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Misbehavior or Developmental Task?
Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn:
Yesterday, I told my toddler not to touch the entertainment center. She looked right at me, laughed and then did it again. Lately this has been happening every day. She knows better. Isn't this blatant misbehavior? How should I respond? - Becca
It really can feel that way, and may even be frightening too if you project forward and wonder if she is like this at 2 what will she be doing at 14! Fortunately you can take a deep breath, relax and even celebrate that your daughter has reached a new stage of development that you'll be guiding her through. She really is not “out to get you."
Everything in a toddler's brain is screaming, "Do it. Find out what will happen!" That's her developmental task, which is why words alone will never stop her. Your toddler is trying to figure out what the rules are around here. She doesn't learn this from trying something one time. Instead she will try it over and over again to make certain your response is always the same. It doesn't matter who is there, mom, dad, grandma, or the childcare provider, nor the time of day, she'll keep testing to figure out what the rule is. So your job as the adult in her life is to always be sure the rule is the same. If you say, "Stop,” not only do you need to say it, but get up, go to her and help her stop. In the process you are going to be telling yourself, "She is learning what is okay and what is not. She has to practice to learn. This is a lot of work but not a plot against me. By following through I'm teaching her she can count on me to do what I said I would do. In the long run this is really going to be worth it."
The real magic is as soon as you say, "Stop," give her the "do." "Stop, here's your button." Then show her the toy remote or cell phone you have for her. If she resists - which is likely because she's really smart - follow through with empathy, "I know you really like those buttons, but here are your buttons.” You'll notice we are not advising you to say, "Stop, do not touch the entertainment center." We're not even mentioning it, we're simply focusing on stop and do.
Question: When a toddler smiles at us and then does what we asked her not to do, it really can feel like she is intentionally trying to antagonize us. Do you believe a toddler has the ability to consciously think, "This is going to drive them crazy?" How do you keep yourself calm so you can follow through?