If a toddler doesn’t like someone, you’re going to know about it—and so is everybody else.
That makes for some awkward situations when you’re trying to catch up with a friend and your kid gives her the stink-eye, or you’re visiting with relatives and your child wants nothing to do with aunt Susan. It’s especially confounding when your little one had always been chill about things like this but is now suddenly super choosy.
But it’s not confounding at all when you remember that toddlers are tiny people with their own thoughts, opinions and preferences, says Sarah Rosensweet, a Toronto-based educator who specializes in a non-punitive, connection-based approach to parenting. “As adults, we have preferences for the types of people we like to spend time with,” she says. “We didn’t magically develop that when we grew up. We’ve always had that.”
And if the switch seems sudden, there’s likely a reason for it. In other words, your child may have a point.
When it comes to interactions with other kids, take a closer look at what’s going on. Does the other child continually try to take toys from your toddler or get physically aggressive when a conflict arises? This can lead to anxiety in your child, which may be masking itself as grouchiness.
That’s where a little strategic planning can go a long way: Put away special toys before the friend comes over, intervene in a constructive way if things get tense, and even let your child play in her room for a bit if she needs some space. The one rule: Be kind, which isn’t always easy for toddlers since they don’t have great impulse control. “I think there’s a case to be made for having to be kind to everybody,” says Rosensweet, “even if they’re not your best friend.”
When it comes to adults, the reasons for your child’s sudden cold shoulder may be equally understandable. Maybe a particular adult’s over-the-top greeting is startling. Or your child takes a little while to warm up to people they don’t see regularly and feels overwhelmed. And then, of course, there are those people—usually relatives—who want to shower them with hugs and kisses and don’t respect their personal space.
In all of those cases, it’s your job to tell the adults to back off—nicely, of course. Not only will it help your child get comfortable in the moment and during future encounters, but it also teaches a valuable lesson. “Especially in this day and age, we have to start early and explain to those adults that this is the beginning of consent,” says Rosensweet. “We don’t want to teach our children that other people can do things to their bodies that they don’t want them to.”
You can offer a compromise of sorts by seeing if your child will give the adult a high-five or simply a wave. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t, but if the person is offended, too bad; stay firm, even if you’re uncomfortable. Rosensweet’s advice: “Remind yourself: My loyalty is to my child, to respecting their autonomy and consent, and [to making sure] this person is treating them like a human being and not just a thing.”
So toddlers aren’t as crazy as they seem. Remember: They’re always trying to tell us something. We just have to figure out what it is.
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