Already Fighting with 13-month-old Daughter

Laura Markham's picture

QUESTION

Dear Dr. Laura,
My daughter and I have a loving relationship where I believe the vast majority of her needs have been met. She is a real blessing to me, and generally very sweet; however I am growing exhausted by a certain defiant behavior she has recently developed.

She has started physically fighting me at certain times -- like when I change her diaper or put her into her car seat or stroller (she's too big now for her sling). She will arch her whole body, making it rigid and impossible to do whatever it is I'm trying to do. She'll scream and throw her head, sometimes even even accidentally hitting her own head and occasionally almost falling trying to get out of my grasp. She's big and really strong! I was initially able to distract her and occasionally still, but she seems to have smartened up to that.

I don't want to "let her win" when she behaves like that, but I often feel the only resort I have is physically wrestling her into position for whatever it is I'm trying to do. I feel intuitively that there's something wrong here, and I don't know what to do. I am essentially a single mother; my daughter spends three days a week in daycare, and most of the rest of the time she is with me. This seems to be a power struggle and I feel she wouldn't do it with other people. Why then does she do it to me?

~tired and confused

ANSWER

Being a single mom is tiring, and fighting with your child is exhausting and confusing. Luckily, you have a loving relationship with your daughter, and you are able to spend much of your time with her. That gives you a strong foundation to build on.

What you are seeing is the beginning of your daughter's asserting herself as a separate person. As babies become less distractible, and more assertive, they try to assert some control over their environment, just as we all do. She can't talk yet, really, but she can certainly communicate, by physically resisting situations she doesn't like. She isn't even trying to get into a fight with you, just to express her wants and needs, and to prevent things she doesn't like from happening to her, like having her body put where she doesn't want it. This self-assertion is in fact a healthy, developmentally appropriate stage -- but not easy for parents. In fact, it usually comes as quite a shock -- where did your sweet, compliant baby go?!

The terrible twos are the worst stage of this self-assertion, because toddlers don't yet have the neurological development to reason or control their emotions, as they will begin to by the time they're three or four. But for the rest of your daughter's childhood, she will be developing her own sense of agency, which means becoming a person in her own right. While you will need to guide her, and set appropriate limits and expectations, you can also expect her to have her own ideas. If she has "big feelings" -- and it certainly sounds like she does -- you can expect her to let you know in no uncertain terms when she disagrees with you.

How you navigate those moments will determine how close you will ultimately be with your daughter. It will also determine whether she becomes "contrary" -- in other words, will she feel a need to resist your authority in a kneejerk fashion, because you two have an ongoing power struggle and that's the only way she can assert her own personhood?

The more control toddlers -- and your daughter is one, now -- have over their own lives, the less they need to be defiant. So my first recommendation would be to let her make as many choices and have as much say as possible in her life (food, clothes, toys, etc. Please read the Toddlers section of this website for more info.)

Secondly, the better your relationship with your daughter, the more she will want to please you, so continue to build a strong, close relationship with her. Lots of snuggling and connecting goes a long way in bridging disagreements. Join her, meaning the more you can say "Let's" and "We" (as in "Let's get you into your carseat") instead of "You do this" the better.

Third, I would urge you not to think of these times as power struggles in which you "can't let her win." I guarantee you that if you force your daughter into her carseat or onto her changing table, she will become more defiant in other areas. No one wins a power struggle. And it's our job as parents to sidestep them much as possible.

How? Every way you can! If the old distractions don't work, think of new ones, e.g., "Which toy should we bring in the car? That one? Okay! Quick, let's get you into your carseat so you can hold it!" If she likes music, put what she likes on in the car before you put her in the seat, and dance her into her carseat. If you let her have juice or snacks in the car, give them to her first, then put her in while she's holding and focusing on her snack. Pretend she's the astronaut and the spaceship can't take off until everyone's buckled in. Parenting a toddler will stretch your creativity!

Another way to sidestep a power struggle is what I call Parenting Aikido, which is to go with her need for control but to still meet your need as the parent to keep things safe. For instance, give her the power to choose between two choices that are both ok with you. "We have to get in the car now. Do you want to climb in yourself?" (You may have to assist.) "Or do you want me to put you in?" (See Giving Choices on my website YourParentingSolutions.com).

Another idea for defusing power struggles is to remove yourself from the authority position. Instead of "Because I said so" you say "The rule is" and express your empathy that you're sorry, you didn't make the rule. And you didn't with carseats, actually. ("I'm so sorry, I know you don't want to ride in the carseat, but the rule is kids have to ride in carseats. That's the rule for all kids. But guess what? You get to have candied ginger in the carseat, and it's a very short ride to the store.") Even when it's your rule ("At bedtime everyone brushes their teeth. See? Mommy does it, too. That's the rule."), distancing yourself from being the source of it removes the child's need to rebel against you. You become the empathizer instead of the heavy. Your child feels you're on her side so she's more likely to cooperate rather than fight with you.

My point about the power struggles is that it's ok for kids to assert their preferences and express their feelings; it isn't a challenge to the parents' authority. Or at least it won't be, if you let them assert their will to some degree. That's what any self-respecting person needs to do.

In fact, I would take this a step further and urge you to consider what your daughter is telling you. It may be that she gets carsick, or hates her carseat. Some kids find one carseat unbearable but love another. Some previously carseat-hating kids do fine if the window is open, or they wear a motion sickness-preventing wristband, or they snack on candied ginger. My point is that instead of assuming she's wrong, or that she's just picking a fight, assume that she's trying to tell you something the only way she knows how.

Which brings me to the diaper.... Like you, my daughter at 13 months decided not to lie down to have her diaper changed. She had a strong personality, she loved walking, and she was so busy all the time doing something else that she didn't want to stop doing. So I often changed her standing up. If she had a poopy diaper, I would explain that she was just too messy and had to lie down, and it usually worked. But for routine changes, it was no big deal for me to change her standing up. She isn't a baby anymore, so why force her to lie down to change her diaper? Who cares what position she's in?

I will add that there will be times when you have to impose a limit ("We need to get in the car right now because I have to go to work, and the rule is kids have to ride in carseats.") You may, in those cases, not get the cooperation you want even when you give her choices (because kids respond badly to pressure). Then, as will happen so often throughout her childhood, you just have to impose your limit. Go ahead and do it, but remember that she doesn't have to like it. Offer her empathy ("I know, you don't want to get in the carseat, but the rule is kids ride in carseats and we do have to go, I'm so sorry.") You might be surprised by how much your empathy lessens her resistance, once she feels like you're on her side and not fighting with her.

Bottom line: Don't meet force with force. Use Parenting Aikido to meet both your needs.

-- Dr. Laura

Follow-up

Dear Dr Laura,
I must say I am so thankful for your advice! I followed your tips; I read them yesterday and gratefully tried each suggestion you gave me, and Lo! My daughter has not been fighting me! Like some kind of magic, it just works. I've gotten her into her carseat successfully already several times, and well the diaper thing is working all right.

I think what you said about being aware of something that she may not like really makes sense, I realized that because I live in a fairly cold place -- New Hampshire -- often when I change her diaper I am using wipes that are really cold, and her contrary reaction may also be coming from that. I wouldn't want my bum wiped with freezing cold wet wipes either!

Anyways I realized that, although she is a very strong headed little person, her resistance may be more to what she knows will be an unpleasant experience rather than what I am personally trying to get done. Thank you so much. I was afraid that what I was seeing was behavior patterns that were beginning early that could potentially follow us and even multiply throughout our mother-daughter relationship. With my own mother, I have had a historically very defiant and contrary relationship and the best thing I could wish for my daughter is to not start out repeating these same patterns!

Response

I am so delighted to hear that things are working better with your daughter!

I wonder what your relationship with your mom would have been like if she had been able to see things from your point of view, and you had felt understood by her?

What a gift you are giving your daughter -- and yourself!

--Dr. Laura