take a Step Back
At this age, toddlers are governed by strong emotions with no outlet to explain or manage them, which often leads to irrational, disrespectful behavior. See this for what it is — it’s the behavior, not the root feeling, that is the problem. As much as possible, practice empathy and compassion. Truly listen and validate your toddler’s concerns. The more he feels understood, the less likely he is to act on his fleeting feelings.
Take a look at our handy flow-chart below to work through your mental battles. Click on the image to view the full-size chart.