Social Arts: “Mommy, don’t do that!”

Dear Miss Faith, With my 2.5yo daughter there is such dramatic push and pull –she wants to sit on our laps during mealtime, sometimes eat herself, sometimes be fed, sometimes direct which bites to have (particularly annoying…); she demands to be carried upstairs then shrieks “Don’t hold me!” and bats at my hands but clings on as if the air will propel her upstairs, not my hands. It is as if she wants to be right next to you, right on top of you sometimes, but doing things herself, and boy, if you interfere, let fury unfold. It sounds really odd as I’m describing it, but she gets really bent out of shape and things have to be done over – I mean totally started again. If I try to help her put her shirt on but she didn’t want help, then all the parent germs have to be wiped off, hands washed, a new shirt found, etc. It’s kind of funny, kind of nice to see (her desire for competence, no wallflower here), but sometimes extremely tedious, like a skipping record (this is how our days begin). I guess this is normal, but it is sometimes challenging to navigate. Is this is purely a mark of healthy individuation? Faith, do you have any resources/reading for what IS going on developmentally at this stage?

Dear Mama,

What to do when you open the door and your child suddenly has a meltdown because SHE wanted to open the door? Do you close it again and let her open it? Do you re-light the candle that you blew out without thinking about it, and let her blow it out herself? My unequivocal answer is No. Although it (sometimes) avoids a tantrum in the short term, I think that it’s not really serving your child, nor your relationship with one another.

So what’s going on here?  I believe that what you’re going through is part of the process of individuation:  As the child discovers that she really, truly is separate from you, this brings up the vital question: “If I’m separate from my mom (and everyone else), where is my place in the world and what is my relationship to those around me–especially mom?”  Some children respond by becoming very clingy and going through a ‘shy’ period, others respond by becoming suddenly aggressive with others, and still others respond by becoming very bossy and/or demanding, often telling mom to “go away,” or “don’t sing,” etc.

Then starts a tricky time.  We, as the adults who love these little beings intensely, see their individuality emerging and we don’t want to ‘squash’ them. We want them to be happy, and we’re used to doing what they want, so when they start making unreasonable demands, we go along with it. We figure that it’s ‘just a phase.’ We still try to say yes to them all the time, even when it’s uncomfortable. Then we are exasperated that they’re still not satisfied. What’s going on?

My feeling on the subject is this: when children become demanding, they are asking (in the only way they know how) what their place is, in relationship to you. And I think that what they long to hear is NOT “I love you and I’ll put up with your unreasonable demands,” but what they long to hear is this: “You are separate from me, but you are part of the family. Your place in the family is as the child, to explore and grow and help. My place in the family is as the parent, to guide, protect and love. I will help you find your place in the world. You will not have to figure that out on your own. You are not in charge.”

Hearing/experiencing that they’re not in charge is both a disappointment and a relief to children. It’s a short-term disappointment, and a long-term relief. That’s why it’s so hard for us to read that it’s the right thing for them–because they whine and cry and are desperately disappointed. But at the same time, we’re giving them the message, “I am in charge. I will protect you and help you find your way in the world. You don’t have to be in control (overwhelmed). I will show you how things go. I am the parent.” When they get that message enough, they can relax and stop trying to control things all the time. They don’t have to push the boundaries all the time, to see if you’re in charge or they’re in charge. They can relax into the rhythm that you set for them, and be happy to explore and grow and help.

So, with this image in mind, how can we help them learn to roll with the punches and move through disappointment, instead of just overpowering them? There are a couple of things you can do:

1) Let your children know know that sometimes they get to make the choices, and sometimes they don’t.

When I say “sometimes” that means:

  • In some situations. (“You will get to choose what to wear at bedtime. At nap, you wear your clothes.”)
  • At certain times within a situation. (“Would you like me to carry you up the stairs, or will you walk?” She chooses for you to carry her, but then half-way up she throws a fit. You say, kindly, “I’m sorry, the time for choosing is done. Next time, you can choose to walk.”) This phrase is useful anytime you offer a choice and they choose one thing and change their mind. It can be hard at first, but pretty quickly they will stop trying to change their decision, and everyone is much happier. In fact, research has backed this up: people tend to be much happier with the decisions that they make when the decisions are non-reversible.

If you’ve traditionally given your child the power of making the decisions in a certain situation that no longer feels good to you (she will only buckle into her car seat while you stand outside the door and look away from her, with the car door open, but now it’s winter, etc.) then you can let her know, at a time when you’re both calm, that the rules are going to change:  “Up till now you got to buckle into your car seat by yourself while I stood outside the door, but from now on things are going to be different.  You can buckle in while I get into the front seat, or I will buckle you in.  You can cry if you need to, although I hope you won’t!”

2) Be compassionate when your children are disappointed.

When you announce that she doesn’t get to choose to wear pyjamas at nap time, or whatever it is that you’re changing, she will be very disappointed. You can be compassionate without changing your mind. “Wow, you wish you were the one to choose, don’t you.” Since she’s not used to you limiting her choices, she may well even throw a full-blown tantrum or have a complete meltdown. Stay with her, and stay compassionate. “You’re not used to the time for choices to be done. You’re just learning that sometimes you get to choose, and sometimes you don’t. It’s OK to be disappointed. I will protect you.” Letting your child know through your calm and compassionate attitude that you’re not scared of their big feelings is VERY reassuring. My guess is that you’ll only have to go through a couple really big ones before your child can start to relax into feeling safe, as long as you stay consistent with your new rules.

3) When you’re saying “no” to something your children want, remember that children often hear that as you saying that they shouldn’t FEEL that way.

So say yes to their longing, to their passion, without saying yes to the action. And bring in one (or more) of the five ways children feel connected. “We’re going to keep our clothes on right now. You can take them off at bedtime.” She protests. “You love to be naked, don’t you? I bet you would be naked ALL DAY. What if *I* started to be naked, too? And Daddy? We’d all be naked together. That would be funny!” (You’re using Imagination and Exaggeration to connect.) She starts taking off her shirt. “Oops! Shirt stays on. We’re just imagining that we’re being naked right now.” She starts to melt down, so you pick her up. “You wish you could take it off, but we’re going to keep it on. What should we do instead? Give a kiss?” Give her a kiss. “Give a snuggle?” You nuzzle her neck (connecting through Movement and Love). She’s pushing you away, frowning and smiling at the same time. You look at her. “Are you ready for a story, yet?” (helping her move on from disappointment).

Since she’s used to being able to make decisions all the time right now, it will may be a struggle in the beginning. Changing habits is hard, both for kids and for us! Just remember that underlying message that she’s longing to hear: “You are the child, and your job is to explore, grow, and help. I am the parent, and my job is to guide, protect, and love. You will not be in charge of everything yourself. I will help you find your way.”


  1. Jackie Beach says

    This was very revealing. My almost-2.5 yr old behaves similarly. I’ve often thought recently that toddlers can be very bi-polar! He wants one thing, then the next second, he wants the opposite! I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of catering to his whims, but then getting frustrated when it still doesn’t make him happy. This post definitely opened my eyes to what my little guy is feeling when he acts this way.
    One question springs to mind: what about when he wants to dictate what I do when we’re just playing/interacting? He’ll say “Mommy, don’t sing!” or if I’m not playing with something the “right” way…I’m not sure how to respond in this type of situation.

    • Laura Katis says

      I have had similar experiences with my son Charlie, who is 4. He can play independently, but often it is hard to get him started. So, he’ll call Mommy, Mommy, and ask me to play with him. But when we play, he’ll tell me to make the doll/object say this or that continuously. It does not feel right to do it, but I have trouble getting out of it. I’ll pretend to be the doll/object and make them speak (in my own way) but if I don’t say it exactly as he wants it, he’ll get upset.

      This reading has so much pertinent info for me right now. I would like to find more ways to assure Charlie that he is not in charge. Because I think he feels he is, and is overwhelmed and acting out. How can I say this without saying it? Or, should I literally be saying the words “I am the parent, and I am here to guide you”?

    • Jackie and Laura, During play, there can be times when it’s OK for the child to call the shots and control the action, but even then they shouldn’t be in charge ALL the time. How can you tell how much is too much? For the most part, by how you feel. If you don’t mind doing the things they demand during play, then go ahead and do them. It is nice to have some role-reversal during play, so that HE gets to be the one who bosses others around, instead of you! But if you start to feel annoyed, then don’t stuff it. Remember, a very important aspect of play is the give-and-take of it: two people being imaginative and having fun together. Two people being mutually responsive. If you ALWAYS let your child call the shots during play, then he’ll have a much harder time playing collaboratively with other children. So if you start to feel annoyed, you can let him know, “No, I think I’ll stay in this chair,” or, “I’m done talking in a squeaky voice.” If he’s disappointed, you can be sympathetic, or try something else that’s fun, or shift to another activity. If your child won’t stop being bossy during play, won’t accept suggestions, won’t accept alternatives, it’s absolutely OK to say, “I’m not enjoying this game. I’m going to do some work in the kitchen instead. You can stay here or come with me.” If he suddenly changes his tune, you can decide: do you want to join his play again, or will you let him know that he’ll have another chance the next time you play? Remember, you’re helping him learn the give-and-take of true play.

  2. Laura – my daughter is 4 and I have to say that it is comforting to me to hear you describe exactly the same way Lili wants to play with me- I could’ve written your post.

    It’s funny- the other day I told her, after telling her that no, she needed to do what I say, and that “you are not in charge”, she said, “I *WANT* to be in charge!”. But I must say, since I have been working on being more firm along with connected.. the discipline is going better – meaning, I seem to be getting less resistance. And, overall things just feel more harmonious. Is she feeling safer? I bet. It could also be that identifying what I need then sticking to it/sticking up for mommy that I am contributing to the harmony, too.

    • This is great, Kim! And one more thought: I read a quote in a book by T. Barry Brazelton that has always stuck with me. I’m totally paraphrasing, but it went something like, “Anytime you step up your discipline efforts with your child, make sure that you step up your love and affection an equal amount.” This has always stuck with me and I do my best with it whenever I’m suddenly expecting more from a child.

  3. Brittany Longhurst says

    It is so encouraging to know that I’m not the only one encountering these types of issues with my child. I am more & more excited about this tele-class every time I read something else.

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