We are currently struggling a bit with getting E out the door. She’s desperate to get outside and isn’t purposefully stalling, but she doesn’t yet understand why certain other things have to happen first. ‘No!’ is her response to socks. ‘No, no!’ to trousers. And ‘No, no, no!’ with tears in her eyes to gloves. You can see the frustration in her face – ‘I don’t want to put clothes on…I want to go outside!’

My husband and I both know that she’s not meaning to be difficult. But we still find ourselves getting frustrated in the moment. How can we balance her request for an activity with her firm refusal to prepare for that activity?

Enjoying some mud on the way home

What it looks like: Requesting something (to go out, hold another toy, get down from table), but then firmly refusing to carry out the necessary preparations (putting on clothes, letting go of one toy, washing hands).

Mistaken for: Wanting to have everything her way; being difficult or silly.

What child is learning: She is learning to understand the connections between actions and their preparations. But since these connection are quite complex, and different preparations correspond to different actions, it will be some time before she fully understands. I’m not a child psychologist so I don’t know exactly how long it will take but based on my experience teaching nursery I’d say she’ll be at least 3 before she stops actively protesting preparations and even longer before she fully understands why the must occur. So what can be done in the meantime?

How to support: I’ll be honest…this is where we’re struggling a bit. But so far this is what I’ve learned:

  • Remember her developmental stage – No matter how obvious it seems to you, keep reminding yourself that she’s still trying to work out the connection between getting dressed and going outside.
  • Talk to her – Even though your verbal explanations won’t make it click for her suddenly, your tone, expression and body language will help her see that there’s a reason you’re wrangling her into these fuzzy hand-traps. In time, the words themselves will also add to her understanding.
  • Try to see it from her point of view – I’m sure we’ve all been subject to bureaucratic paperwork that seems entirely unnecessary. How does that make you feel? What could someone do to ease your frustration, even if they couldn’t change the situation?
  • Break the preparations into manageable chunks – When we’re going outside I like to pile all our gear in the hallway, sit us down, and then just work our way through the pile. But it’s occurred to me that this pile might be a daunting sight for an 18-month-old, so I’m trying to start the preparations earlier and put on a few items at a time, giving her some space in between each step.
  • Don’t rush the preparations – Try to leave an extra 5, 10 or 20 minutes if possible. This will allow time for all of the above suggestions.
  • Accept your own frustration – As I write this post I’m becoming more aware of how reasonable it is toย feel frustrated in this kind of situation. It’s an awkward but unavoidable problem and it’s not going to pass quickly. Thankfully, no matter how you feel, you get to choose how you respond.

I’ve also found it really helpful to remember that in denying my daughter’s more immediate want (not to get dressed) I’m actually helping her accomplish what she wants most (to go outside). Until she’s able to understand preparations, it’s my job to support her through them.

If you have any more suggestions for us I’d love to hear them!