Toddler Time: Understanding Your Little One's Rhythms

Impatient with a 1-year-old who's oblivious to deadlines? Try listening to her inner clock.

When Jacqueline Kremer has to rush her 22-month-old son, Benjamin, out the door to an appointment, she knows a showdown is inevitable. "The more I try to hurry him into putting his toys away and getting his coat on, the more he refuses -- he'll run away, or, worse, have a total meltdown. Then I'm not only late, but I've got a hysterical child on my hands too."

As parents like Kremer have learned the hard way, forcing a naturally slow-paced toddler into an adult-paced schedule is usually a losing battle. "Benjamin has no sense of the consequences of being late," says Kremer, who lives in Bozrah, Connecticut. "He can't understand that if we miss his doctor's appointment, we'll have to wait in the office all day."

From a child's viewpoint, parents spend a bewildering -- and frustrating -- amount of time rushing around. In contrast, 1-year-olds live in the present, without any real anticipation of what's to come. Understanding and accepting this basic difference between you and your child can help you avoid unnecessary confrontations.

"Parents assume that because toddlers are so physically active, they must have a fast mental pace too. The truth is, these kids live at a very slow pace, because they're learning so much and taking everything in," explains Julie A. Ross, author of Now What Do I Do? A Guide to Parenting Elementary-Aged Children (St. Martin's Press). And while toddlers seem to have an endless attention span for tasks that appeal to them, like opening and closing your favorite lipstick, they have zero tolerance for activities they don't enjoy, like a trip to the grocery store.

This toddler time warp occurs for two reasons, Ross says. First, young children get lost in the moment when they're concentrating on something pleasurable. Despite that ability to concentrate, though, "the frustration tolerance of an 18-month-old is minimal, so a short trip to buy milk might really feel like forever," she says. A toddler doesn't understand when you say, "Don't cry; we'll be done soon." All she knows is that she's miserable -- and you're still shopping.

Before age 2, though, most toddlers begin to learn some basic concepts of time that help them cope a little better, says Vansh Sharma, M.D., clinical director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center, in New York City. "For instance, they start to understand the sequence of things -- 'First I go into my high chair, then I eat.' " This concept will later help them grasp abstract ideas like hours and minutes, though most kids can't tell clock time until they're 6 or 7.

Toddlers become attuned to the rhythm of adult time through repetition and practice. "Children are oriented to time by their parents' behavior -- when they rise in the morning, when they eat, when they go to work," explains Morris Green, M.D., director of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis. Toddlers also have powerful internal time markers, such as when they get hungry and sleepy.

Despite our children's seeming obliviousness to our schedules, then, it's clear that they're sensitive to the pace of what's going on around them -- and have their own internal clocks that are easily disrupted by bustling parents.

"Children this age really get upset when they're playing and a parent hurries them away to do something else," Ross observes. "Toddlers are emotionally and intellectually engaged when they play, and when you interrupt that, you're really shutting off their learning and social development." Play is a toddler's work, and your being responsive to your little one's schedule lets her learn at her own pace.

Children perpetually forced to adapt to their parents' schedules can withdraw and suffer damaged self-esteem, Ross warns, or act out in self-defense: "When children feel as if they have no control over their environment, it lowers their confidence and self-reliance," she says. "I see more tantrums when children are constantly struggling with their parents over this issue." Sleeping, eating, and toileting can be disrupted, too, since some children withhold bowel movements or refuse to eat or sleep on schedule as a way of retaining control.

Obviously, there's good reason to find a balance between your child's sense of time and your own need to be timely. The first step is to know your child's temperament, Dr. Green advises. "Some kids are agreeable all day long, and some are cranky when they're tired or hungry, but other children have difficulty making any transition and get fussy if you try to rush them," he says. If you don't have a naturally agreeable toddler, you may have to make changes so your child won't feel harried. "You may be a morning person, but if your child likes a 10:00 a.m. nap, you're asking for trouble if you schedule early playdates," Dr. Green warns. In the end, you might be better off switching your own day around until your child is a little older.

In the meantime, isolate the times you feel the most rushed, Ross suggests. Are you having trouble squeezing in bathtime before dinner because your toddler likes to play with the bubbles? No one will really suffer if meals are a quarter hour later. Or try moving bathtime to after dinner. "Parents need to say 'My priority is to give my child time to live at her own pace,' " Ross notes.

Of course, some occasions demand that your 1-year-old march to your speedier drummer. But whether it's a special occasion or a routine event, parents can help get their toddler's inner clock in sync with their own.

Before it's time to go, give your child a gentle warning: "We have to leave in ten minutes." One reminder won't be enough for most kids this age, so Dr. Sharma advises checking in a few times before you try to tear her away. "One-year-olds have limited verbal skills, so you need to verbalize transitions for them," he says. The words will mean little at first, but they will introduce her to the idea of getting reminders before leaving. In a few weeks, she'll anticipate the transition and resist it less.

When you don't really need to follow a timetable, though, why not relax and enjoy the respite a 1-year-old's world offers? After all, appreciating the moment is a wonderful lesson children teach us -- and it's best savored together.

Parents Magazine

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