Category Archives: 18-22 months

Some strategies for dealing with the dreaded temper tantrums

Periodically, I've received emails about temper tantrums and how impossible they are to deal with. Tantrums usually escalate in frequency from about 18 months to about 2.5 years old. Most kids don't full-out tantrum anymore by the time they are 4 or 5. But apart from waiting these hellish episodes out, what else can we do? Here's just one example of an email that I think summarizes most parents' concerns:

This is an email of desperation.  O is going through another series of wicked temper tantrums – tantrum every morning when we change his diaper (doesn’t want it changed), tantrum getting dressed, tantrum when dinner isn’t ready right away every night, tantrum putting on his mittens, tantrum last night because I called “may” by its proper name “milk” AND dared to put it in a yellow cup.  Often these tantrums are accompanied by the classic face-down on the floor fist beating etc. 
So, we wait them out.  He escalates to the point of hyperventilation and my heart starts to break and I fear that I am being the worst mother ever, sitting passively by while my child gets more and more worked up.  We tell him, “O, I’m not going to do XX while you are screaming at me.  You have to stop whining/crying/ask nicely etc.” After a while (15-20 minutes), he’ll stop, he’ll say, “I’m done now.”  I try distraction but, often, he’s too worked up to be distracted.

This is SO classic and, indeed, distraction and ignoring are often the most commonly suggested ways of dealing with full-out temper tantrums. But there are a few additional strategies to consider. Part of the problem with the (approximately) 2-year old stage is that their verbal skills can’t catch up to their thinking skills, so they get easily frustrated. And also? 18 – 22 month-olds are ALWAYS frustrated. So are 2.5 year olds. It's just part of the major developmental transitions that they're plodding through.

Here are some thoughts and suggestions to manage those temper tantrums when they pop up:

1. The idea of ignoring the temper tantrum when it occurs and not giving into the tantrum-ee's demands is straight out of any behavioural modification program of reinforcement (It's part of the "coercive cycle" we've talked about before). Those are still good ideas. The only thing I’d add is to walk away from the child and go to another room when he’s tantruming — but remain in earshot so that he doesn't feel totally abandoned. Having you present, even though you’re not giving in, can be amping up his frustration (you are the evil being who is blocking his goal DAMMIT!). It’s not that he’s intentionally freaking out (in other words he’s not manipulating in any sophisticated way — he doesn’t have the cognitive capacity), but you ARE the object of his wrath and his hysterics are simply communicating that, as well as expelling his anger/frustration.

(Although you can see why many parents feel like they ARE being manipulated by these temper tantrums. Check out this video.) 

2. Forget the mommy guilt. Crying isn’t a terrible, bad thing that we should try to avoid in our kids at all costs. The only way our children learn to regulate their emotions is to express them first. As parents, we can try to take what we all feel, and the original poster expressed so well: “my heart starts to break and I fear that I am being the worst mother ever, sitting passively by while my child gets more and more worked up.” And reframe it with this: "Kids cry. Kids get pissed off.  Crying and raging aren’t in and of themselves bad (many kids just need to emote… A lot, especially when they can’t reason or talk it out). And I'm not a bad mom for simply witnessing his distress." You are doing everything possible not to escalate, you are not punishing him for his emotions, you are just there to witness them and therefore you’re inadvertently teaching him that emotions CAN be expressed (doesn’t mean he’s getting what he wants, but he can wail all he wants and you won’t hate him).

3. Try this set of responses, from the fabulous book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk (works for some, not others). Give words to his feelings, mirror those emotions, repeat the rule you're trying to enforce, fantasize with him about his wishes. The steps are as follows: (1)  When he’s starting to whine/complain (but is NOT tantruming yet), give him words to express what he feels (e.g., O, you’re feeling so mad that mama won’t let you watch TV! Mad, Mad, MAD!), (2) Scrunch up your face and look mad, so he gets that that’s what he looks like and YOU get that that’s what he’s feeling, (3) Repeat your rule, accepting his feelings, but not his behaviour ("You can only watch TV after dinner; You can be mad at mommy but you can’t throw things/scream, whatever"), (4) Fantasize with him: "You know, I ALSO wish it was TV-watching time. I LOVE watching TV with you O! I wish mommy didn’t have to work, but I can’t WAIT until after dinner when we can watch together." Seriously… sometimes this set of steps work MIRACLES. The trick is to REMEMBER the steps in the heat of our frustration and anxiety.

4. Provide him with lots of opportunities throughout the day where he has the illusion of control (if not the reality). He’s being told what to do all day long: with parents in the morning, with child-care providers or at daycare, during mealtime, and so on. Children sometimes need to feel like they have some say in the way their day unfolds. Most of you have heard this stuff many times and have mentioned this in the comments sections. Provide choices: Do you want the blue or the red pants today? Do you want to take off your diaper now or after breakfast? Do you want to have cereal or toast?. Also, I'd suggest being very attuned to his behaviour so that you can catch him being strong, good, powerful, brave. And then praise the hell out of him (he needs to feel his power and control and that you recognize those things, not just put him down for it).

5. Look for reasons for escalation of tantrums: Sleep changes? Nap dropping? Missed snacks? Missed meals? Too much sugar/preservatives? Too little sleep at night? Sick? Teething? Too many transitions? Working on new skills (e.g., verbal)? This doesn't help us deal with the tantrums in the moment, but it does help us understand them better and it may help us to avoid them sometimes as well.

What are your favourite ways of dealing with temper tantrums? If you're past this stage with your child, what was the best advice you received?

Effective discipline strategies for toddlers Part I

Alright, alright, let's get down to some concrete suggestions for some discipline practices that work for the younger ages. I've pulled these methods from various sources including some fabulous books (that I will list in a separate post with lots of link-love), parenting programs (both intervention and prevention programs), and wise parents around me. To be clear: I have not come up with any of these methods on my own. And when I say these methods "work," keep in mind that what I really mean is: that they work for some kids, some families, some of the time at some ages and not others. I will also clearly state that all the strategies that I advocate are non-aggressive and generally non-physical. Especially with the under 3 or so group, I'm throwing out this caveat because many parents advocate spanking (at least as a last resort) in the toddler/pre-verbal stage. When I get the strength and the time, I will finish the post I've been working on that addresses spanking, but that's for another time (in the meantime, you can go join this thoughtful discussion on the topic).

I wanted to cover some of the most successful methods for the under 2 years old group first. This is the age at which children are very limited in their verbal abilities, so they often get very frustrated because they can't communicate to us what they really want. I'd say the vast majority of behavioural issues emerge at this young age because children feel misunderstood, ignored, or just plain frustrated that they can't get you to UNDERSTAND what they want. Their RECEPTIVE language, however (especially after 12 – 18 months) is quite good. So they may UNDERSTAND you, but they just can't COMMUNICATE with you. Can you IMAGINE how infuriaDisciplineting and frustrating that could be?

Another caveat before we get to the list: I think of discipline episodes as two-sided. The first is the emotional component: All parent-child conflicts are emotional and offer opportunities for parents to learn about their children's inner lives and to also teach their children some important lessons. We want to teach our children to understand and regulate their emotions while also being able to communicate what they feel to others in effective ways. Conflicts of will that often involve applying some discipline strategy provide the most common context through which we can do this type of emotional learning and teaching with our children. The second component to discipline episodes is the behavioural one: we want to teach our children to behave appropriately, safely, with kindness and so on. Following many, many wise authors (again, links to books are coming in a future post), I think we need to acknowledge and accept children's emotions and allow them to feel them without fear of reprisal while still teaching them appropriate ways of ACTING on those emotions. I'm going to focus on the behaviours in this post and talk more about emotions and how to label and work with them in another post.

Here are some of the top strategies that could work for you and your young children. Keep in mind that some of these methods could work brilliantly at older ages too, while others may be less appropriate. Also, you'll note that these methods are ways to AVOID a power struggle. My aim (in theory, unfortunately not always in practice) is NOT to "show my kids who's boss" but to gain their compliance and teach them new skills through other means.

1. I maintain that one of the most effective strategies for avoiding coercive cycles or nasty discipline episodes is to ANTICIPATE the most commonly-occuring conflicts and find ways of AVOIDING them

2. Children under 2 can often be easily distracted. So, if a 9-month old is spitting his food all over the floor, read him a book/sing him a song/rattle a funny toy and see if his attention is diverted. If your 18-month old insists on pulling the cat's tail, start playing tug-of-war with him with your scarf instead. And so on…

3. Teach your pre-verbal child sign language. (This is kind of in the middle of the emotion/behaviour split). The link I provided (and there are tons more; go ask Dr. Google) allows you to put in all sorts of words and watch as an overly-smiley lovely young woman shows you the sign for said word. Personally, I don't really think you need to spend the money on a DVD or book, not at first anyway. Ten simple words will do at first (even less: milk, sleep, all done, MORE, banana, etc.). Babies as young as 6 – 9 months will eventually GET that the word is the same as the gesture, but most babies won't actually start USING the signs until about 1 years old or more. For those of you uninitiated, you'll be tempted to scoff. Beware the baby sign-language scoff lest you miss something that will SO WORK for you. Giving your 1-year old the ability to communicate to you that "NO MOMMY!  You have it all wrong… I want MILK, not water/a hug/my soother!" or "NO! Don't take that away, I want MORE!" can be priceless. For SO MANY children who do not have the ability to talk yet, a few simple signs can be the key to avoiding innumerable tantrums and, just as precious, the key to connecting with your child in a way that you never realized was possible at such an early age. Baby sign-language: Not just for the granola-hippie-hemp-eating mommies anymore (mmmm… granola!).

4.ATTEND like mad to positive behaviours you want to encourage and try to ignore or at least respond in a flat emotional tone to behaviours you want to discourage. (Again, this stuff comes straight out of the behavioural techniques of Skinner and those whacky pigeons he taught to press bars for food.) This is SO IMPORTANT to remember: Your attention is like crack to your baby/toddler. The number one thing your child craves is your attention, preferably your smiling, adoring attention. You can use that beam of attention to tune your child's behaviour — when she is doing stuff you want her to do, or just being an adorable, sweet child, praise the hell out of her, smile gloriously, do a little dance, throw a mini party. When she is doing something you would like her to stop doing (that is nevertheless not harming her or anyone / anything else), withdraw your attention: in response to the slamming doors, throwing food, screeching at pitches only young dogs and mothers can hear, walk into another room or pick up a book to read or start lavishing loving attention on her sibling instead. As SOON as she stops the yucky behaviour and does something more to your liking, start the happy dance, pick her up and mush her sweet little cheeks into yours, smile and clap and generally go over the top. I know… sounds ridiculous. But it is UNCANNY how well this can work if you can keep your cool and keep your eye on the goal: you want to simply stop or redirect the behaviour, NOT let her know that you won some battle of wills.

5. Focus your requests on what you DO want your child to do, not what you DON'T want him to do. Babies and toddlers have miserable shor
t-term memories so they'll remember the LAST thing you've said in most cases. If you tell Johnny: "Don't bang the glass table. Banging the glass table will break it," he will likely hear, "wah, wha, wah, bang the glass table, break it." Instead, focus on an alternative behaviour you would prefer him to do: "Don't bang the glass table. You CAN bang this drum. Come on, bang this drum with me!" Also, they may not KNOW an alternative behaviour that would be alright for you and still feel fun for them; kids need us to TELL them and SHOW them what we're ok with.

6. Related to #5, when our child DOES misbehave (for example, hits another child or grabs a toy from another child's hand), teach him the more APPROPRIATE behaviour once the situation has been diffused and PROVIDE HIM THE OPPORTUNITY TO PRACTICE that more appropriate behaviour. Oftentimes we reprimand our children for doing something wrong (for example, we give them a time-out), but then that's the end of that. Most often, we don't give them the chance to practice the more appropriate behaviours we hope they'll use next time (using their "strong" words, sharing, asking instead of grabbing for a toy). This "do-over" is ESSENTIAL for giving children the skills to deal with situations differently the next time they arise. I've heard this idea from several sources, but I'm a big fan of Sharon Silver at ProActive Parenting, who emphasizes how powerful these learning experiences can be for children.

OK, having written another novella, I'll stop now and give you a chance…  What have I missed? What works or worked best for your toddler?

Most common cause of early discipline problems

We're back to thinking about discipline this week (and I could probably go on for weeks to come, so stop me when you get bored, 'kay?). Before we get into specific discipline strategies, I wanted to give you a bit more background about some of the research that's gone into understanding the development of defiant behaviour. In particular, I want to focus today's post on the most common parent-child interaction pattern that's associated with the development of oppositional, defiant and/or aggressive behaviour. There are SO MANY studies that have focused on this deceptively simple pattern, often referred in the research literature as "coercion" or the "coercive cycle." The pattern was first documented and analyzed by researchers from the Oregon Social Learning Center, most notably by Gerald Patterson (my academic mentor's mentor, a brilliant and inspiring man, and one of the most interesting and awesome people I know). Patterson collected videotapes of hundreds of parents and children interacting with one another in their own homes. And here's one of the most common interaction patterns he identified…

The coercive cycle starts with a parent requesting something of her child — let's say, mom asks her child to put away the blocks he's been playing with. The child responds by either ignoring mom or saying "NO!" The parent then responds to this defiance by escalating her request (either by increasing the urgency with which she delivers her request, raising her voice, threatening to take away privileges or threatening to punish, etc.). The child continues to refuse to comply (either actively or passively, but either way, he's not budging). Mom again escalates her request. The child then starts to whine (eeh gad that whiiiiiiiiiiiine), scream, cry or tantrum. The mother gives up: utterly exhausted at this point and realizing how much easier it would be to just pick up the darn blocks herself.

Who among us has not experienced almost this precise interaction? Who among us has not been frustrated enough, sleep-deprived, exhausted after a full day at work, desperate enough for a little peace that we have just given up? Sometimes we need to just pick our battles, right? Right… to a certain degree.

Here's the problem: This little scenario happens to ALL of us, at some point. But the OPPORTUNITY for this type of interaction happens hundreds of times over the course of a week (and often over the course of a DAY). And each little episode teaches the child something (as well as the parent). For the child, he learns that if he ignores long enough, whines loud enough, or full-out tantrums quickly enough, he will get his way. This is the "coercive" part of the cycle. The parent is ALSO learning something: Mom learns that if she gives up quickly enough, then peace and quiet will be restored to the household. In "behaviourists'" terms, both the child's "coercive" behaviour and the parent's withdrawing behaviour is being reinforced by this scenario. What is compelling about this situation is that, in some ways, it is so banal, so innocuous. In the moment, the interaction doesn't seem like a big deal at all. In the short run, both the parent and child are actually coming out the other end of this feeling relatively relieved and alright. BUT!  Wash, rinse and repeat hundreds and thousands of times and, in the LONG RUN, we've just created a potential little tyrant, one that now whines at EVERY. SINGLE. REQUEST. One that throws himself on the floor screaming and flailing each and every time we say "no" to one of HIS requests.

A few more points to emphasize about the coercive cycle:

1. When I say that the child is being "coercive," I don't mean that she is INTENTIONALLY and CONSCIOUSLY doing something to piss off her parents. These patterns develop outside of consciousness — which is part of the reason they can be so tricky…

2. For almost all children and parents, these mini-conflict scenarios start emerging most notably at around 18 months and continue on through early childhood. As we've talked about already, oppositional and defiant behaviour is COMPLETELY normal at this age. It's what we DO about it, as parents, that really matters.

3. Between 2 – 4 years old, these behavioural issues may not seem so serious (and they're not, at this stage). Children are small, can't do much damage, and their defiance can be relatively contained (and kinda funny too). But the trouble is that if we DON'T start attending to the defiant and aggressive behaviour early on, these are the skills and strategies that our children will take with them into the classroom, playground and into the homes of their peers as they get older.

SOURCES: There's loads of data I can link to that has identified the coercive cycle as a strong causal process that leads to the development of oppositional and/or aggressive behaviour. Here are just two of the summary articles that pull together this large body of research: Hinshaw, 2002 and Kazdin, 2002. If you're interested in the actual original studies, email me and I'll send you a few. Here's my own review of the research literature in the area (although I do NOT recommend reading it unless you're really into esoteric modeling, dense and inaccessible writing and the application of complexity/chaos theory to psychology). Perhaps the best two books on the topic — with all the data and theory summarized — are authored or co-authored by Patterson.

So… do you recognize the "coercive" cycle in your family? How about in other families that you see around you? Are there strategies you use to try to avoid these scenarios? Under what circumstances do you find it almost impossible to avoid these situations (I'll tell you mine in the comments if you tell me yours…)?

When Parting May Not Be Such Sweet Sorrow

Wow! That was a lot of guilt purging last week. I hope we're all travelling a little lighter this week if only because we've been reminded that we are not alone in carrying that MOTHER LOAD of guilt. Seriously, thanks for all the sharing. Not only has it been great to hear that we are not alone, but it's been great to get to know you a bit. We aim to please…so the more you tell us, the more you can help shape this site, what gets covered etc. 

In that spirit..
Last week's group carthasis started with Bella's guilt over her departure to Europe, but someone (Paola?) mentioned that she was also interested in the garden variety of separation anxiety.  I thought I"d give a little background into the research on separation anxiety (regular kind) but then leave you with a couple of questions that, to my knowledge, are not so well covered in the research literature. The first is an issue about separation anxiety that I"ve experienced with my son (there we are in the pic in those "all important" early days). I've also heard about it from friends re: their experiences with their own children. Once again, it would be great to hear about your experience…

Here's a quick "Did you know…?" to set it all up (just some highlights mind you, the literature on attachment is MASSIVE).

Fig4 1. One of the key studies that influenced thinking on human attachment came from a study with monkeys. Infant monkeys were given a choice of a). a surrogate mom made of wire, with a plastic nipple attached that delivered food or b). a similar wire mother with no food access but who was covered in a soft terry cloth. Although they nursed from the wire mom, the monkeys preferred the cloth mum (as in, they spent 17-18 hours a day with the cloth mum versus 1 hour with the wire/nipple one), even more so when food was not at issue but the monkeys were frightened by some foreign object that entered the room. You can read more about the study here. Although this finding came from a study with monkeys and not human babies, it raised the idea that food supply may not be as central to developing an attachment to a caregiver (as previously believed) as comfort and security. 

2. Of course the MAJOR line of research on human attachment came from Mary Ainsworth's work in the lab using something called the "Strange Situation". Basically, moms and infants come to the lab and spend some time in a "waiting room" of sorts (magazines for mom, toys for baby etc.). Over the course of 15 minutes, the people in the room change. At first mom is alone with baby. Then a stranger enters. Mom leaves baby with the stranger. Mom returns, then leaves again. Then the stranger also leaves and baby is alone. Stranger returns, then mom returns. Each of these scenarios last only a very short time; less than a minute to 3 minutes max. The researchers were mostly interested in what happens when mom and baby are reunited. Based on baby's reaction to mom's return, the babies were classified as either a). securely attached, b).avoidant attached or c). anxiously attached. The secure babies (about 65% of the infants tested) got upset when mom left but were comforted and quickly re-assured by mom on her return. In contrast, the avoidant (about 23%) babies were somewhat detached, did not show much emotion, even avoided mom or acted unaffected by her departure and also her return. Interestingly, biological markers (such as heart rate and skin conductance) later showed that these babies were nonetheless in distress. And the anxious babies (about 13%), were VERY upset at mom leaving, seemed upset or even angry on her return and were not easily reassured. 

The argument goes that securely attached babies, confident in a secure base to return to, are more free to explore their environment and therefore to learn. There is evidence that they fare better than avoidant- or anxiously- attached babies on complex problem -solving tasks and that they are generally better adjusted in later childhood and beyond.

3. In case you're freaking out because you don't believe that your child would react like a securely attached baby, here's something to consider. There is evidence that the proportion of babies in the different categories varies across cultures. E.g. supposedly there is a greater proportion of "avoidant" babies in studies with German infants  (although a more recent study with a German sample showed more of a "normal" distribution of babies across the three categories)  and of "anxious" babies in studies with Japanese infants.. Makes sense if you consider that parenting practices and styles definitely differ cross-cuturally, although perhaps less so nowadays what with the whole global village, internet etc. revolution.  In that case, it would be normal, and perhaps highly adaptive, for babies' attachment behaviors to reflect the culture they are being raised to function in.

4. A student of Mary Ainsworth – Mary Main – went on to do pioneering work on adult attachment. She was interested in how your memories regarding attachment with a primary figure when you were a child compared to the type of relationships/attachments that you form as an adult (in friendships but particularly in romantic relationships). Turns out that in ~75% of cases, that early style of attachment stays with you and is similar to the types of relationships/attachments formed in later life. Although, keep in mind that it has also been suggested that certain "buffering" factors can help mediate that connection. So a rough time in childhood does NOT necessarily mean that you are doomed to repeat that pattern as an adult.  

So there you go, some points to ponder. Here's what I'm interested in hearing from you:

My son has been very attached to me, since very early on. At 18 months of age, he would get upset if I left the room to go the bathroom, even if he was in the company of his father or grandparents who he knows very well and loves dearly. A good friend of mine's child went through a phase (granted he was quite young, maybe only 6-7 months or so) where he would get upset when she bent down over the sink to brush her teeth and was momentarily out of his view. Both of these kids improved immensely, but then with no warning would show this intense reaction all over again. No precipitating event, so stressful time, no new baby, move, change of preschool or daycare, illness of loss of a family member etc. Then it would subside, only to return again. And so it went. This summer,at almost 5, my son went to a day camp for the first time (for 2 weeks). He did not know a soul, it was in a location he did not know well, first time taking his own backpack, own lunch etc. But he did not even blink. "See ya Mum". That was it. Ditto the first day of school some weeks later. So we seem to have come out the other side. It's understandable to me that there may be sensitive periods in development when kids are more likely to suddenly seem anxious about separation agai
n, but sometimes he would sail through those sensitive periods without a blip and sometimes not. 

I'm interested to hear from you about "bouts" of separation anxiety. Anyone out there have a child who would "zoom" in and out?  At what ages?  What do/did you attribute it to?

Finally, as a mum of only 1, I"m always interested to know how kids with siblings cope with things. If you have more than 1, are/were your kids similar or different when it comes to separation anxiety?  Also, do you think that how the younger one or ones handled separation from you was different to how their older sibs handled it because they had sibs – read: company – to help tide them over until you returned? 

Send me your thoughts…


Reader’s question about waiting out the 18-21 month transition

Many of you have written about being in the middle of one of the major stage transitions in development and not knowing what to do if sleep-training isn't a good option during these sensitive ages. Here's a typical question, from K:

I have a 20 month old daughter who has most definitely been in
the 18-21 month transition you describe: her language acquisition has
been breathtakingly fast, she has been suffering from extreme
separation anxiety, and she has gone from a once a night wake-up to
three or four times a night.  She has been getting her eyeteeth for
what seems like forever, and she's been a *terrible* teether–she
really suffers–so I have been saying that I would not try to night
wean her till she's done with the eyeteeth. She is still nursing, and
we co-sleep, albeit she sleeps the beginning of most nights in a kid's
bed pushed up against our mattress.

I am writing tonight because, for the last several weeks, our usual
nurse-to-sleep routine has been intermittently inneffective. On those
nights when I had to put her down "sleepy but awake" she initially
would squirm around for a bit, and then, after 30 or 40 minutes, fall
asleep. Only the last week or so, and the last two nights in
particular, she has not fallen asleep at all, rather she has gotten
more and more active in the bed, finally chanting "Mama? Mama? Mama?
Mama?" till I am ready to scream… My tack has been to get up and
move towards the door, which gets her to stop chanting my name, but
starts her crying. Oy.  I know this is not a good thing, to get up and
make her cry, but I am sooooo tired, burnt-out, and done with it, and
I just don't know what else to do.  Clearly, my sitting with her is
not helping her fall asleep.  Tonight, after I gave up after an hour
of sitting with her, her father went in to her, and she just screamed
and screamed for 30 minutes, till he brought her downstairs to me
because he was afraid she would hurt herself screaming.  So I calmed
her down, went upstairs, and nursed her to sleep, finally, at 10pm.
(We started what I call the "wind down" at 8pm)

I am of the opinion that what's going on is separation anxiety of a
sort–she knows I will leave the room at some point, and gets more and
more anxious when I don't leave the room, and more and more awake. I
am really not sure what to do about it, though.  Night-weaning has
suddenly become a hazy goal for another time: right now I just want
her to get the sleep she needs by going to sleep before 10pm.  This is
not good for any of us… But she's in that transition period where
sleep training seems to be not such a good idea, right? Would it make
sense to just allay her fears by staying with her till she falls
asleep no matter how long it takes and how hyper she gets? Would
nursing her downstairs and having my husband take her up just transfer
the problem to a different person? (She would not do this without much
protest, I am sure.) Or is it time to take on a sleep training
routine, grit our teeth and make a go of it?

Oy indeed! Most of what I've got for you is huge amounts of sympathy; this really is so hard. I think you have a very good grasp of what's going on in your little girl's head and anxiety is exactly the root of the problem. Unlike before the age of 18 months or so, she's now able to hold in mind her own goals and intentions (I must keep Mama HERE!) while simultaneously being aware of your conflicting goals (Mama wants to leave/get a life away from this bed). This is a phenomenal achievement! But the fact that she now has this advanced social understanding also means that she is in a constant state of negotiation with you for MORE! NO GO! MOMMY STAY!

The toddler at this age is somewhat of an addict. She wants nothing more than to continue to have access to your attention, your approval, and your presence. ALL. THE. TIME. That’s why 18-21 month old kids repeatedly call after mother, even though she is RIGHT THERE. (I remember distinctly when my boys were this age and they'd both be in my arms, climbing "uppy, UPPY" ever higher until there was no where else to go, no closer they could come to me, no more smashed up against me than they already were… and still they'd wail MAMA!). So, as I've mentioned before, your child at this age, though feisty and independent, is also insecure and often anxious, especially during times of impending separation (as you described perfectly in your question).

Given the powerful emotional vulnerabilities of this stage, now is not the time to entirely reconstruct bedtime habits, centered as they are on closeness, shared routines, mutual affection, and assurances of continued emotional connection. Ideally, now is a time to comfort and reassure, not to challenge or withdraw. But what on earth do you do when your regular acts of comfort, valiant and consistent as they have been, are not enough anymore?

I think the key goal here is to try to minimize your little girl's anxiety levels. That requires a context or routine that is completely predictable. I suspect that if she knows exactly what to expect from you and your husband and she knows that she can't do anything to change that, then her anxiety about figuring out how to keep you there will be start decreasing over time. This isn't about "breaking her spirit" or anything nutty like that. It's about letting her know that she doesn't have to WORRY about finding the right thing to say, do, yell, cry, whatever so that mommy stays with her. You will provide her with nourishment, love, physical comfort, and then you will let her fall asleep. So… what can you do to create an environment that decreases her anxiety? Unfortunately, I can't think of any magic bullet here. There's probably 3 general approaches:

1. The first is the "grin and bear it" approach. Given that she'll be out of this stage in a month or so, you can try to resign yourself to a longer bedtime routine. Lie next to her, nurse her, repeatedly tell her it's time to sleep and provide lots of warmth but as little stimulation as possible. This might really suck if she's still tap dancing on your head to the tune of "Mama, mama, mama", but if you show her that you'll consistently stay until she's asleep, then her protests may become less intense and shorter lived. At this point, her refusal to sleep might be in large part about not knowing whether this will be one of the nights you'll stay or finally get fed up and go.  

2. You can try to go with the old routine which will surely now require some distress on her part. In other words, you can lie with her, nurse her, and then after 30 min or so, leave, saying that it's time for bed, not playing. This will feel like you're actually sleep training her. And in a way you are, but back to the OLD routine. If you come back and check on her regularly, but stand firm on staying out of the bed with her, then she will eventually realize that her protests don't work to get you back. Although in some ways that sounds heartbreaking, the other way to look at is that you are actually RELIEVING her of her source of anxiety. If you know for sure you can't get what you want, you stop being preoccupied with that goal. Without that preoccupation, she may actually enjoy her time WITH you more and feel less anxious after, when you do leave.

3. If the crying gets unbearable for you and the hours of lying with her becomes equally crazy-making, then you can just bite the bullet and try your preferred sleep-training method that will teach her new sleep habits altogether (this can be where your husband really steps up to the plate). This isn't what I usually recommend during this stage, but if the alternatives become too unbearable, it is doable, it's just really, really hard.

To sum up: I think what you want to avoid are those acts that heighten her uncertainty. Walking away because you (understandably) have had enough may be the first step to triggering her distress, but what keeps it going is her knowledge that you MIGHT come back. So, predictability is key — in whatever form you feel you can provide. Walk out and stay out (within reason of course) or hop in bed for the night with her until this freaking awful stage passes. Because it WILL pass.

Anyone else in a similar situation, stuck in a sensitive stage with no way out but through? Does knowing it IS just a phase and it WILL pass help at all?

18-21 months: The mother of all developmental transitions

Too many parents seem to be going through this stage right now for me to wait until we get there "chronologically." That format probably doesn't make much sense on a blog anyway. So let's just jump in with one of several emails that capture the crazies of 18-months. For many more similar stories, go check out Moxie's comments section in a post about commiserating during this stage and read her fantastic advice on how to deal with sleep disruptions at this age (here and here).

P. wrote about her 18.5 month old girl. I've addressed her email in parts:

daughter has been sleeping in our bed since about 4 months old.  She
slept in a co-sleeper before that.  And in her crib for about a week at
some point.  I never planned to co-sleep but she started waking up
every 30-60 minutes around 4 months old and I moved her into the bed to
make it easier on me.  Ha!  I haven't had any lucking getting her out

If I had a dollar for every time someone has said "I never planned to
co-sleep but…"  I hear you. First off, don't beat yourself up over
that decision. It was wise at the time and you just want a change now.
Doesn't take away the fact that it was the right thing for your family
at the time.

continues to wake up 3-4/night and nurses back to sleep.  Occasionally
she only wakes 1-2 times but that isn't often.  At least once per week
she wakes in the middle of the night and wants to get up and party.
 She is up for anywhere between 1-3 hours and is nursing most of that
time. She was sleeping from 7-7 ever night and napping for 1.5 hours in the
early afternoon.  Now she is going down late (8:30-9:00) and getting up
early (5:30-6:30) and napping throughout the day.  No schedule at all.
 I have no idea why this happened or how to fix it.  I feel like every
day is different.  This can't be good for her and it is making me crazy.

I can
give you the why: she turned 18 months old. This is BY FAR the biggest
change your baby has gone through in her short life. There is a huge
burst in "working memory" (think of working memory like the computer's
RAM; it's what you can hold in mind at one time).  That underlies a
bunch of changes that start happening during this time and all of it
can kick sleeping to hell. Here are some of the details from the

FROM BEDTIMING: "On the bright side, the period beginning at 17-18
months is a glorious phase of development. You will notice massive
changes as your child moves beyond infancy into what can properly be
called early childhood. …language development begins to skyrocket as
children learn to use two-part “sentences” that can describe exactly
what they’re thinking and what they want (Mama up; cookie NOW; NO
beans!). They can also begin to understand social roles, conflicting
goals, and other kinds of symbolic relationships, including simple
rules and ideas such as cleanliness. These are huge cognitive changes,
and indeed the 18-month transition is considered a major stage shift in
many theories of cognitive development. But more than that, it is a
period of emotional reorganization (or total chaos, if you're trying
to get the child to JUST. SLEEP. NOW). Children now begin to recognize
themselves as beings in a truly social world made up of other people.
They see themselves as individuals, with goals and wishes, and they see
other people as individuals, also with goals and wishes. The
realization that their wishes might just conflict with yours is an
enormous challenge to what was previously a strong and super-hero sense
of self. Now they’re not so sure whose wishes are going to prevail. As
a result, conflicts grow in number and intensity, the word “No!” makes
its debut in earnest (yes, they've used it before, but NOTHING like the
force with which they do now), and toddlers try to establish a sense of
security, balanced with a sense of independence, by commandeering their
parents on some occasions, defying them on others, but always looking
for signs of social approval, to reassure them that they are still
members in good standing in the “club” of social connectedness. This is
why we call this the period of "social negotiation."  Of course, these
emotional changes can be difficult, but they are also touching and
heart-warming. Your child is a real, independent little person now.
With vulnerabilities and insecurities to be sure, but also with a new
capacity for understanding and intimacy, and a kind of tenderness and
love that we recognize as being very much like our own. Our babies are
no longer tiny aliens: they are now complex little social beings, with
distinct personalities, needs, and ways of doing things.
    What aspects of this period make it especially troublesome for
sleep training? Separation is more painful now than it has been since
the age of 8–11 months, because it is interpreted according to your
baby’s sense of your goals and agendas. If you are somewhere else, you
could be intentionally ignoring her, perhaps because you have better
things to do. Physical separation means psychological separation, and
that is not a comforting option! Research has shown the highest peak in
separation distress at exactly 18 months. Rather than being alone, the
18-month-old now wants to be with you…sometimes as much as possible.
    So what happens when you explain that it’s time to go to sleep? You
kiss your baby goodnight and tiptoe out the room. You probably won’t
have to wait long before the first howling protest: “Nooooo! Come
back!!!!  No sleep!!!!  Want kiss! Want kiss! Want more! Get Daddy!
Daddy come! Mommy come! Want Mommy, not Daddy. Want Daddy, not Mommy!” And on and on. This is precisely the
social negotiation that you can expect at this age. Your child is using
his collection of words to tell you what he wants, in as many ways as
he can, knowing full well he’s opposing your wishes. His anxiety
escalates as he realizes that you are becoming impatient and irritated.
He therefore needs even more reassurance, making him increasingly
determined not to be alone, as the struggle continues. Yet each time he
tries another tactic, he feels like he’s losing a little more of you.
He is a little more in danger of being tossed out of the “club” of
social closeness, or at the very least having his membership privileges
revoked. And he knows it, but he can’t stop, because to give in, to
stop protesting, would mean accepting your absence and giving up his
ability to enlist your care. If you disappear now, he’s alone, really
alone. And what’s more, he is not very good at accepting defeat these
days. Because not getting his way means a loss of his sense of power
and effectiveness in the world in general and the social world in
particular. And that feeling of helplessness is devastating.
    The emotional changes that rapidly cascade from about 18 to 21
months are likely to make sleep training a dramatic, traumatic, and
ultimately ineffective effort. And the reason for this is simple.
During the period of social negotiation your baby is attempting to
balance her needs for security, a sense of acceptance, and confidence
in her parents’ love on the one hand, with her need for independence
and a sense of competence and accomplishment on the other. Your baby’s
attention is focused on conflicting goals and wishes. Frustration is
met with tears, anger, and very often the first temper tantrums. For
your child to give in and go to sleep would mean admitting defeat,
which means relinquishing her sense of being important and effective.
This is tantamount to having her newly established sense of power
snatched away in one fell swoop. Indeed, sleep training at this age is
bound to be hampered by two interlocking issues: your toddler’s fear of
separation and his determination to hold his own in conflict
situations. Because of both issues, sleep training will be a
hard-fought battle for the 17- to 21-month-old child."  END QUOTE.

So, my (probably horrifying for you) advice: Wait it out. You’ve made
parenting decisions that suited your and your baby’s needs and they’ve
worked so far. Just hold out a little longer before trying to make any
changes. By 22 months or so, you can try any of the top 5 or so sleep
training methods that best matches your parenting style and your child's personality. At that time, your girl  will probably respond quickly to the
same efforts that seem so doomed right now.