Toddler Conflict Resolution Tool: Distraction is not Distraction

When a child turns about 18 months, or a little bit older, parents are often faced with one of their first conflicts between them and their child: their child, now having a strong will of their own, is defiant. The child doesn’t want to get dressed or maybe they don’t want to get in the car seat. Parents don’t want to force their child into the action, but they still need to do what they need to do. Looking to typical advice, they might try giving their children limited choices or asking with calm voices for them to do something. It often goes nowhere.

My experience with children this age is their response to verbal requests is spotty. Even those with strong vocabularies often won’t comply with what you asked. My experience with giving a child limited choice at this age is that they might point to one of the choices, say a shirt if the choice was over what shirt to wear. But the more likely answer is “chase me.” If they do make a choice, they probably don’t know that they were just contractually signed up to put the shirt on without complaint.

A better approach that I found, after much reading and trying it out on three children, is distraction. What I mean is this: as you are trying to put the shirt on, you do something to entertain them. You might sing their favorite song, make a funny noise, playfully hit their head with a pair of socks–you know your child the best. Then get them into the car seat or put the shirt on while they are giggling. I find this plain works at this age.

This is actually part of a bigger tool, which is called by some as the “collecting ritual.” Dr. MacNamara describes it this way in Rest, Play, Grow,

“One of the most basic ways to convey a desire to be close is through the collecting ritual. We need to invite our children into relationship by collecting their attachment instincts—we need to work at getting their attention.”

When we “distract” a child, we’re not just throwing a video on a phone at them and hoping it works. We’re actually getting into their world and making an educated guess as to what would be pleasant for them. You need to observe your own child and work towards the pleasant interaction. You need to do it with a sense of calm and confidence, not exasperation.

When I asked people how they deal with a child of this age who won’t put on their diaper, without mentioning this tool of distraction, every single one of the replies was some kind of distraction. Some people described that they get the child involved in changing the diaper, by letting them get it. Others said they sing songs or simply continue dialoguing. Some let the child choose a toy to play with before changing. One mother told me about a Fast or Slow game. The child gets to choose if the Mom does the diaper change really fast or exaggerates it as really slow.

I also personally wait if I can. If the time isn’t right, I wait until the time seems better to change the diaper. The key is you. The child wants time with you.

I think many people are opposed to “distraction.” I have actually seen people say they want to use this tool to have others admonish them that they shouldn’t. They think that what you are doing is ignoring the child’s need. For instance, a child might be begging for milk, and you don’t want to give it, so you say “Hey look! A cool car!” That’s not what’s really happening here. In fact, distraction used as described is actually meeting their need. Their defiance probably had nothing to do with not wanting to put the shirt on. They simply didn’t want to leave the fun activity they were doing to put the shirt on. By doing something fun with them, they continue to have fun and you get the shirt put on. It is always acceptable to just act with a child, such as just putting on the shirt. Simply acting is better than nagging or using threats. (See When Gentle Parenting Doesn’t Work: A Congruent Response, not a Gentle One.) But doing it while the child is calm and giggling makes it a lot easier.

I call my paradigm for dealing with difficult situations with children “conflict resolution.” I no longer call it “discipline” because it’s more about satisfying both party’s needs than it is about “disciplining” the child. My work aims to handle children without directly altering anything about them. This case shows that eloquently. You are seeking to satisfy the child’s needs while getting your needs met too. It is your need to get the child’s diaper changed. It’s their need to have a fun time with you.

This tool, of distraction, works at this age because children are easily distracted at this age. You really can’t appeal to their reason or logic because it’s not there yet. They are a bit like Dory from Finding Nemo, forgetful and easily attracted by something new. Therefore, choices, explanations, etc., don’t work. But you can use this to both your and their advantage. Another tool to use for when you need them to stop doing something is redirection.

Their persistence of thought will grow gradually at each of the early Toddler Milestones, but it changes dramatically at Toddler Milestone 5, which is at 2 years, 1 months and is called “Persistence and Insistence.” At this age they will dig in much harder about what they want. Distraction can still play a role, if applied in a healthy way where you make a very educated guess about what they want, but to deal with their growing needs–which can be completely whimsical at times–new tools are needed.  If you find your child at any time is no longer easily distracted, a handy tool is Give in Fantasy What You Can’t Give in Reality.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years.