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The Persistently, Pervasively "Difficult" Toddler

The Persistently, Pervasively “Difficult” Toddler

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

I’m having serious issues with my 18 month old son, “James.” He’s always been a lot more work than our 3 year old son. From day one he cried and fussed all the time. He was a terrible sleeper, refused bottles, hated solid food until 10 months old, and cried all the time. We were always at the doctor with him, with ear infections, or stomach bugs or nervous because he wasn’t walking by 16 months old. He’s walking now, and the doctor says there’s nothing to worry about, health-wise. He’s even gone a full two months without an ear infection!

But here’s the thing, I was always saying to myself, “Once he takes a bottle, things will get easier. Once he gets over this ear infection… Once his teeth stop hurting… Once he can sleep through the night…”

But nothing has changed! Unless you are actively playing with or feeding him, he is toddling around after you, screaming and crying for attention. Our 3 year old is so patient and always giving him toys or trying to play with him, but it’s no good. My husband tries playing with him, but if I’m in the house, James is screaming and pushing daddy away. I don’t know why, because I’m very little fun these days because my patience is gone and it seems no amount of daily exercise or childfree date nights will refill it.

The worst part is that I do have a job I like so I get a break from the kids every day at work. When I pick up James from daycare, he has a big smile and the staff tell me he ate his whole lunch and played and napped. Then we go home and 9 days out of 10 he is in between a constant whining fuss or full-blown tantrum from walking in the door to bedtime. It’s like all the negative stereotypes about toddlers times 100, but none of the sweet parts.

Tonight was the worst, we picked up the kids and tried to have a fun picnic at the park. Our 3 year old ran around playing and then ate dinner without a problem. James kept trying to kill himself and throwing tantrums when I wouldn’t let him run in the road or grab a stray cat. He slid on the slide and had fun for about one minute out of 3 hours.

I’m sorry, this is just a lot of complaining, but my real question is-how can I make him happier? I try making him food he likes, playing games with him, ignoring his whining, not spoiling him too much, giving him lots of hugs-but he always seems so unhappy. And secondly, how can I deal with my frustration with his whining? I do work and occasionally get nights out with friends or husband, but my impatience goes straight to level 10 the next morning when he throws his juice and banana on the floor and tries to tip over his high chair for NO REASON. I think my frustration is so high because I’ve stopped believing it will get any better. Nothing changed after his teeth came in and nothing is going to change after he can communicate better either.

I’m also frustrated because we’d like to have more kids. If James were as easy as our 3 year old, I’d be pregnant by now. But now my husband and I can’t handle the idea of any more kids until… When? Never? I’m hitting the tail end of my 30s here. We can’t wait till he’s in kindergarten.

Sorry to complain so much, but I’m having a hard time with this and any advice you could offer would be very appreciated.

Thank you, I love reading your work

Usually when I get a letter like this, about this particular age and this particular toddler-type behavior, I’ll offer some condolences about the horrors of the pre-verbal toddler and how they vent their frustrations and emotions and separation anxiety in almost universally-negative ways. I’ll recommend some baby sign language, maybe a copy of It Takes Two To Talk, and some “hang in there, it’ll pass” platitudes.

But in your case, that would simply be continuing the wait-and-see pattern you’ve been repeating since his birth. “Once he can talk” may not be any more of a game changer for you than all the other milestones that have come and gone.

I think you should call your local Early Intervention team and/or some other specialists and get him evaluated. Evaluated for what, exactly, I cannot say. And I don’t want you to read that sentence and PANIC, but instead see it as the next logical step to writing this letter to me.  It’s a path to answers, a path to figuring out what needs your son has that are going unaddressed. and ultimately, hopefully, a path to some help. For you both! He sounds every bit as unhappy as you are, and I don’t think that’s a situation anyone should just suck up and cross your fingers that one day, things will magically change.

Some babies and toddlers ARE much, much harder than others. (Go to the parenting section of any bookstore and you’ll see countless books with adjectives like “spirited” and “strong-willed” and “difficult.”) Many of them DO just outgrow it — a quirk of personality that improves with maturity and verbal skills. For others, though, this sort of persistent, pervasive unhappiness and out-of-control impulses/emotions can be signs of something atypical.

Off the top of my head, I would recommend you get a full developmental/behavioral evaluation done by Early Intervention (or other organization that focuses on early childhood development, particularly sensory processing, Spectrum and disruptive disorders). And in addition to that,  1) get a full hearing evaluation done by a dedicated pediatric ENT or audiologist (all those ear infections may have damaged his hearing, and your regular pediatrician won’t be able to make that determination), and 2) get him tested for food allergies, if you haven’t already (to find out if there was something going on with all that bottle/food rejection and stomach bugs). The bottle/solid food and late walking issues could also have been ear-related, although all of those are common quirks of kids with sensory processing issues as well. So I’d cover all the bases.

And you know, everything might wind up completely normal and fine and awesome. But at least you’ll KNOW. And if there IS something going on, you’ll also know, and no longer be wasting time addressing it with all the spinning-wheel “once he can do X, Y, Z” while nothing actually improves and your family’s unhappiness gets worse. Believe me, I’ve been there. At certain point, the waiting-and-seeing benefits neither parent nor child.

At the very least, an early childhood development expert can help you make sense of his behavior and offer alternative ideas for dealing with it. Book recommendations, parenting seminars, maybe some play therapy to help him understand limits and his feelings. Again, I really, really DON’T want you to jump to worst-case scenario conclusions here. It could be some run-of-the-mill sensory issues, or something correctable going on with his ears. Or you’ve just got one of those children people write parenting books about using carefully selected adjectives like “spirited” or “challenging.” But it’s pointless to sit here trying to play a guessing game. You’ve got an unhappy little guy with some big needs, so time to bring in the big guns.

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About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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