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Tips for Parenting “Difficult” Toddlers

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As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I get an opportunity to talk with parents of young children every day. This week I’ve been emailing back and forth with a mom on the other side of the country that I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with several times over the last year. We were discussing concerns about her child and I shared some of my personal stories with her, not from a therapist’s perspective, but from motherhood. She sent me this line…

I didn’t know you had experience with a “difficult” child. Then you know firsthand of all the uncertainties, the ups and downs, the good and the bad days.

Oh yes I do.

Thankfully…my “difficult” toddler is now an adult.

This is GOOD NEWS for those of you who are living with difficult toddlers now because many, many days, I was not sure we’d both make it out alive! But we did… and you will too!

Although he made me want to pull my hair out, cry, and have a meltdown of my own during many of his early years, I am so grateful that I got to parent that child firsthand because it gave me a wealth of information to share with moms and dads who are currently living through a particularly challenging season. Before I share with you the things that worked for us and the hundreds of other families I’ve shared this advice with, let’s define difficult toddlers.

When we’re describing difficult toddlers, we’re usually referring to their personalities or “temperaments” as a child psychologist would say. This means their inborn, pre-set way or relating to other people and the events of every day life.  According to the fabulous resources at Zero to Three, there are 5 different factors that contribute to temperament:

  • Emotional intensity
  • Activity level
  • Frustration tolerance
  • Reaction to new people
  • Reaction to change

These qualities combine to make up 3 basic temperament types:

  1. Flexible (Easy-going) – 40% of children
  2. Fearful (Shy) – 15% of children
  3. Feisty (Intense or Difficult) – 10% of children

Let me give you some more details about each of these types.

Flexible children usually have regular rhythms, are quick to adapt to situations, and display a positive mood most of the time. They are described as easy going. Changes don’t bother them. Even though they experience the same highs and lows of the day, they manage to go with the flow. (I also had a child like this too!)

Children who are fearful are slow to warm up and acclimate to unfamiliar circumstances. They withdraw often, cling to a parent, and are likely described as “shy.” Psychologists have found that this personality trait has a strong genetic component. Chances are, if you or your child’s other parent have this temperament, you are more likely to pass this on to your baby. When I shared this information with one mom, she looked over at her miserable toddler who was still recovering from the trauma of coming to a new place with a new person (my office and me!) and said to him, “That explains a lot. You got this from me. I apologize to you in advance.”

Kids in the feisty group can be described as active, intense, irregular, moody, easily distracted, and sensitive. These are our difficult children. Parenting a child with this temperament feels like riding a roller coaster. You never quite know what’s around the next bend. Admittedly, life can be hard with these toddlers, but I am here to testify that the things YOU do can make it easier for all of you.

Not all children fall neatly in to one of these categories. A full 35% of children display mixed temperaments meaning they’re not the same all day, every day. (I also parented a child like this.)

A child’s temperament does not always predict how he or she is going to react in any particular situation, but it can explain why they’re responding as bewildered parents scratch their heads and ask, “What in the world is wrong???”

While all children can display the kinds of traits that cause a parent to begin to think of them as “difficult,” very young children with developmental delays seem to exhibit these behaviors more frequently and for a longer period of time than other toddlers. It makes sense that they would struggle in the area of temperament too. Their entire little systems are atypical – for lack of a better word.

The main take-away message here that I share with parents and therapists is that by knowing a child’s underlying temperament, we can anticipate their reactions and plan strategies to help a child cope. For example, if we know that a child is fearful of change, we can take extra care to help them feel secure as we enter a new place and learn which cues seem to make transitions between activities smoother. If a child is feisty, we know that he’s easily wound up and can become overloaded so we look for signs of any impending eruption and help him settle down before a full-blown tantrum occurs.

The personal advice I promised you is based on this principle. When our difficult child was a toddler and preschooler, we knew he operated best with predictable schedules including regular meals and a set bedtime. We found that if his basic needs were met, he was calmer and (fairly) in control. He required plenty of opportunities for physical activity to work through some of his intensity which meant we played outside almost every day and planned for rowdy times indoors too, especially on days when we couldn’t get out of the house. He had specific preferences for food, clothing, and activities and such strong dislikes that confused even this trained therapist-momma. I quickly learned to nurture his interests and de-emphasize what was hard (or awful!) for him until he was ready. When he had particularly “off” days, his dad and I didn’t fight it. We adjusted our expectations and schedules knowing his unpredictability, grumpiness, and on some days, irrational irritability, would subside. That actually became one of my mantras…This too shall pass.

He was a kid who responded well to knowing what to expect for everything in his day. The unknown could be a problem so I did my best to eliminate those surprises. I made little picture books for him to explain upcoming situations. We talked (and talked and talked!!) through situations that were tough for him.

The tricky part here is that verbal explanations and reasoning are difficult for a young child with language issues who doesn’t yet understand complex conversations. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! Keep it simple, but do explain what’s going on and how a child is feeling using words he does understand.

My best advice to parents in this situation is to think about soothing a child through exasperating times, not only with your words, but with actions too. For example, if your difficult child is upset when you have to leave the playground, give him advanced notice that you’re getting ready to go using concrete words such as, “I can push you 3 more times on the swing then we’re all done. We’ll be going home. 3 more pushes. Ready? 1…2…3! Woo hoo! That was fun! Swing is all done. Time to go bye bye.”

If he’s becoming upset that you have to leave, head off the meltdown. Scoop him up in your arms or make it more fun with a race to the car. Talk about what comes next in order to help a child look forward rather than dwelling on what he’s leaving behind. Say something like, “I know you’re sad we have to go. You love to swing.” Then shift the child’s attention. Try “Are you hungry? Let’s get a snack at home. What should we eat? Cookies? Grapes? Cheese? Mmmmm! What do you want?” Or better yet, have a snack waiting in the car so that his attention is immediately redirected. As you’re walking away from the playground, say something like, “I bet you’re thirsty. Your cup is in the car. Let’s go get a drink.”

Can you see how strategies like this will work better to help an intense or fearful child? Rather than trying to “fix” an inborn quality that in all likelihood will diminish and soften as she grows up, especially with your loving support, we can meet a child where she is right now and help her learn to work through challenges.

Before I leave you with the wrong impression, parenting my own difficult child was not entirely bad. He taught me so much about life and about myself. He made me a better mom for our next two children and a much, much, much better speech-language pathologist. Through him, I learned to be flexible and that despite what I thought, I could not control everything that happened. I truly believe that his complexity created a deep connection between us that continues even though he’s all grown up. As he left our house last Sunday after an overnight visit, he hugged me and said, “You know I love you Mom.” Yes my child, I certainly do.

I love how finishes their article about temperament:

“Remember, the goal isn’t to change your child’s temperament, but to help him or her make the most of her unique temperament—both its strengths and the areas where she may need more support. By watching and learning from your child, you can begin to slowly and sensitively help your child adapt, to expand his world, and to feel more confident about his place in it.”

I couldn’t have said it any better!

If you’d like to take a look at the zerotothree site for more information, the link is here:

Temperament Q & A

Until next time…



Difficult toddlers can have trouble learning to participate, even in activities that are supposed to be fun. If you need some direction for learning to play and have more fun with your child, I highly recommend my book Teach Me To Play WITH You. The final chapter contains solutions for many of the common, and even the not-so-common, problems that may prevent a young child from playing with you and other people. I receive comments from parents every day that tell me how much this book helped them. Check it out here.


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