Inside: 5 steps to parenting a stubborn toddler without losing your calm or your joy.
“I want RECTANGLES!!!” my toddler belted at the top of her lungs as I sat her grilled cheese sandwich in front of her.
Her grilled cheese sandwich that was cut into triangles.
You see, ninety-nine percent of the time I cut her sandwiches into rectangles. But that afternoon, my sleep-deprived, overwhelmed brain was elsewhere, and for some reason the knife just went through the other way.
“RECTANGLES!!!” she screeched again.
I sighed. This was the moment I had to decide how to handle my so-called stubborn toddler.
On principle, I wasn’t about to make her a new sandwich, but even if I wanted to, I had just used the last two pieces of bread. But I also knew she would refuse to touch the sandwich now that it didn’t meet her shape-related specifications. (Good for her for knowing her shapes, though!)
I took a deep breath, let the frustration tunnel through my body, and reminded myself of the truth about “stubborn toddlers.”
Parenting a Stubborn Toddler in 5 Steps
Step 1: Remember that rigidity is totally normal toddler behavior.
Variety is the spice of life…except if you’re a two-year-old!
Repetition is key in early child development. It’s not at all unusual for toddlers to want to read the same book again and again, follow the exact same bedtime routine night after night, or eat the same foods cut into the same shapes.
Rigidity is usually a sign of a healthy developing toddler, not a “stubborn” one.
That’s because toddlers are just beginning to recognize and predict their routines. So much of their world is new, surprising, and completely out of their control, which can be equal parts exciting and frightening. A bit of predictability is comforting!
So when that comfort is taken away through an unexpected tweak to their habit or routine—baths before dinner instead of after, or only two kisses before bed instead of the standard three—it throws their sense of the world for a loop. We grown-ups know that it isn’t a big deal, but to a toddler, it feels like a monumental shift!
If they could verbalize it, toddlers might say:
If this usually predictable part of my world can suddenly change, what else can? What will be next?
Like I said: Equal parts exciting and terrifying.
Remembering how big the world is to our little one, and therefore how reassuring regular routines are, can help us be more empathetic when our toddlers aren’t going with the flow the way we might like.
Step 2: Watch out for other signs of toddler anxiety.
While Step 1 demonstrates that all toddlers love structure and routine, it IS possible for your tot’s so-called “stubbornness” to be a sign of deeper anxiety—especially if sudden changes or transitions leave your child totally unraveled for the remainder of the day.
With that in mind, it’s worth considering whether your little one has any of the other common signs of toddler anxiety, like hyper-sensitivity to noises or fabrics, extreme separation issues, regular sleep disturbances, and behaviors that border on ritualistic.
If that’s the case, your stubborn toddler may actually be an anxiety-prone one —which is totally fine!
A more sensitive temperament can be a real blessing in today’s world, and there are lots of resources out there to help parents support and build resiliency in anxious children.
Step 3: Decide when rigidity is OK.
We are a society that worries ad nauseam about overindulging our kids. Case in point: The fierce debate over whether you can spoil a baby. (Surprise! You can’t.)
Likewise, many parents worry a lot about “giving in” to their so-called stubborn toddler. The fear, I think, is that such indulgence will make the problem worse instead of better.
But when we remember that it’s really not a problem in the first place—just a regular phase of childhood that will naturally improve with age and emotional maturity—we can let our guards down and even feel good about it.
Just decide which parts of your routine are fine to keep in place 99% of the time because they’re not intruding on anyone else.
For example, if your toddler likes Mommy to sit on her left and Daddy to sit on her right at dinner every night, is it really a big deal to just plop down in those assigned seats almost every time? If not, just do it. You aren’t likely to inflict any long-term harm.
Step 4: Decide when rigidity is not OK—and discuss with your toddler ahead of time.
Inevitably there will be times when your toddler’s regular routine is shattered; this is life, after all!
Whenever possible, explain to your toddler what that change is going to be ahead of time, that way it doesn’t seem like his entire world is suddenly shifting without any forewarning. To stick with the dinnertime seating example, you could let your little one know that guests are coming over for pizza tonight, so the seating will need to be arranged differently to accomodate everyone.
Also let him know (in a reassuring, upbeat voice!) that the change will be fun, but that you’re also excited to sit next to him again the following night, just like usual.
Much of the time, that little advanced explanation is enough to keep your toddler calm in the face of something new.
Step 5: Practice tweaking the usual routines.
Have Mommy and Daddy switch seats every now and then.
Try out a new bedtime song.
Cut that sandwich into a brand new shape.
Show your toddler that her world isn’t going to collapse.
Why won’t it? Because you are there for her.
Show her that when something suddenly seems foreign and scary, your reassuring hug is ready to go. Your support is unwavering. You’re not going to sigh and grumble about your “stubborn toddler.” You’re going to take her hand and help her be brave in this surprising world.
Of course, the key is to practice when the stakes are low. (Read: Not in public, or when you have brand new friends over, or when your toddler didn’t nap well.) That way, if your toddler does melt down, you’ll be calm enough to be the emotionally supportive parent you want to be.
So what happened with that sandwich?
“That sandwich looks a lot different than the ones I usually give you, doesn’t it?” I said. “And eating new food can sometimes feel scary.”
“I will NOT eat it!” my toddler declared, crossing her arms and everything.
“Ok, you don’t have to eat it. You’re welcome to just eat the other food on your plate. But how about I come eat my lunch next to you? That way, if you decide to try the triangle sandwich, you’ll know I’m close by.”
She didn’t object.
And after a few minutes, she ate the sandwich.