“Uh-oh! I think my arm needs a diaper!”

“Uh-oh! I think my arm needs a diaper!”

Toddlers objections to doing things we want them to do can show up in many ways. One of parents’ least favorite ways is a tantrum. After reading my article NPR—What’s Behind A Temper Tantrum? a mom of a toddler asked me this (shared with permission):

I have a 2.5 year old who has been acting out a lot lately especially with diaper changes. How I would use Language of Listening with a diaper change that he absolutely does not want to have. Any suggestions?—Cassandra


“Acting out” is the perfect phrase for what you are seeing, because in every case kids are “acting out” a communication that they haven’t been able to get across to you in any other way. When a child thinks you don’t understand what they want or how important it is to them, acting out can take the form of a tantrum.

Recognizing and validating the importance of what a child wants can prevent the need for acting out in the first place. When their communication has already escalated to the level of a tantrum, meeting their need for power can turn it around, as I describe in Tantrum Relief—Meeting the Three Basic Needs.

What I don’t discuss in those posts is our reaction as the parent. When toddlers angrily object to doing the things we want them to do, we often get angry as well. That’s because anger is our natural response to feeling powerless, too. Like our children, actions like getting loud and trying to control others help us meet our need for power, but they also create the power struggles we are trying to avoid—it takes two to struggle.

Using Language of Listening® coaching skills meets your need for power and your child’s very quickly when you remember to use them. Starting with SAY WHAT YOU SEE® in tones that validate your child’s objections and match his anger will help you stay calm in any situation, primarily because you are doing it on purpose. Doing anything on purpose provides an experience of self-control that meets your need for power in a way you like, so it helps you while getting your child heard. When your child’s communication is heard, he will no longer have to act it out.

SAY WHAT YOU SEE helps you understand what the child wants so you can step onto his side as his coach.

For example, lets say what he wants to do is play. When you need to change his diaper (a non-negotiable boundary), you step onto his side by first understanding his perspective. Try to imagine how awful it must be for him to have to stop playing for any reason, let alone a reason he doesn’t care about like a diaper change. Add to that anything else he may associate with  diaper changes from previous negative experiences like painful diaper rashes or power struggles that he has lost.

“I don’t care about dirty diapers” or “I hate diaper changes” is probably part of what he’s been trying to tell you with his tantrums. Toddlers often prioritize playing and meeting their other needs over changing wet and stinky diapers. That’s as it should be, AND still, wet and stinky diapers MUST be changed.

The key is not to ask toddlers to choose between play and a diaper change, but help them do both!

Knowing what he wants is crucial in any coaching moment so you can focus on that instead of the boundary. Keeping the emphasis on what he wants (play) instead of on the boundary puts you on his side, so it’s best to find out exactly what he wants and help him meet his need for power and connection BEFORE starting the diaper changing process.

One way to do that with a 2.5 YO is to sit with him a moment and notice what he is already doing. Whatever it is, it is important to him. SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to connect first makes a huge difference in a child’s ability to cooperate. Meeting his need for power does, too. A short dialog like this could do both:

SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS): “You are playing with that. Look what you can make it do! You really like that.”

Describing the details will help you understand the importance of what your child wants.

CAN DO: “It’s diaper time. Rats! You don’t want to stop. Show me the one thing you need to do so you can stop.”

At first, he probably won’t answer or will say, “No!” if he associates diaper changes with power struggles, and expects you to stop him no matter what he says. Don’t worry. Practice saying it now anyway as a way to meet his need for power so he can stop himself, because his resistance will change over time when you start replacing the power struggles with playful CAN DOs that will make diaper changes fun and connective like I describe below. For now assume he says, “No!”

SWYS: “Of course you NEVER want to stop! What was I thinking?!!”


CAN DO: “You want to play and play, AND your diaper must be changed. Hmmm… Must be some way to do both.”

You can see if he has any ideas for how to solve this problem. If he does, and his idea works for you, try it. If his solution is not OK with you, say, “That works for play and not for diaper. Must be a way to do both,” then offer a CAN DO of your own to meet his need for power and connection:

CAN DO: “Let me think…Must be some way for you to play AND get your diaper changed. I know! Fast! Fast, fast, fast. Must be some way to do this fast, so you can play, play, play!”


“Hmm…I know! You can run and get a clean diaper, or I can get one while you play, or I can fly you to the diapers, so you can snatch one. (When he nods, add the next choice.) Now, we need to get it done really fast, fast, fast someplace… Hmm. My bathroom, your bathroom, outside…? (When he nods, add a game starter.) Ready, set, go!”

Make sure the choice of places you offer are OK with you and include an unusual choice to break the old pattern, then let him choose if he is ready. Cooperating in problem-solving meets kids’ need for power. Choosing tells you he’s ready to cooperate.

When he chooses (or even if you have to choose for him the first time), try taking this a step further.

After his diaper is changed, add a game per Dr. Lawrence Cohen’s classic Playful Parenting. (All of his books are must-reads for parents of toddlers, but especially Playful Parenting.) Games like he describes meet a child’s needs for connection and power by validating the child’s feelings and putting them in the power role. There is no better way to create cooperation in the moment and in the long-term with a child.

When you start using games, it becomes easier and easier to invent your own. For example, adding a diaper game right after a diaper change could not only meet your child’s needs in the moment, but it could change his association with diaper changing from one of anger and frustration to one of connection and mastery, an important precursor for potty training.

Immediately after changing his diaper, a role-reversal game might sound like this:

SWYS: “You’re all clean and ready to play! Uh-oh! I think my arm needs a diaper! Now what?”

This would put your child in the lead to check your arm to see if it is “pretend wet” or “pretend stinks,” go get a diaper for it, open the diaper tabs, use wipes, fasten the diaper around it, and put the supplies away when he’s done. Any of those steps would help him master the skills needed to eventually take care of his own personal hygiene.

As he takes those steps, your job is to observe and just SAY WHAT YOU SEE him doing, and point out his STRENGTHs. If he hits a hard place, just say, “Show me the hard part,” and “Show me what you want me to do,” then provide the least possible help so that HE succeeds. Doing it himself is the goal.

It could sound like this:

SWYS: “You’re checking my arm.”


STRENGTH:”You knew to check first!”


SWYS: “Now you’re running to get a fresh diaper…You’re back! You’re wiping my arm first, so it’s all clean, and opening the tabs on the diaper. That one looks hard, and you are pulling it, and pulling…there! You got it!”


STRENGTH: “You knew you could do it if you stuck with it. That’s persistence.”


SWYS: “Now you are wrapping it around my arm…and around…and trying to make it fit. There! It’s on!”


(Never mind how it looks. There is no right or wrong way to diaper an arm! “On” in any way is good enough.) 


STRENGTH: “You figured out a way to make it work!”  


SWYS: “All done. Now my arm is clean and dry!”


STRENGTH: “You did it! You knew just what to do! You knew where the diapers were and how to use the wipes. You were careful with them, and knew they need to be thrown away.”


CAN DO: “Show me where to throw the used wipes…and now where the clean wipes go…”

A post-diaper change game like that would make any diaper change more fun, but for a child who is already resistant to diaper changes, the most important part would be the emotional validation that would occur when he starts to diaper your arm were you to say this:

CAN DO (stage whisper): “Should I be scared or angry?”

This would make the role-reversal complete. By directing your reaction, he could show you what it feels like on his end to have his diaper changed against his will. Exaggerating your pretend reaction in a funny way, and taking direction from him would help him meet his need for power even more. You would know you hit the sweet spot for growth by “following the giggles” as Dr. Cohen puts it.

When you hit that spot, he will want to play the game again and again. Do at least 3 plays the first time (or until he’s done, if you have time), then tell him you can play it again AFTER his next diaper change.

Tell him to let you know when he needs a change next time, and when he gets his diaper to bring an extra one for your arm (or other arm, or foot, or his truck, or a doll, etc. if he wants to try to diaper something else that is OK with you.) Not only could this increase his interest in diaper changes, but at 2.5 with potty training around the corner (no more diaper changes—yay!), a game like this could also help him become more aware of the internal signs that he has to go.

Toddlers are all about mastery and discovering their STRENGTHs. When you can do that by helping them get what they want (hint: more playtime with you) AND do what they need, AND point out STRENGTHs along the way, you are coaching.

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