Frustrating Things Your Child Does That are Also Completely Normal
With all the family time at home over the past few months, there are likely MANY (many, many...) things your kids have been doing that drive you up the wall. You have every right to go lock yourself in the bathroom to escape the madness. You may be wondering why on earth certain behavior is happening, or maybe you are at the end of your rope trying to figure out what to do about it. Rest assured, you are not alone.
There are three common (but developmentally appropriate) behaviors that can be quite confusing and frustrating for parents: blatant defiance of directions, picky eating, and potty training regressions. Let's talk about WHY these are typical parts of child development and what we, as parents, can do about it.
Have you ever asked your child NOT to do something (like throw their food, or spray down the entire couch with sunscreen...[true story]), and their response is to smile and keep doing exactly what you told them not to do? Yep, this is typical and expected toddler behavior.
Toddlers are beginning to see themselves as independent beings, understanding that they have their own opinions and can make their own decisions. In addition, making independent decisions is one way for many toddlers to grow their budding self-confidence. In the earliest stages, we see this when our toddlers constantly tell us ‚"no," or when they blatantly defy a direction. They are experimenting; this is good evidence that their thinking and perspective-taking is evolving, but is also certainly (ahem, most definitely) annoying at times.
What can you do about it?
Avoid telling your child what NOT to do. Rather, tell them what TO do. For example, instead of saying, "Don't spray the couch with sunscreen!‚" tell your child, "Sunscreen is for spraying on our bodies. You can spray the sunscreen on your arm or leg." Kids are curious by nature, and even though they likely know that sunscreen doesn't go on the couch, they become easily excited to explore and try new things. What we want to avoid is an ever-growing power struggle between you and them; set clear expectations by using a calm, neutral voice to explain exactly what you want to see them doing.
Furthermore, find ways to honor this budding independence in decision making by giving them opportunities to make positive decisions throughout the day. Some examples include: asking them to choose what color plate they want at lunch, honoring the stories they've chosen to read together at bedtime, or giving them choices between activities (e.g., park or pool) if possible.
Most children will experience a picky eating phase, most likely between 1 and 3 years of age, give or take. In a 2015 survey of 4,018 parents, 46% of parents reported their children to be picky eaters at some point during childhood, most commonly between 18 months and 3 years of age (1). There are many contributing reasons for this, including a child's growing independence (see above about defying directions) and the fact that they may just need less food than they did during their first year or two of life. It's also important to note that the amount of food children need may drastically differ from one day to the next. This is also normal and expected, though can sometimes be perceived as picky eating.
What can you do about it?
When you are working through bouts of picky eating, the most valuable thing you can do is to avoid pressuring your child to eat. It is our job to teach young children to listen to their own hunger and fullness cues, and if we constantly tell them what and how much to eat, this will quickly teach them to disconnect from their innate ability to eat intuitively - which can lead to additional eating-related issues in the future. During picky moments, honor your child's picky-ness and give them the freedom to make their own food choices. This does NOT mean your child gets to demand goldfish for every meal and snack. You are the adult, you get to choose what is served. It is your child's choice whether or not to eat it.
Positive mealtime experiences are also incredibly valuable to combat picky eating. A 2012 study that examined associations between mealtime enjoyment and picky eating found that children who, per parent report, seemed to enjoy mealtimes and cooking were less likely to exhibit picky eating tendencies (2). This speaks to the value of using mealtime as an opportunity for connection. Yes, mealtimes should also be opportunities for children to eat and nourish their bodies, but once the food is served and everyone is seated, take the focus off the food and enjoy this time together.
Let's say your 4-year-old has been potty trained for over one year, but suddenly they've started having seemingly unexplainable accidents - potentially at the most inopportune times. This doesn't mean that they've suddenly "forgotten" how to use the potty; this is likely a symptom of something deeper going on. Potty regressions tend to pop up during stressful times, life events, or transitions (think - moving to a new house, starting at a new school, or welcoming a new sibling into the family). It may seem like your child is choosing to have these accidents, but it's probable that they don't fully understand why these accidents are happening.
What can you do about it?
Jump back to your potty training days and remember: keep the potty positive. When an accident occurs, keep your reaction calm and neutral. Acknowledge that it happened by saying, "Uh oh, we didn't make it to the potty this time." If you begin noticing that accidents are happening regularly, share with your child what you are noticing. Ask them if they have any thoughts or feelings about the accidents, and work together to develop a plan for reducing accidents and making it to the potty.
Parenthood is a strange combination of wonder, love, confusion, frustration, anger, mess, and fun. As a parent, going through these phases with your child can feel incredibly overwhelming; please always reach out if you feel like you need some additional guidance or support!
Note: if you are ever seriously concerned about your child's behavior, caloric or nutritional intake, or sudden regression in toileting, always consult with their pediatrician for guidance.