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Don’t worry, your toddler is not a jerk

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Dinner with my daughter used to be my favourite time of day, but now that she’s 21 months old, I dread it. It starts off well enough: I watch Dale greedily gobbling up the food I’ve lovingly prepared and her hilarious expressions as she experiences new flavours and textures. It makes me feel appreciated, when parenting can often feel like a thankless job.

Then things take a turn for the worse. “More, please?” she’ll ask, pointing to her empty bowl. Obligingly, I’ll run to the fridge to replenish the avocado or pulled chicken—excited that tonight’s menu was a hit—but then I’ll watch with dismay as she smushes the fresh food in her hands like Play-Doh and then—a second blow—wipes the carnage on her clothes.

“Wash hands!” she’ll demand next, followed by another series of screams as she pulls her hands away at the sight of a wipe. Defeated, I release her from her high chair—avocado hands intact—and feel myself flinch as a mischievous smirk spreads across her face. It’s one of the confusing (and often infuriating) cycles of our day that makes me forget my once-sweet baby and wonder, When did my kid turn into such a jerk?

Toddler copying mom whose pointing finger at him
How to discipline a toddler? 29 toddler discipline tactics that workIt turns out I’m not alone in feeling like my kid has transformed into a raging tyrant (seemingly) overnight. And not only is it typical, but it’s developmentally necessary. Between the ages of one and a half and three, kids are just gauging tolerance for certain actions, but this behaviour can be misinterpreted as “naughty,” says Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist, and the author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid. While my instinct was to read Dale’s shift in personality as a reflection of poor parenting skills, Kolari assures me this is part of the development process, and understanding that is the first step in reining in the behaviour.

Exploring limits
There are a few reasons your toddler may be acting out, and a big one is to challenge their limits, as well as those of their parents. “Kids at this age are testing boundaries and experimenting with the world to see where they have push and pull,” Kolari explains. They’re getting older and becoming more independent, but they’re still not quite sure what that means.

Communication breakdown
At the same time, toddlers are learning how to communicate their wants and needs. Language and vocabulary are very limited, which can lead to a lot of frustration. “They’re kind of like little cavemen. It’s way easier to just grab something or scream than it is to find all of those words floating around in their head and try to put them together into a statement,” says Kolari.

Emotional roller coaster
As a parent, it can be difficult to watch your little one shift from the excitement of learning to crawl, walk or say their first words to the unexpected and explosive anger that is unleashed any time you don’t cut their grapes in just the “right” way. Janet Lansbury, an educator and author of No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, points out that the part of toddlers’ brains responsible for regulating emotions is still developing. “Your child very likely understood that you didn’t want her to hit you or her friends, siblings or pets, dump her food or water onto the floor, whine, scream and call you ‘stupid,’ but her impulses made a different choice,” says Lansbury.

Understanding the world
Parents should try not to take this behaviour personally and try to respect that their child is attempting to be a good student in figuring out how the world around them works, adds Kolari. “They’re not banging on the table to ruin your beautiful table—they’re doing it to see if it makes a cool sound.”

‘Bad’ behaviour triggers
Lansbury agrees that what parents might see as “bad” toddler behaviour is just how they learn or try to communicate some form of discomfort. She recommends parents stop and take a moment to check in with their little one when an outburst occurs. Go through a mental checklist: Are they tired, hungry or overstimulated? “I try to disempower ‘bad’ behaviours by allowing them to roll off my back,” says Lansbury. “I show them I acknowledge their feelings by saying something like, ‘I hear how angry you are about leaving the park. That really disappointed you.’” It may feel silly at first, but showing that you understand what they’re experiencing and mirroring the appropriate response will help them learn how to communicate.

One of the most important things about this phase is that it’s totally normal, adds Lansbury. Even the most patient parents will struggle to deal with angry, indignant, unreasonable toddlers. I try to remember that as I begin cleaning up the dishes. “No dishes, Mommy!” Dale screams. “Only Daddy does dishes.” Maybe she’s reasonable after all.

Read more:
Why doesn’t my toddler like positive reinforcement?
7 genius comebacks for when your toddler asks why

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I am a father of three and my wife is a registered nurse specialized in children.

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