Help! My Toddler Used to Be So Mellow!

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Image via Katie Hurley

I get a lot of requests for help from parents of 2 to 3-year-old children. Whether the request comes in email or phone call form, it always starts the same way: “My toddler was the best sleeper ever, so mellow, and so easy … but now everything is a nightmare!” Sound familiar? You’re not alone, weary parents.

As parents, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the “terrible twos” are the stage to fear. That’s when formerly quiet babies learn the power of “no” and become challenging, so the story goes. But that’s not the whole picture.

The truth is that the period of time between 18 months and three years is full of developmental changes. It’s an exciting time for little ones. They learn and grow at an alarming rate. But it can also be full of frustration. And sometimes the rapid growth and change throws parents for a loop. Many parents enjoy structure and routine just as much as toddlers and preschoolers do, and it can be challenging for parents when little ones suddenly fight things like sleep, eating, and bath time. What’s worse? When those mellow little babies suddenly begin acting like dictators. That can really throw you off your parenting game.

{ MORE: Why It's Great to Have a Strong Willed Kid }

The good news is that you can make a few small changes here and there to help your child through this developmental stage. Independence and curiosity are amazing things, you just might need to step back and reevaluate your routines to get back to the good part of parenting.

toddler meltdown
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Look for clues.

You might think you have the kind of toddler who rolls with the punches, but that kind of toddler is actually a myth. Sure, some kids are more flexible than others, but all toddlers benefit from some kind of structure and routine, and many factors can lead to stress and unpleasant behavior.

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The best way to figure out how to solve a problem is to identify the source of the problem. Track your child’s behaviors for at least three days. Make a note of happy times, relaxing times, meltdowns, and pushbacks (times when your toddler is pushing your boundaries). Write down time of day, possible triggers, eating habits throughout the day, and sleep patterns.

A pattern will emerge. You might find that your little one struggles at bedtime because she needs more or less sleep. It might be time to drop that nap and go for an earlier bedtime, or return to the nap because preschool wears her out. She might not be eating enough or you might be overfeeding her.

Always pay close attention to potential external triggers. Is mom or dad traveling more for work? Is there a change in his or her childcare provider? Has grandma moved away? New teacher? Illness? The list goes on.

{ MORE: How to Stop Toddler Aggression }

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Teach feelings identification.

Toddlers have a hard time communicating their feelings, but they sure do know how to yell. Make a feelings faces chart to help your child connect emotions to facial expressions. Talk about feelings with your toddler. Label what you see and ask your toddler if your guess is right.

Toddlers understand far more than they can verbalize. This can be a very frustrating stage for little ones. They try to gesture and verbalize what they want or need, but parents can’t always decipher what they’re saying.

Sign language can be a huge help, and it’s okay if you’re just getting started. Sign language helps kids verbalize their thoughts and needs and improves their language development.

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Give up some control.

All of this learning and growing leads to little ones wanting to make some of their own choices, thank you very much. But sometimes they communicate this need in an ever-so-slightly bossy manner. That can push the buttons of parents who aren’t used to such behavior out of their little ones, and the cycle of negativity begins.

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Try to identify some areas where you can give up a little control. If you aren’t yet letting your child attempt to dress independently, now is the time. Ditto for shoes. And socks. And yes, I am aware that this slows things down and frustrates parents, but it’s all part of growing up.

Think about all of the things that you do for your toddler each day. Now think about what things your toddler might do independently. Start there and watch your toddler feel more in control and responsible.

{ MORE: Mom Confessions: I Never Thought I Would ... }

tired toddler
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Tweak the routine.

It’s nice to have a specific routine to take the guesswork out of each day, but toddlers do change as they grow and their routines should grow with them. Bedtimes, eating schedules, amount of physical activity, and downtime should change as they get older.

Readjust your expectations for busy, squirmy toddlers. In a couple of years, sitting still in a restaurant won’t be an issue, but that’s a tall order for a toddler that would rather be doing anything else.

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Remain calm.

Toddlers pick up on parental stress, anger, anxiety, and sadness. But they also pick up on the good stuff. Find ways to cope with your own frustration during those difficult moments (hint: relaxation breathing is always a winner) so that the situation doesn’t snowball.

This too shall pass, tired parents. One day this will all seem a distant memory. For now, keep calm and drink lots of coffee.

{ MORE: How You Know You're Winning at Parenting }

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Help! My Toddler Used to Be So Mellow!

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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