“No MommEEEE! No! NO! NOOO!”
These kinds of outbursts from your very young ones, several hundred times a day/seven days a week, can drive you crazy. It’s like you are personally put on earth to frustrate your toddler. Everything you want them to eat, they don’t want to eat it. Every toy you want them to try, they don’t want to play with it. Everything you want them to climb off of, you have to pry them kicking and screaming. And forget about throwing something in the trash, picking up a sock, or some other “constructive” chore. Your little one doesn’t want to do it and they are very vocal about letting you know.
The fact is, it isn’t personal. No matter how much it seems like your little kid will be an angel for grandma, or daycare, or daddy, or whoever, but NOT YOU… it isn’t true. What’s really going on is that your relationship and your environment (usually Mom, at home) is the default structure in her life. It is the most familiar to your child so she understands it most and can get frustrated or bored with it most. When you take her to grandma’s, or daycare, or someone else’s house, it is new and exciting and the emotions of curiosity take over. There’s usually more stimulation. The rules are different. The style and expectations are different (especially with dad). There is novelty as a child explores a different relationship or just goes off by themselves. But with Mom, at home, things make the most sense and are the most comfortable and the most familiar. It’s just you and them, calmer, closer. So it’s the most likely to cause frustration or rebellion. Thus you get the “Nyaaaah!” or “No! NOOOO!” often as you provide the rules, structure, and relationship boundaries that the child really needs.
In some ways, this is nice because it means you are a springboard for education and morality. On the other hand, it can drive you nuts.
This is probably the most common let-down for moms of toddlers and preschoolers. We don’t want everything to be a battle or a challenge. We want to make our children happy. And we don’t want to have a hard time with our baby while others have an easier time with them. We want a day with them to be blissful, precious. We have visions of them cheerfully playing with play doh or looking up at us with their surprised, grateful eyes as we help them. But instead it’s an afternoon of resisting naps, heading towards the stairs, spitting out food, or dumping the bowl down for the dog to lick up. (At least someone is surprised and grateful.)
The result is we start to feel challenged by our little one, like they are there to test us. They act like we’re there to test them! Then we’re guilty for feeling that way: what’s wrong with me that I’m struggling? We believe it’s all normal but it still feels personal.
Here’s one positive thought that you can use to combat this. Now that my children have grown up slightly, I can see that they STILL feel this way. And it’s not personal at all. A ten year old boy still feels frustrated and challenged and bored, and all the things your toddler does. And he still feels these things mostly at home, mostly with me. If he were still pre-verbal, he’d likely still be saying “Nyaah!” or ” No, Mommeee, NOOO!” Instead he just screws up his face, or kind of pouts a little, and drags his feet off to do whatever he wishes he didn’t have to do. Or goes off to self-soothe after a fallout with his sibling, or a beloved toy breaks. The feelings are just the same but the expression is different.
At the same time, he is just a little boy coping with disappointing feelings. These are sometimes caused by me–by rules or expectations–but mostly they are caused by him. They are just the fleshly way of dealing with let downs, whatever they may be, whatever the source is. That doesn’t mean that I can’t shape or discourage certain behaviors. I will not let him mouth off to me, just as I wouldn’t let him throw things across the room when he was 2. But now that he is older, I can have more mercy on his disappointed responses to life because I can see and understand them better. He can explain them. For the most part, I have discovered that he’s just an innocent ten year old boy. He’s not a teenager having really personal, vindictive thoughts towards his parents. And neither is your 2 year old.
Not convinced? Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Last summer, at the end of August, I noticed him walking through the kitchen with COMPLETELY DEMOLISHED sneakers. I mean, both sets of toes were entirely showing through the tops like an animal had chewed gigantic holes in them. I honestly don’t know how long they were like that, but I suspect it was awhile because when I made a big stink about it, my son was totally shocked like, “What? There’s a problem here?” As if he’d been walking around with them, rain or shine, and not having a problem with it until I suddenly discovered one.
Now I could have taken this personally. I could have interpreted this as an offense like, “You just don’t CARE about your shoes. Or how much money Mommy SPENT on those shoes.” Then I would have been projecting adult thoughts upon him–because that’s what you think if a friend ruins something you lent them, or if your sixteen-year old bashes up your car. But I took a step back from the situation, breathed, and depersonalized it. It suddenly occurred to me that he was a nine-year old boy and to assume nothing. Instead I asked questions like, “How long have your shoes been like that? (I don’t know.)” When did you first notice them like that? (Maybe the other day).” “Do you have any idea what’s causing that? (No. Maybe my bike?)” And so forth.
Eventually I was able to use my Mom Brain to figure that he was using his sneakers as brakes for his bike all summer. With more questioning, this was confirmed. But the point is, none of this was done to make me angry, to stall on purpose, or because my son had any thoughts about devaluing his possessions. In fact, he had had NO THOUGHTS AT ALL. That was the problem. It didn’t occur to him to think about the long-term consequences of using his sneakers for brakes. It didn’t occur to him that I would find out later and be mad, or that he would get wet toes as Autumn advanced. He just needed to stop, found the hand brakes hard to use, and didn’t think he needed to change things as his toes started making their appearance. It was a logic problem, not a slight against me.
He was also authentically stunned that I figured this all out. He looked at me like, “HOW did you get this?” That was the funniest part :)
The point is, my ten year old was not capable of calculating destruction and your little one isn’t either. They just can’t reason things through yet, and many of their lines of reasoning make no sense at all. Especially if you have a little boy, I would bet you ten dollars that most of his frustration and rebellion come from NOT thinking, not from evil thinking. A little kid can of course calculate to get their way to some extent (i.e. it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to go for the popsicles when you’re not looking). But the overall fact remains that at some point when your kids can talk to you and you can reason through things with them, that you will be AMAZED at how much they don’t know, can’t predict, and can’t understand. It will then make no sense at all why you ascribed such rational logic to them when they were a preschooler throwing a tantrum.
So what is the answer then? How do we deal with bad attitudes and behavior? Well, the first step, as I’ve said all along, is to depersonalize it. This has to be done before any kind of discipline or confrontation. Think of your toddler like a pet that can’t have what they want–the dog that wants their owner to wake up, or the cat that wants to escape outside. Your little child has a similar amount of evil intent and reasoning ability. They have very real desires and emotions, but these are not well thought out yet, and definitely not ascribed to YOU personally. The problem is that we’ve all seen a little too many movies like “Look Who’s Talking” or “The Incredible Journey” where the voices of animals and pets are given very adult-like scripts. In most cases, we’re projecting upon them what’s going on and then extrapolating from those responses instead of just treating them in a more matter-of-fact like manner.
Secondly, explore reasons why you might be projecting adult-like emotions on your child. Are you feeling insecure or guilty? Most moms are guilt-manufacturing machines. We just feel inadequate about everything, and baby’s responses plus cultural pressures only serve to confirm this feeling. Deal with that. You probably don’t feel too guilty about how you treat your pet. Again, this is a good rubric for about how much guilt you really should have at this stage of life. (You can save REAL guilt for the adolescent years, or if your kid isn’t toilet trained by age eleven ;)
Lastly, deal with the actual behavior that’s bothering you. Once you aren’t operating out of your own guilt and anxiety, come up with a plan that sublimates a bad response into a good one. For example, my ten year old is not allowed to mouth off at me any more than he was allowed to throw blocks across the room when he was little. But he is allowed to feel upset or depressed with my rules. I am ok with being a source of frustration and rebellion on some level–that’s my job. But I am not a doormat for his responses. I expect them, then shape them. A toddler should probably be allowed to say “Nyaaah!” But after that outburst, they still have to be led to do (or not do) what I asked. “You can be upset with picking up your toys, but you must still pick them up…” is kind of the attitude. Any actual defiant behavior at that point (throwing the toys around the room) would then require discipline.
The bottom line is, your little child wants what they want and will let Mommy know first when she stands in the way. But your little one is still LITTLE. They are just venting frustration right and left about what’s wrong with their world: their bodies, their limitations, their boredom, their sense of injustice. They don’t know you are a person, with feelings–with very sensitive Mommy feelings that will all crash down when they cry for the third day in a row over their nap. They are just trying to get what they want and they don’t understand why they can’t have it. It’s all about the moment.
So take a deep breath and realize it’s not personal. It’s not about you, even if your child SAYS that it is. I promise you that when your child grows up a little more and you can see how little they actually understand, you will realize that your two-year old is not capable of ascribing all the evil in the world to you.