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No, offering choices is not the silver bullet for toddler behavior problems

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Q: One of the most common pieces of advice I've seen for dealing with behavior issues from 2-year-olds is to offer them choices. It's supposed to empower them, etc. I've seen it work fantastically with my nieces, but for my daughter, it causes her to completely shut down almost every time. If I do it when she's disagreeing about something, such as offering a choice between walking nicely or riding in a stroller (instead of trying to run into the street), she will get more upset or just shut down completely. It's almost like she knows she doesn't like either of those choices but can't really explain that. If I do it in a more positive circumstance (offering a big spoon or a little spoon), she gets frozen by indecision and will reverse course as soon as I go with whichever one she picks. Help! What is going on? She otherwise seems very typical developmentally for a 2½ -year-old.

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A: Ah, choices. I don’t know when or how choices took such a strong hold in the parenting world, but they really stuck. A good amount of my clients have major choice problems, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some parents offer too many choices, confusing the child. Some parents offer “fake” choices, meaning they really don’t want to give the child options but are afraid to say no for fear of the tantrum that will ensue. Some parents are offering choices even when it is developmentally inappropriate. And finally, some parents offer no choices, fearing that doing so will “spoil” the child. Many parents will also find themselves in a mess of all of the above, so let’s take a peek at the pickle you’re in.

Firstly, a 2-year-old is a wholly emotional creature. This means your daughter is experiencing her life in real time, one big emotion at a time. When she is happy, everything is great. When she is frustrated, watch out. Her ability to be rational and thoughtful is growing day by day (with your compassionate support and loving boundaries), but at 2½ , she cannot be expected to show any measured logic or consideration.

And what is needed when making a choice between two or more things? Thoughtful consideration! A person needs to look at two options and have the ability to be present and look to the future. A person needs to weigh pros and cons and be able to accept the consequences of the wrong choice or unexpected outcomes. Now look at your child. Does she look like she can do this? I am guessing no.

What I love about your letter, though, is that you have collected all of the data to prove the point of what I have just written. You witnessed a great technique working for your nieces, so you tried it. Great! Then you discovered that when you use choices for tough times, the technique didn’t work. And when you used choices that were seemingly innocuous (the spoons), it also didn’t work. What a gift! You tried a widely known parenting technique, and it failed (for now). Not to sound simplistic, but stop using it. Stop giving choices.

What do you do instead? You make the decisions for your daughter — the way nature intended. We carry around these big brains, and it takes a long time to mature. It is the very essence of parenting to make decisions on your child’s behalf while she is this young. It isn’t bossy or controlling or stifling her voice; it is developmentally appropriate. In fact, when we make loving decisions for our young children, they are more likely to feel safe and secure. Take any adults who are feeling overwhelmed with emotion and decisively take care of them (make meal choices, etc.), and you will watch them relax. When you give an emotional 2-year-old too many choices, it can cause dysregulation and uncertainty, give away too much of your authority and create power struggles.

Does this mean you will never offer choices? Of course not. Before you know it, your child will demonstrate the required patience to consider options and make a decision. Like everything in parenting, it isn’t the strategy of choices that is the issue, but the timing and the needs of your child. Yours! Not your nieces or anyone else’s child. Trust nature to do its work, and for now, relieve your child of the burden of choices. You are meant to make the choices. Please feel confident to do so!

Good luck.

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