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Split Personality: Why Toddlers Behave with One Parent

father and daughter playing

After returning home from a relaxing Saturday afternoon of kid-free errands, I greeted my family and asked how the day went. "Fine," offered my husband. When I tried probing further -- what I really wanted to know was how our toddler acted during lunchtime, playtime, and the in-between moments when she tends to alternate between Angel and Devil -- he shrugged and repeated, "She was fine."

You mean no tantrums for Papa? No all-out war when he gave her the pink cup at lunch instead of the green one reserved for milk? "Nope, she drank from what I gave her," he said matter-of-factly. "And she went down for her nap with Kitty." (When I'm at home, she insists on no fewer than five bedfellows.)

While I know that taking care of my daughter gives me dibs on some precious moments, it's tough to understand why she'll argue with me over the simplest things -- but act much more agreeable when someone else is in charge. Turns out a lot of it has to do with her age. Experts say it's typical for toddlers to make the parent who's with them the most their main target for bad behavior. Find out why -- and how to handle it.

Understanding Misbehavior

As an infant, your little one shared his sweetest smiles and happiest coos with you. So why does it suddenly seem like the things he's saving just for Mama are his biggest breakdowns? "The primary caregiver is generally the person with whom a child feels most comfortable expressing his strong feelings," says Karen Dudley, a child-development specialist at UCLA. So don't make the mistake of thinking your kid doesn't like being with you as much as with Dad. Acting up may actually be a sign of how safe he feels with you.

This behavioral transformation is also due to your child's rapidly developing brain. "A toddler's memory is improving, so he will remember what he wants more often," Dudley explains. Plus, very young kids are just beginning to learn about their relationships with other people, and how far they can push things. "The best way to find the limits and boundaries is to test them," says psychotherapist Alyson Schafer, author of Ain't Misbehavin': Tactics for Tantrums, Meltdowns, Bedtime Blues, and Other Perfectly Normal Kid Behaviors. So if you're the parent who's with your child the most, you'll likely end up experiencing your toddler's resistance more frequently (and sometimes, more intensely).

Maintaining Authority Without Tears

Just because your child is flexing her big-kid muscles with you doesn't mean that you should fall victim to her demands. When she's insisting on something or unwilling to comply with your wishes, it can be tempting to give in, especially if it means avoiding a tantrum -- but toddlers need limits, and the best thing you can do to get good behavior when your kid tends to act up around you is to be vigilant about setting and enforcing boundaries.

How to do it right? For starters, you can help ward off a battle of wills before it starts by always giving your toddler one-minute warnings before transitions, which are a frequent source of power struggles. "Every moment of play is your child's work, so you need to give her forewarning of change," Dudley says. If it's nearing bedtime and you're dreading getting your kid to step away from her blocks, help her think about what she needs to do next by describing the steps. Try, "You can build two more towers -- and then we're going to put on your pj's and read a story." Once your little architect has completed her structures, let her know that playtime is over -- and then move straight to getting ready for bed. If you let her build "just one more," she'll learn that you don't always mean what you say.

Another smart way to stave off a standoff: Offer plenty of choices, which will appeal to your child's desire to have some control over the situation. So if you're about to head to the park -- and your child puts up a fight when you ask her to get ready to go -- you might ask, "Do you want to put on your shoes first or your jacket?" (Keeping choices to a minimum of two will reduce the likelihood that she'll become overwhelmed.) It can also help if you physically follow through by putting on your own coat and shoes along with her. "By doing the same thing as your child, you're modeling the behavior you want to see," Dudley notes.

Accepting (the Frequently Frustrating) Reality

Of course, even when you give lots of warnings and frequently offer choices, toddlers won't always be willing to do exactly what you ask of them. This can really test a parent's patience, especially if your kid always seems amenable to whatever it is that your partner is asking of him. But try not to lose your cool in the moment. "Being critical is likely to make toddlers even more uncooperative," Dudley warns. Instead of raising your voice when your child is flat out refusing to cooperate, try to keep a friendly, even tone of voice while dealing with him; you might even acknowledge his ability to decide how to behave. (For example, if your kid acts defiant when you ask him to put away his toys, say, "You're right; I can't make you pick up your stuff, but I really need your help. Would you like to hand me your trucks to put in the basket or place them in there yourself?") This approach can help your child appreciate that you need his help -- so he'll be more willing to give it, Schafer explains.

Finally, on those frustrating days when your toddler is being especially difficult with you, make sure you plan a little treat (like curling up with a good book or giving yourself permission to watch your favorite reality show in bed instead of folding the laundry). You can even try working your kid's more easygoing nature with your partner to your advantage. For example, if your son tends to throw a fit at bathtime, give yourself the night off after dinner and let your husband suds him up while you take a relaxing evening stroll. The truth is, being firm in the face of toddler toughness is hard work -- and you deserve a real reward for your efforts.

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Parents magazine.