A: Dear DrTidyCat:
Your daughter's behaviors may be a bit unusual for an 18 month old, but they express worries which are absolutely normal and typical of a child of 18 months. After all, the crowning achievement of a toddler is to control spills and become clean and tidy herself--to outgrow messing the diaper and to win everyone's admiration for being a "big girl" who is dry and spotless and obedient. This is the Golden Age of struggles over being clean and being messy, being obedient and being "terrible," being in control or being babyish and wild.
She is too little to express in words her struggle inside to live up to these civilized standards of cleanliness that she has observed in the grown ups and has already embraced as very important. So she takes control of the rug, the droppings of cereal, and the spilled liquids to reassure herself that she is being careful and obedient about messes. Like many people (especially parents of toddlers!), she is quite preoccupied with these matters, since she is probably a sensitive little personality who takes rules seriously--even at her age.
I am not suggesting that you have been too harsh about demanding her obedience or her cleanliness. I am only pointing out that she expresses symbolically that she has become worried about these issues in her own way.
My recommendation is only that you might use special tact for a while, until she has solved these universal problems for herself. Thus, it will help her if you can be especially reassuring to her that she does not need to try so hard to please you. Feel free in showing her your natural love for her, just the way she is. Be casual and friendly about her obsessive orderliness, because the real issue is not her behavior but her worries that make her behave in this way. When she is distraught over spills, comfort her and help her. Letting her be a "baby" just a little while longer may give her some extra time to relax and regroup.
You did not pressure your daughter into being an anxious neat-freak. But you can help her feel more comfortable with herself, messes and all, by understanding what she is struggling with at this time in her development.
Elizabeth Berger MD Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"