The Confidence Game

Building a block tower that won’t topple, speaking so that grown-ups understand you, navigating a forkful of food without spilling most of it. Toddlerhood is filled with struggles to master tasks both large and small. It’s no wonder that these years are also filled with toddler tantrums and frustration.

Much of the behavior we label part of the “terrible twos” just comes with the territory  — it’s necessary for your child’s healthy development. Sure, it’ll threaten to drive you crazy, but there are many ways to respond positively. In the process, you’ll be nurturing your toddler’s self-esteem and helping him grow into a responsible, self-reliant, and happy child. So here’s how to turn the most common toddler traits into confidence boosters  — for both of you:

The Constant “No”

Usually between 18 and 36 months, a toddler will respond with a loud “No!” to many  — if not most  — of your requests. Your child is simply trying to establish her own identity, though that’s probably small comfort to you right now.

What you can do: Grit your teeth and ignore those nos  — most of the time your child is really asking, “Do I have to?” Try to avoid asking open-ended questions, such as, “Do you want to read a book?” and when possible, rephrase them as choices: “Do you want me to read Goodnight Moon or Green Eggs and Ham?” Try giving a qualified yes  — “Yes, you can have a cookie, right after lunch”  — instead of responding “No” all the time yourself.

A Desire for Independence

After spending a year relying on you for almost everything, your child is ready to try things on his own. Unfortunately, his desire often outstrips his ability, which is one reason toddlers are notorious for their tantrums. (More on that later.)

What you can do: Pick your battles. For instance, for health reasons you’ll want to brush your toddler’s teeth yourself. But he can certainly brush them for a little while on his own. When it comes to dressing, though, try to resist the temptation to take over, even if you can do it faster. Buy toddler-friendly clothes  — elastic-waist pants, shoes with Velcro-type flaps, tops with stretchy neck holes  — and offer to help only if you sense his frustration.

At mealtimes, resign yourself to mess. Finger painting with ketchup and sticking both hands into the mashed potatoes are normal exploratory behaviors. If your child deliberately dumps his plate of spaghetti, end the meal (chances are he was through eating anyway). That sends a signal that his actions have consequences. An older toddler can learn the same lesson by helping you clean up.

Though your toddler will want to do everything for himself, on some days being grown-up may feel like too much pressure. Don’t insist that he act like a “big kid” when he regresses; it’ll only make him feel inadequate.

Cries of Frustration

Everything has the potential to irritate your child: Toys won’t do what she wants them to because she’s still relatively uncoordinated; other kids make her mad because she lacks the verbal and social skills to play with them.

What you can do: When your toddler cries because she’s fallen down or can’t fit a piece into her shape sorter, try not to trivialize her emotions. Instead, say, “Which piece are you having trouble with? Yes, that’s a hard one. Should we turn it and try it this way?”

But don’t rescue her too quickly. Although that may restore momentary calm, she may conclude that she’s helpless and needs you to intervene whenever things get tough.

If another child grabs her toy, show her how to ask for what she needs without crying: “Why don’t you tell Joey to give your ball back while I stand here next to you?” Instead of solving her problems for her, you’re helping her learn to cope with hard feelings and work out solutions.

When she has to stop doing something fun, there are two ways you can help her handle her disappointment  — give her time to wind down and offer her choices: “In just a few minutes we’ll need to leave the park. Would you like to go on the swing once more or keep playing in the sandbox? Should we walk to the car or would you rather have a piggyback ride?”

The Age of Tantrums

Lacking the verbal skills to express his emotions, your toddler may have a meltdown for seemingly trivial reasons  — when his toy train won’t stay on the tracks, for example, or when you absent-mindedly cut his toast into triangles instead of squares. Keep in mind that kids are more likely to fall apart when they’re exhausted, hungry, wound up, or bored.

What you can do: Remember that your child needs your support and encouragement, not your anger. When he’s in the middle of a tantrum, hold him. If he doesn’t like being restrained, sit nearby or talk to him in a soothing manner.

Whatever you do, don’t give in to his demands or you’ll reinforce the idea that if he screams loud enough, he’ll get his way. Instead, help him learn the words to express his frustration by talking about what made him mad. With a parent’s support, toddlers eventually can learn to handle disappointment without falling to pieces.

The “I, Me, Mine” Phase

Between 18 and 24 months, toddlers become more self-aware. They start to realize the differences between boys and girls and take a keen interest in their own appearance. They’ll begin to use pronouns, especially “I” and “me,” and are quick to label any toy or object “mine!” They’re also learning to describe how they’re feeling, whether it’s happy, sad, mad, tired, or hungry.

What you can do: Don’t expect your child to share graciously. (Insisting that she do so probably won’t persuade her anyway.) Instead, temporarily put a few of her favorite toys aside when a playmate comes over. Having two sets of certain things  — toy cars, balls, crayons  — can help. You can also try using a timer to make a game out of taking turns.

Whenever possible, label your child’s emotions: “I see you’re upset because we’re not going to Grandma’s today. You really wanted to see her. Let’s call her and tell her you’re sad.” This will not only help your tot’s self-esteem  — her parents think enough of her to read her signals  — but give her the words she needs to be able to talk about her feelings on her own.

Between 2 and 3, as little kids gain increased bowel and bladder control, they become more aware of their genitals. They take pride in their body and love to run naked; they’re fascinated with urine and feces, not to mention the contents of their nostrils, saliva, and gas.

Rather than automatically saying no when you see your toddler touching her genitals, give her the proper words for them (if you haven’t started already). Even if you feel uncomfortable, try to strike a balance between accepting her newfound body awareness and teaching her about the difference between private and public behavior.

The Need to Explore

Once your toddler can walk, there will be few places that are out of his reach. Even the medicine cabinet and the kitchen counter are fair game for curious hands and mouths  — your toddler can always move a chair to get to whatever catches his eye.

What you can do: First and most important  — toddlerproof. Parents who try to teach their kids not to touch things by saying no excessively will inhibit their desire to explore and encourage them to be passive.

Aside from that, be prepared to let your toddler go and explore when he needs to (which is most of the time). Remember that if he’s been confined in his car seat or stroller for a long time, he’ll want to run around.

You should also be on the lookout for his cues when he wants protection. Toddlers go through clingy periods during which they will not want to leave your arms or your side. Respecting your little one’s need to either cling or roam is the best thing you can do for him.

By providing consistent, attentive care without being overly protective, you’ll help your child feel lovable. And by supporting his budding independence, you’ll help him feel capable. Both are important ingredients for a healthy self-image  — one of the best gifts you can give your toddler for the coming years ahead.


  1. This was such a great post. I love the “no” reminder. I find myself saying no a lot by default and therefore my kids say it too. It’s such a downer to hear “no” all the time! We have major tooth brushing struggles because my almost-3-yr-old wants to do it independently. I’ve found that letting him brush independently when I’m done helps him to cooperate. Also, we’ve let our kids brush our teeth first; they get excited about getting the toothbrush in our mouths- a good visual for what we’re trying to do with them. I’ve also found this Mom’s Guide to have helpful tips, if you want to check it out. Thanks again for your insightful post.