Gaining Toddler Cooperation – Bed, Bath, Mealtime

Gaining Toddler Cooperation – Bed, Bath, Mealtime

Q: “My biggest parenting challenge at the moment is that my two year old daughter is a little bit strong-willed. Meal times, bath times and basically everything in life is a challenge when she’s already decided whether or not she will be doing what I ask. I can negotiate, I can plead and I can try to coax her – all to no avail.


She also has a routine – I’m quite religious about it- I believe it helps her feel safe. I try to never tell her what to do, but rather ask her whether or not she’s ready. Lately, however, I’ve started telling her that she will be eating, taking a bath etc. as soon as she’s finished doing what she’s busy with at the moment.


But this also doesn’t help. If she is not in the mood she just firmly says “no mommy” and walks away, which usually results in me having to drag her to the bath tub or plopping her down in the high chair – while she’s kicking and screaming.


Luckily this doesn’t happen everyday, but still quite often. She usually settles down after a while and peacefully eats her meal and lets me bathe her, but I’m worried about breaking her will or us not having such a great relationship anymore.


Most other moms tell me it’s a phase that will pass, but I still feel like I’m doing something wrong? Do you have some advice for me?”

A: You are absolutely right. Parenting toddlers is a huge challenge, and it’s easy to feel like “everything in life is a challenge” at this stage. Toddlers are at the age where they understand that their thoughts and ideas are separate from your own, explore boundaries and want to share their thoughts with the world (à la “No mommy.”)

It sounds like you are spot on with the routine. While great for all ages, routines are especially useful during the toddler and preschool years. I think you have the right foundation in place to set your daughter up for success.

With a few simple shifts, you can start to see more cooperation and less resistance during mealtime, bedtime and bathtime.

Since you may not be familiar with Language of Listening model, I will give you a brief introduction. It always starts with one thing — SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS) — where you describe exactly what you are seeing in the moment, without questions, teaching, fixing or judgement. If you see something you don’t like, offer something the child CAN DO. If you see something you like, name your child’s STRENGTH.

You may find this very freeing because you will no longer need to negotiate, plea, or coax her during bedtimes and mealtimes. You won’t need to ask her if she is ready or not, you can simply SWYS and say, “Looks like you’re ready to take a bath,” or “Looks like you’re not ready to take a bath, and it’s bath time. There must be something we can do to help you feel ready.”

In your above example when your daughter says “No mommy” and walks away, SWYS might look something like this:

SWYS: “Looks like you don’t want to take a bath right now. You’re walking away. There is something you want to do instead, and it’s still bath time.”

If you know what that “something” is, go ahead and name it. Otherwise, you can pause for a moment and wait to see if she gives you more information. She may give you several reasons why she doesn’t want to take a bath, which will allow you to dive into SWYS even more.

Granting your child’s wishes in fantasy is a great way to validate and explore your child’s emotions. It might sound something like this:

CAN DO (Wishes): “You wish you never had to take a bath. You wish you could play with these toys all night long and that you never had to go to bed. You would love that.”

If she continues to walk away, you can offer her a CAN DO. Without knowing more detail about the situation, this is a hypothetical example:

SWYS: “It’s bathtime, and you want to keep playing with your toys.”

CAN DO: “Hmm. There must be something you can do. You can take a few toys into the bath. Or you can play a silly game with mom while you get washed up.”

Offer any CAN DO that fits within your boundary.

All behaviors are driven by three healthy needs: experience, connection and power.

At the end of the day, if your child’s connection tank isn’t full, it’s common to see resistive behaviors arise as a means for kids to connect with parents. The best part is that SWYS will instantly help you  reconnect with your child and fill that connection tank.

Your daughter may also desire more power in these typical everyday situations. Think about what your daughter CAN DO in these situations to meet her need for power, yet stay within your boundary.

During bedtime this might mean she can pick out her pajamas, the books you read, the toys she takes to the bath or the color toothbrush she uses. She may also get to decide the silly games you play throughout the bedtime routine.

During mealtimes this might mean she can decide the plate and utensils and placemats used at the table. She may not get to choose the meal, but she could choose her drink.

The CAN DOs are really whatever works within your parenting boundaries. And each time she does something you like, go ahead and name those STRENGTHS. When she gets in the bathtub cooperatively, you can say things like…

SWYS: “You got into the bath even though you didn’t want to.”

STRENGTH: “That shows self-control.”


SWYS: “You found a toy to take to the bath to make it fun.”

STRENGTH: “You know how to problem solve.”


SWYS: “You sat at the table for the whole meal. You tried each food.”

STRENGTH: “That shows you’re patient and willing to try new things.”

At age two, this will take some practice. Your daughter may respond with a lot of emotion, and this is absolutely normal and expected. If she experiences intense feelings, dive straight back into SWYS. Helping her name those feelings will help her process and move forward.

The other moms you mentioned are right. This is a phase, and there is a good chance it will pass, but there is so much you can do to gain cooperation from your daughter, build your connection and help both of you grow right now.

Lauren Tamm, Parent CoachLauren Tamm is the author of The Military Wife and Mom blog, where she writes on practical parenting, enjoying motherhood, and thriving through the ups and downs of military life. Connect with her on Facebook or Pinterest

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