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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

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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  • Trish Schreiber

    Amalah makes a good suggestion about getting tested. Hang in there, because sometimes it can take time for it to become clear what’s going on. For example, I have a friend who had a miserable child… until they found out she had Celiac’s Disease. That didn’t happen until she was 3 and wasn’t meeting her growth milestones. They eliminated wheat and her health (lots of tummy problems) and disposition turned around after that.

    On the other hand, it’s odd that the day care reports that he’s not having problems there. Is evening always the worst time? Could he need to go to sleep earlier? If he needs YOU, would it help to wear him? I used to wear my toddlers on my back while I made dinner.

  • Myriam

    I too agree with Amy. I also think you might need to change your expectations/perceptions… He is not throwing tantrums for NO REASON, as you say, he is throwing tantrums for reasons that don’t make sense to you. It’s so normal to get frustrated! I sensed (and I might be wrong) that you are not frustrated at him, you are frustrated that you can’t help him… So, no guilt, no judgement, and go get some help, for him and for you. Good luck!

  • I was wondering about the change from daycare to home, too. Maybe an allergen in the house that’s absent at daycare?

  • Meg Murry-ish

    How is the support you are getting from your husband? Is he also at his breaking point, or is he pretty much just leaving you to deal with all of the toddler-ness? Are you getting any sleep? I know you mentioned his bottle refusal – is he still nursing, and is that why he wants you instead of Daddy?

    I ask all this because I had a horrible time transitioning from 1 kid to 2, and it got 1000 times worse when I was weaning and my hormones were going crazy and I still wasn’t sleeping. I was finally diagnosed with situational adjustment disorder (aka depression and anxiety that was made much worse by a second kid plus a ton of work stress and my hormones going crazy were the final straw.)

    It took a while (and some medication) for things to even out for me, but what helped was:
    -to talk to my husband about what I needed. He thought he was being helpful by taking my older son often so I “only” had to deal with the baby, but I finally figured out that for me I’d rather have both kids to deal with for a few hours, and then let him have them both for a few hours so I could have some downtime all to myself rather than being “always on” for one kid or another. You mention date nights and nights out with friends, but do you ever get time off to just BE?
    -As long as his hearing is ok (as Amalah suggested – have that checked!), he may understand more than you know. So don’t let your husband take the easy way out and give in when he cries for you instead of Daddy. Tell him something like “Mommy is going to sit here and play cars with you for X minutes until the timer goes off. After that, Mommy has to [go upstairs, go unload the dishwasher, go whatever] and then Mommy will be back for more snuggles.” And then do it. Put up a baby gate or close doors if you have to, and if that means he cries and whines until you get back, so be it. It sounds like you are letting guilt that he is unhappy get to you – but Daddy is a perfectly viable option, and he has to learn to be OK with that.
    -Get some sleep. Seriously, can you call in your parents, in-laws or a friend to help Daddy with the kids and then go check yourself into a motel (or even a friend’s couch)? And then let your husband do the same. It sounds to me like you are running on empty, and that is part of the frustration levels.

    Also, hugs. I know what you mean about a child that seriously is trying to kill himself at every opportunity and how exhausting it is. Can you find a way to make a safe space for him to be, so if you have to walk away you can do that? Figure out which battles to pick – for instance, rather than spend time trying to keep him from tipping over his high chair, can you put him in a booster seat on or near the floor, where at least you know he can’t hurt himself? I also hear you on having a relatively easy kid followed by a more difficult one and how frustrating it is to think you’d figured the parenting thing out, only to have kid #2 come in and shatter those expectations.

    Last, can you meet with the daycare teachers and have a conference with them about what strategies they are using that are working? Because it sounds like they have figured out a way to make him happy (or at least deal with him) if he is smiley when you pick him up. They may have techniques that they use that you could incorporate – for instance, our son’s daycare taught us about their “comfy quiet place” and “mad corner”. It’s not a time out, exactly, but during tantrums or crying fits they take the kids there and say “you can be mad here. When you are done being mad/crying, you can come back to the group.” Used over and over, it eventually sticks. Could you look at their routine for the day and see if you can mimic it (same time and types of snacks and meals, same naptime, same music for naptime) on the weekends? Is he super hungry when you pick him up from daycare, and would it help to get some food in him ASAP, like letting him have a snack before you even get in the car to drive home?

    Good luck and hugs.

  • Bonnie

    I almost hate to post this because I don’t want it to sound blame-y at all (at ALL), and because I agree 100% with Amy, but one thing did jump out at me and I wonder if it could be another part of the puzzle… is he getting enough sleep? I wondered about picking him up from daycare and *then* another three hours of picnic – again, I don’t know your schedule, maybe that totally makes sense, but in our house, that would be a 9:00 bedtime at the earliest, which would have been unworkable for my kids at 18 months and would have given us a household of basket cases. This is totally speculating, but I’m wondering if an easygoing first kid got you used to being flexible with bedtimes, and this one really does need to be in bed earlier? Part of why it had me thinking was that this article on sleep has been going around Facebook and it has some really good research into why lots of sleep, particularly *early* sleep, is important for kids.

    • heidi

      I actually came here to ask exactly that. Again, not trying to be blame-y. I have a similarly aged toddler. If she isn’t in bed by 6:30pm, she acts like that. Every time.

      The part about being happy and charming at daycare and a nightmare at home is very familiar as well, from my other kid. Home is where he is safe, and feels comfortable being his worst. He has never cried or whined or so much as sniffled out of order at school. At home? tantrums galore when things are tough, but he won’t let his guard down in front of his teachers.

      It sounds miserable, and I’m so sorry for that. But I would definitely start by adjusting his nighttime sleep. Neither of my two kids could ever have participated in a picnic that started with dinner without being monsters the next day — they just aren’t wired like that (my nephews are, so I know it is different for different kids).

    • Christine

      Absolutely agree — move up the bedtime!!

      I rarely express strong opinions about parenting, especially to strangers online, but I have to say that I feel strongly that you (the OP) should look into the sleep issue before getting stressed about the idea of an evaluation. Not to stop you from pursuing an evaluation if the symptoms are really strong (especially, communication delays), but I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a different toddler on your hands if you bump his bedtime up to 6 or 7 pm.

      Granted, it is so, so hard to do early bedtimes as a working parent. It’s possible that this is about the time you get home. But many kids that age simply fall apart after 7 pm.

    • Michelle Boehm

      I’m also going to cosign this in a completely non-judgmental way. I had the opposite situation as the OP – my older daughter is far more work than my younger, but I had no idea until the younger came along that the older was “spirited”. I just figured that’s how small children were because that was my only experience. She’s almost 5 now, and I can tell you without a doubt that the level of “spirit” my older daughter has is directly correlated to the amount of sleep she gets. When she was 18 mos, I had her in bed between 6:30-7 pm. It was really hard because I also worked and didn’t get to see her very much, but the time I did spend with her was *pleasant*.

  • Molly

    Amy’s advice seems totally right to me, but I also want to reach out to the OP with some more support. First, I am really inspired by the tone of your letter. I, too, have a very challenging second child (now nearing 4), and when I’m frustrated with him, I can be a rageful wreck. No letter that I would have written would sound as thoughtful as yours does. I think if you’re not actively running away from your home at this very moment, you’re doing pretty great. Second, while I want to echo some of what other commenters say here–that it certainly could be that he’s chronically overtired or that he’s allergic to something–it could also be that his particular personality precludes a truly helpful/life-changing solution. My second was colicky from the beginning, and he’s still, even at nearly 4, a dramatic and challenging child. For us, almost every day of the past year has started and ended with a temper tantrum (and the child’s voice sounds like a fire siren). In our case, he probably IS chronically overtired, but there just isn’t a simple answer to that problem–he shares a bedroom with his older brother by necessity, and he simply will not go back to sleep and/or nap no matter how early he wakes up. Additionally, his personality is challenging (but, like yours, not at preschool…only at home) and makes any practical, executable solution hard to come by. That said, things are so much better than they were when he was a baby. Partly because things really do get better when the children start to speak. But mostly because things get a whole lot better when you can rule out anything actually solve-able and then begin the work of accepting–with as much humor as possible–that this just might be it for the indeterminate future. In my case, “better” did not come like a thunderbolt. It did not mean suddenly “great”…or even “good.” It just meant “better.” And over time, that has proven enough…enough at least for me to have a third (and very easy) baby. I wish you luck, OP. It can be so demoralizing to have an easy baby and then a really difficult one. With a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old, you are absolutely in the weeds. You won’t be there forever.

  • kec161

    You’ve described my 2 year old. He’s my 3rd (out of 4) and he is just SO MUCH WORK! Far more work than all the other kids combined. The best word to describe him is intense. Every feeling is intense (happy ones too), he is a bundle of energy, and he can turn on a dime. I don’t get the feeling that my son needs early intervention, he just needs to calm the F down! Just like yours he mostly behaves outside the house and saves all his two-ness for me.

    I feel like you are looking for more parent strategies than medical advice so one thing that worked for me was having visual charts tied to edible rewards. I realize you aren’t suppose to use food as a motivator but it’s effective and I’m tired. So for example at bedtime he has to stay in his bed and not scream. I remind him of the rule, point to the visual print out that I made and set out 2 M&Ms. If he gets out of bed or screams I go in and eat one or both of the M&Ms in front of him (yes I realize I’m a cruel mom … but again it’s effective and I’m tired). He throws a fit as expected but after about a week he realizes what he needs to do and gets to eat any remaining M&Ms in the morning. I’m working on changing one or two behaviors a week and then we stick working on that behavior until it’s a habit. I can be a good (mostly) patient mom until 7 pm but once I put you to bed and close the door I’m off the clock and god help the child that throws a bedtime tantrum because I just have no patience left. So I worked on fixing bedtime first, now we are working on sitting at the table and being patient.

    My previously easy 2nd child who breezed through 2 and 3 turned into a super emotional 4 year old. I think you get terrible 2s at one point or another. I’m hoping my 2 year old is just advanced at two-ness and will be a easy teen. I’m going to hold onto that delusion until proven otherwise. Good luck and I so so soooooooo get where you are coming from.

  • Kate Browning

    I had a similar thought as someone else of a food intolerance. My youngest was like that, always cranky grouchy. It took us way to long to figure out a lactose issue because it wasn’t showing as a true allergy. But milk products especially milk and cheese just made his tummy upset.

  • ANovelConcept00

    I’m surprised that no one has recommended this book yet: The Fussy Baby Book by Dr. Sears. I don’t agree with a lot of what Dr. Sears preaches, but this particular book offers a lot of insight into how to cope with a high needs baby. It’s not easy, but you’re doing a great job. You’re not alone! There are lots of resources for parenting high-needs kids and it WILL get better.