Coping with a contrary toddler

Advice on coping with trying toddler behaviour

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  • Toddlers. Don’t you just love ’em? One minute they’re contented little angels, the next, they’re refusing to walk and want the buggy, won’t get dressed and prefer your bed to theirs (despite sleeping in it happily for the past year). “Contrary toddlers are very common, in fact I remember it well with my three little ones,” says Judy Reith, parent coach and director of Parenting People (

    “Tots throwing a wobbly over things they’ve been perfectly fine with in the past can stem from a need for attention. In their eyes they would rather have a fight with you than be ignored, so sometimes they act up.” If your little one has just discovered how to play up, we’re here to help, whatever the problem.

  • The problem: Wanting to go in the buggy again

    You’ve got your coats on, heading out the door, and suddenly it seems your tot’s legs have stopped working and she wants to be in the pushchair again. 

    “Regression back to wanting to be a baby again is an all too familiar scenario,” says Judy. “It’s common if you’ve got a new baby, and your toddler sees a younger sibling being carried and pushed around, as in her eyes the smaller child is getting a lot more of your time than she is.”

    Keep the situation light and breezy and turn leaving the house into a game. Ask her to beat you to the front gate so she’s happy to play with you, use her legs and forget she wants the buggy. You could also try talking about what she’ll be doing once she’s walked to your destination, for example saying, ‘When we get to Granny’s house, we’ll play with the dollies together,’ - it will give her something else to focus on.

  • The problem: Asking to come in your bed

    If your tot’s been happily sleeping in her own room but suddenly starts wanting to be in your bed, you need to decide whether you mind or not. “Climbing into your bed is usually down to a child having a nightmare and waking up upset,” explains Judy. “If you’re happy to let her stay in with you on the odd occasion, then fine. But if not, it’s important to make a stand, and stick with it.”

    Don't try to reason with a tired, confused toddler in the middle of the night. Simply pick her up, have a quick cuddle and carry her back to her own room.

    “Don’t ask your toddler what the problem is, just scoop her up and pop her back into bed, making it clear with actions, rather than words, that your bed is not an option,” Judy says. “If she says she’s had a bad dream, don’t discuss it. Just sit with her until she drifts off.”

  • The problem: Not sharing any more

    “If your toddler‘s decided she doesn’t want friends to play with her toys, it’s time to sit down together and have a bit of a chat, explaining that in your family you share your things and are nice to others,” says Judy. “Avoid tears over this by being three steps ahead when you know friends are coming around to play.”

    Discuss with your toddler that she’s allowed to keep some toys upstairs just for her to play with. This one is all about communication, making sure your toddler knows that she has to share and be social, but compromise if she has a certain toy she really is precious about to save a tantrum.

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  • The problem: Asking to be fed

    Toddlers chomping away happily (albeit making a mess) and then suddenly putting down their cutlery and asking you to feed them is a common occurrence in many households. “I had this with mine, and rest assured it will blow over quickly,” says Judy. “It’s another issue where your little one is wanting to regress back to being a baby, where perhaps she’s seen you feeding a younger baby in the house and wants you to do that for her too.”

    Create a level of expectation at teatime and encourage her to feed herself. For example, ask her to let you know when she’s eaten five peas from her plate so she can see you’re focusing on her.

    “Think how you as an adult eat at the table,” says Doctor Gill Harris of the Infant and Toddler Forum ( “You don’t sit there in silence staring at a wall, you interact with others, read, or perhaps watch television, so make sure your tot isn’t sat on her own, bored. Instead keep her interested and alert during mealtimes so she enjoys sharing the experience with you.”

  • The problem: Becoming a fussy eater

    This is a normal stage of development, working out her likes and dislikes and what tempts her palate. However, it can still be a worry, especially if your child’s turning her nose up at what seems like everything you put in front of her.

    “Sometimes it’s just a case of fluctuations in appetites, or your toddler just getting bored of a meal if you’ve given her a certain food too often,” says Gill. “A good trick is to tell your toddler a little white lie about the food, like cutting sweet potato into strips and saying its chips like she had the other day.”

    Always eat the same foods as your toddler if you can, as this way she can see you tucking in and enjoying the meal. “Get your toddler involved in the food you’re cooking and serving too,” says Judy. “Take her shopping, let her pick out items and talk to her about where the food came from and how you’re cooking it to keep her interested.”

  • The problem: Asking to be dressed

    Deciding they don’t want to dress themselves is a very common ‘I won’t’ moment in toddlerhood, and can be down to your little one wanting to be fussed over, or even wanting a cuddle.

    “Don’t lock horns over this, as it’s really not worth a battle,” says Judy. “Be strong and ask her to come and show you when she’s dressed and ready to go.” It’s OK to give her a bit of an incentive to do it too, as making it in her interests to sort herself out will get her to dress faster and without a fuss.

    “Offer a small reward when you ask her to get dressed, so she can see she’ll be getting your attention at the end, rather than during the dressing,” says Judy. When she’s done, give her a big hug so she can see she’s got your attention through doing what she was asked and not playing up.

  • Mums’ stories

    “She suddenly didn’t like the slide”

    “Erin used to love going down the biggest slides in the playground until a few weeks ago, when she suddenly got scared of them. She’d climb up, but refuse point blank to go down. It was really upsetting her so I encouraged her to stick to the smaller slides for a while, then started lifting her onto the big slides and holding her hands as she came down, over and over again. She’s fine now.”

    Vicky Deacon, 39, from Surrey, mum to Erin, 2

    “She stopped eating what I’d cooked”

    “Cerys used to eat everything that was put in front of her, but once she turned 2 she became much more fussy about what was on her plate. Getting her to eat vegetables in particular turned into a bit of battle. I got round the problem by making her food fun – building a face out of mashed potato, with peas for hair, sweetcorn for eyes, carrots for the nose and mouth and broccoli for the ears.”

    Siân Lyde, 36, from Surrey, mum to Cerys, 2

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  • 5 golden rules for parenting contrary tots

    1. Pick your battles wisely. If you don’t really mind her using the buggy then there’s no point fighting about it.

    2. Don’t get into a fight with your toddler. Always be the bigger person and keep your cool.

    3. Be patient and don’t expect your tot to just say ‘OK’ to whatever you ask of them.

    4. Remember, this will pass. “Every child is different, and some are more tricky to cope with than others,” says Gill. “They’ll usually grow out of this phase by about 5 years, or when they start nursery or school.

    5. Always make a fuss of positive behaviour and underplay negative or unwanted behaviour. Children will play up to whatever gets them the most attention.


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