From the time my daughter was born, she longed to be in my arms. But when she hit 18 months, Daddy suddenly became the apple of her eye. I'd try to read her a book or change her diaper and she'd push me away, shrieking, "Daaaaaaddy!!!" I felt more rejected than a torn dollar bill in a vending machine. My daughter was on strike -- against me. "Why doesn't she love me?" I'd ask my husband. "She does. It's just a phase," he'd assure me. While the rationale seemed reasonable enough, it wasn't terribly comforting.
I probably shouldn't have been so hurt. Rebellion (seemingly against anything and anyone) is among a toddler's favorite and most effective tools. Even the most compliant child may go through periods when she refuses to do things like nap, get dressed, or eat what she's served. These strikes usually start with little warning and can have surprising staying power. While your child's resistance may be baffling to you, there's often a good explanation for it -- and understanding what's really going on will help get your little picketer to settle peacefully.
Even good sleepers can make a fuss about naps, especially around age 2. "Kids begin to realize that stuff is happening in the house when they're not awake and don't want to miss out," says Bette Alkazian, a family therapist in Westlake Village, California.
The key is to continue to be consistent. Even if you doubt your toddler will nap and putting her to sleep seems like more trouble than letting her stay up, stick to your usual routine. She'll probably surrender once she sees that there's little wiggle room. If she's recently graduated from her crib to a big-kid bed, the newfound freedom may be intoxicating, so avoid temptation by stashing toys out of sight. However, if the strike persists for weeks and she's in good spirits throughout the evening, she may indeed be ready to give up her daily nap. The milestone may be reached as early as age 2 (or as late as age 5). Another sign: Taking her nap leaves her wide awake way past bedtime.
When her son Jimmy was 20 months old, Jennifer Porter, of Seattle, noticed that he became very opinionated about outfits. "He'd only wear a specific subset of clothes -- otherwise it was warfare!" says Porter. Your child's preferences are actually a sign that he's building a healthy sense of autonomy and wants to express his individuality. Sure, it can be embarrassing when your kid wears the same purple shirt day after day, but that's okay. "When it gets really, visibly dirty, then it becomes an issue of hygiene and having a respectable appearance," says Alkazian. "Put in a load of laundry together, and while you wait for it to dry, talk about patience, cleanliness, and moderation." Set some basic limits and try to have a sense of humor: Kooky clothing choices will make for some hilarious photo ops.
As toddlers gain body awareness, they may feel afraid of losing a part of themselves or falling into the toilet. Those who have been constipated may fear painful poops. To ease elimination, cut down on excess dairy and bananas, and increase water, juice, and fruits, which tend to loosen stools, says Dr. Wilkoff. If this doesn't work, your pediatrician may recommend a mild over-the-counter laxative.
However, if this strike is part of a potty-training power struggle, back off and let your toddler choose whether to go on the potty or stay in her diapers. "The more control you give your child, the sooner she'll be ready to move forward," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization devoted to infant and toddler development.
When it comes to eating, no one knows how to wield veto power like a toddler. "When my son was 2, he decided not to eat meals anymore," says Bridget Palitz, of San Diego. "If it was a snack food, a side dish, or a condiment, he could be persuaded, but forget about anything resembling an entrée." Picky eating usually starts around age 1, when a child's growth rate slows and he needs less food in general, says pediatrician Will Wilkoff, M.D., author of Coping With a Picky Eater. Between 1 and 2 years old is also a time of boundary testing and anxiety about new things, including people, smells, textures, and tastes.
Threats and bribes won't work. Don't make a big deal when your kid eats his peas -- or when he doesn't. In fact, avoid talking about the food at all. Just put it on the table, and model nutritious eating yourself. "Your child may not eat much that day or even the next, but he'll eat a balanced diet over the long haul," says Dr. Wilkoff. However, try not to let him fill up on snacks and drinks, and don't cave and fix him off-the-menu dishes.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Parents magazine.