When I told my toddler we’d be going to story time at the library, she was so excited that she started cheering and jumping up and down. Her big brother was finally back at school, and she was thrilled to have some solo time with me, doing a fun activity just for her.
But when we got there, instead of happily participating, she clung to my legs for dear life and gave everyone the stink-eye. When the lovely woman leading the session asked if she’d like to jump over the candlestick like the other kids, my daughter gave her such an angry scowl that the poor lady actually recoiled and said with a nervous laugh, “Guess that’s a no!”
I was horrified. I was also embarrassed and frustrated. We had planned this. She not only knew about it but also really wanted to go. Why was she being so difficult?
Yes, the answer is “because she’s a toddler,” but not for the reason you might think.
“[Toddlers] have the anticipation of wanting to go, and they’ve painted a picture [in] of that, but socializing is a real skill,” says Toronto-based family counsellor Alyson Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids. “So [a] can have an idea that they’re going to have fun, but when you arrive, they’re like, ‘I don’t know these people, I don’t know how to approach them, I want my mom to hold my hand so I can go over and investigate.’”
When you think about it, it’s a lot like how we might feel in a new social situation—a little anxious, a little worried and a little apprehensive, even if we’re also excited. The big difference is that toddlers don’t have the verbal skills to explain things in that way or the social skills to hide their discomfort.
Temperament, of course, can also be a factor. “Some kids need more structure,” says Schafer. “They’re not as open to new experiences, and they’re not as flexible.” Other children might be overwhelmed by noise, a plethora of people or any other number of things.
On an even more basic level, hunger and exhaustion can torpedo the mood of even the happiest toddler on the block. Sure, that’s common sense, but how many times have you tried to push your child’s limits just a little because you really wanted to go somewhere, crossed your fingers and hoped for the best? Exactly.
All of those things can affect your child’s comfort at kiddie classes, trips to the park (or—gasp!—Disney) and playdates. It’s your job, of course, to figure out exactly what’s going on and how best to handle it. “A parent has to trust their Spidey senses,” says Schafer. “Is my child truly anxious and in need of my support, or is it just more pleasant with me and they’re demanding that I be with them? A preference is not a need.”
So what can you do? First off, temper your expectations, and remember one of the big reasons you’re there: so your child can learn to navigate these tricky situations. In other words, whatever fun event you’re attending likely won’t be all play and no work for you. If you encounter this issue on a playdate, Schafer suggests accompanying your child to the play area, prompting them to get some sort of play going with the other child, and once the three of you are playing together, quietly backing out.
You can also prepare your little one by letting them know what to expect. Brief, broad brushstrokes are ideal, says Schafer. For example, you might explain that you’ll play with them for five minutes then you’ll talk to the other parents, then there will be a snack and cleanup time before you head home.
With a little strategic planning and proverbial (and literal) hand-holding, hopefully your toddler will soon be smiling, and not only looking forward to the next outing but also feeling a lot more relaxed when you actually get there.