All of this inevitably leads to some very beastly -- but wholly necessary -- outbursts. "Your toddler's constant 'no's,' arguments, and refusals to cooperate are a necessary part of learning to separate from parents. It's a good thing," says Mark Goldstein, PhD, a clinical child psychologist in private practice in Chicago. The more your child focuses on different tasks, fails, then tries again, the more he learns about problem-solving and the more confident he will become at tackling new endeavors.
That's all well and good, but how do you handle a toddler who seems destined to end up either in the ER or in an anger management program? With a lot of patience and the following strategies.
Control the environment. Fend off tantrums and encourage your child's explorations by making your home safe and accessible for your child. Put tempting breakables out of his reach, cover electrical sockets, and place baby gates in the doorways of rooms that are off-limits. If, for example, you spend lots of time together in the kitchen, place toddler-friendly pots and pans in low drawers he can reach. This approach solves several problems: You won't have to scream "No!" all the time, you won't break your toddler's intrepid spirit, nothing will get broken, and your little one will be less likely to get hurt.
Let her make some of her own decisions. Children learn from making their own choices. So in safe situations, try to let her do just that. After all, she's highly unlikely to get hurt by wearing stripes with polka dots. The hardest part of this task is allowing your child to do something utterly ridiculous while maintaining a sense of fairness and humor. Andrea Kane of Decatur, Georgia, has firsthand knowledge: "My daughter, Carina, always wants to wear her ballet clothes. I let her, provided she wears weather-appropriate layers underneath it all," she says. "Sometimes she looks a little odd, but we're all happy."
In other instances, you can meet your child halfway; allowing him to pick out his own breakfast every day, for instance, would be sure to put him in a sugar coma. Allow him to choose from a couple of options he likes: Does he want Cheerios or eggs for breakfast? It's also helpful to find compromises that allow your child to take some control of his life. For example, he can climb into the car seat himself, but you buckle him in.
Figure out ways to let your toddler do things himself. There's no reason why your toddler can't put his toys away or feed himself -- he just needs you to help make it easier for his little hands and limited attention span. Use small, sturdy dishes and utensils so he can more easily feed himself, and place toy shelves low to the ground so favorite items will be easy to reach. These simple adjustments mean that your child can do more on his own.
You may also want to consider having him help with simple chores, such as folding napkins. Jackie Hornbeck-Wall of Atlanta lets her 18-month-old son, Isak, help her transfer laundry from washer to dryer, though she's the first to admit that her little helper sometimes finds creative ways to assert his independence: "One day he grabbed his still-wet doggy shirt out of the washer. No amount of pleading could convince him to let me dry it before he put it on. So I let him carry his wet shirt around, trying to put it on, until he fell asleep and dropped it. I was able to dry it, but then he wore it for two days."
Don't jump in too quickly. "Resist the temptation to always take over and do it yourself to save time and frustration," says Goldstein. Too much intervention can be just as detrimental as leaving your child to her own devices; it undermines her confidence and makes her reticent to strike out on her own in other scenarios. Parents often jump in when they're crunched for time. If you know your child is going to insist on wriggling into her own pants before you go out for the day, build in some extra time to let her give it a try. However, if your child is truly heading for a meltdown, step in and offer instructive help. If she can't get her foot to the end of her pant leg, say "Sitting down may help," and guide her to a chair.
The journey to independence is not an easy one, but experts agree that letting go and parenting gently during this time will help you all get through it.
Heather Moors Johnson is a writer based in Decatur, Georgia.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2004.