How to find your balance with a strong willed toddler? Talk amongst yourselves.

Crocuses. Photo credit: The 39 Steeps
Crocuses. Photo credit: The 39 Steeps

Who among us hasn't felt upended by our parenting expectations?

Yasmin's appeal for help brought back so many memories of the massive transition I went through as a new parent:

Ever since I had my son, who is now 17 months old, I find it hard to take care of myself like I used to and be the person I used to be, in general. Now, I don't try recipes every week, try romantic gestures with my husband… I lost my patience because I have a very strong willed toddler who has SO much energy and is relentless in everything he does.

How do I balance my life again? I feel traumatized now…I had no idea having a baby was going to turn out to be like this at all.

I immediately wrote back to Yasmin with the promise to post her question along with two oversimplified (but true) answers: you are not alone and it won't always feel this way.

She has been on my mind a lot. I've been marveling recently at just how much my experience of parenting has changed as my kids have grown. I wrote about it over at The Accidental Expert so you'll have some context:

Click to read: What Crocuses Can Teach You About Parenting

There's so much more to say. Mine isn't the only response, which is why I am hoping you'll chime in with perspective and comfort for Yasmin.

Please leave a comment: how do you find balance amidst the chaos of the baby-and-toddler years?

No one's expecting a definitive answer, because there isn't one! Whatever thoughts or tips you can offer will help.

Now’s a good time for me to point you back to a post I wrote about finding time for self-care. You can start, even if it’s not enough for now.

Also, a good time for me to mention MinCamp, our free companion workshop to Minimalist Parenting. MinCamp is all about simplifying and streamlining your life…including making room to take care of yourself. Sign up now…MinCamp begins on March 1.


  1. Bryssy says

    Parenting with Love and Logic can chane your life. Read the book and start to apply it immediately. My 3rd (he is 2) responds especially well to having choices. Give options that you can live with. For instance, would you like to get into the bathtub yourself or would you like me to put you in? Would you like to put on your left shoe or your right shoe first? I can not recommend Love & Logic strongly enough – it is awesome!

  2. Lauren says

    Oh gosh, I have so many thoughts on this. I have a nearly 3 year old and a 6 week old. A few things that come to mind:

    – The half years seem to be the worst. Other parent friends have said the same thing. In our experience, things improved a lot at 2, but have gotten tougher again.

    – Take pride in and motivate yourself with small accomplishments. Maybe you’re running around too much to make a multi-course meal like you would have in the past, but pat yourself on the back if you try out a quick dessert hummus recipe that you threw together while your son napped.

    – Don’t be afraid to ask for help. With my daughter, I played mommy-martyr. I boo-hooed about how much I wish I could still go to the gym but couldn’t because I was always with her. Now that we have a second, I’m making time for myself and going to the gym while my husband watches both kids. It gives him respect for what I do during the day and gives me time off (and the health benefits, of course).

    It really does get easier, though. I promise. And I second the recommendation of the Love and Logic book.

  3. says

    Hi Yasmin, It does get easier—I have two-year-old twins, work part-time as a teacher (which any teacher will tell you is not a part-time job); I also do most of the cooking & running errands. I think that giving choices is one great help, as is giving your son lots of structure and rhythm in the day (meals, outings, & nap at roughly the same times each day; a regular routine for bedtime). And then immense freedom within the structure—go outside twice a day and just let him play. Have a safe play space at home, where there are few rules: my boys don’t throw things that aren’t soft in our house, and the kitchen is often off-limits. If you’re home all day with your toddler, nap time is your time—not cooking time, not laundry time. It’s *your* time to do whatever you want. I spend 20 minutes assembling what I’ll need for the afternoon outing, then goof off on facebook. Or exercise. Or write.

    I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything close to balance, but I can see it coming on the horizon. THe cognitive jump and language development between 18 months and 2 years has been phenomenal and has really helped the overwhelmed feeling—the boys have always been communicating their needs, but now they can do so in language that’s easier to understand. I’d also recommend you read “Raising Your Spirited Child”—it has some great tips for working with children from a place of empathy and support instead of from a place of frustration.

  4. says

    A great book is “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” by Harvey Karp – so many practical tips – I used it for my daughter (now 7.5) and now have been dipping back into again with my 2.5 year old son (who incidentally refuses to potty train – I remind myself that this too shall pass). Certainly having that older child helps me to remember that these are all stages and it won’t always be like this. Also, I’d recommend into looking into things that will allow you to have a bit of a break – does your local gym have babysitting while you work out? Or is there a kid in your neighbourhood who can come over and play with your child while you’re in the house doing something else (cooking, napping, reading a book guilt-free, taking a relaxing bath)? For example, a girl as young as seven or eight would be awesome at something like this and might even do it for free or extremely minimal pay. Hang in there!

  5. says

    This may not be helpful but…

    I would flip it around. Take care of yourself FIRST. A strong energetic toddler will suck the ever-loving life out of you. And relentless is a great word – they’re RELENTLESS! You can’t change them. You can only change you. And if you hope to be the fun emotionally-available parent I know you are, you need to put yourself first.

    It may take some creative problem solving. Swapping childcare with a friend so you can go to yoga. Skipping out on family dinner so you can take the dog for a hike in the woods. Carve out a few hours from the weekend to do things that recharge your batteries (read a book, paint nails, cook uninterrupted, etc.). He’s going to demand 110% of you for a while (this will pass but it won’t pass tomorrow!) so the don’t try to squeeze “you” in with whatever moments are left over at the end of the day. Put “you” first.

    This will make being the parent you want to be a whole lot easier.

  6. says

    I totally agree that they are relentless and it hasn’t changed much as my child has got older.

    Finding time to, look after myself, has only just occurred and I am enjoying it.

    Need more tips on how to handled someone who is very strong minded.

  7. Nancy says

    I felt the same way when my first daughter (now 5) was that age. It wasn’t until we had our second daughter that I realized something had to give. Your greatest resource is under the same roof as you….your husband. You are a TEAM raising this child.

    Take turns putting him to bed (your son may resist this the first few times if he’s used to you doing it all the time, but he will adjust in a week or so as long as you and dad hang in there). My husband and I starting doing that with our first when I got pregnant with our second, and we still do it to this day now that our youngest is a toddler that boycotts bedtime. You have more patience for it when you realize that you’re “off” tomorrow night.

    We each have a designated “sleep in” day on the weekend. He gets up on Saturday morning with the kids while I sleep in, I get up with them on Sundays so he can do the same. I recently decided to take up yoga once a week, so I found a class that is on “my morning.” In return, I watch the kids so he can get back into his model airplane hobby.

    Also, IT IS OK to not spend every waking moment interacting with your child. If you are a stay-at-home mom, find him a once-a-week Mother’s Day Out program or some other part-time child care. He gets to socialize and play with other kids (important skills he can’t learn just by hanging out with you all the time), and you get some “you” time. If you work, take a day off but send him to day care anyway, and use that time to try out all those recipes you’ve been eyeing.

    This is a bit controversial, but I also don’t see the problem in letting him watch the occasional educational TV episode. Let him watch while you read a book, browse for recipes, or fold some laundry. You’re still in the room to keep an eye on him and discuss what he’s watching if you want, but his attention can be focused on something other than you for a few minutes. Sesame Street, Dora, Diego, Team Umizoomi, and Bubble Guppies are all great little shows. (My youngest knew what a trapezoid was before she was two thanks to Team Umizoomi.)

    This is getting long, so I’ll just second the idea of getting a sitter to watch him while you’re in the house doing something else. Also, it does get better. My second is almost 2 1/2, and I’m now starting to feel like I’m emerging from a long dark tunnel. My mantra that has gotten me through the tougher parts: “she’ll never be this little ever again.” Hang in there, you can do it!

  8. KimC says

    Find a gym with a childcare area. You get to show up with yoga pants on and hit the treadmill or whatever and afterwards, you get to take an actual shower, and put lotion on your legs afterwards or whatever makes your shower time awesome. No fingers poking under the door no little people shouting, no spaghetti noodles on your beige carpet (yeah, that happened and the darn things don’t vaccum)

    Sing your instructions to the kiddo. I don’t know why, but my kids were more likely to do it if I sang it to them, and if they argued, they usually sang the argument which HA! awesome. Keeping it funny helps.

    You don’t have to entertain all the time. I am not a floor time mommy. I will play for small amounts of time, but I expect kids to entertain themselves. A parent can really wear themselves out doing the constant playing/ talking/ working with a child.

    It does get so. much. better. I am on number 2 now, and she is almost three. The first one is six and the child that was strong willed and sometimes flat out contrary, first had colic, then wouldn’t sleep for another year for no apparent reason, well. She is a delightful big sister, great great kid. So polite! So empathetic! So GREAT! She even does chores!

    I wish someone could have given me a window to who she is now when I was still in the screaming, contrary toddler phase. I would have been so relieved.

    On that note, something I told myself the second time around= “see, it isn’t something you are doing wrong, it is the AGE. The AGE has everything to do the behavior”

  9. Nicole says

    Swim lessons right before nap time help, and any sort of drop in activity program (check community centres especially). They have more energy and so need to do more things!

    Your baby is probably big enough to go to the playground too.

    It gets different – not always easier but at least a change is as good as a rest.

    My kids are 5.75 and 19 months, so I know what you’re going through. Hang in there.

  10. says

    When I think about the first two years of my first son’s life (he’s now 7), I feel traumatized, too. I can make my head spin with the memory of feeling totally lost, like I was a non-person, never saying or doing the right thing for him. When he was very small and very intense, some wise person (I can’t even remember who said this, I was in such a fog) told me “These personality traits that make him a difficult BABY are the same ones that are going to make him an amazing PERSON.” Every time he did something that spun my head around, I’d try to remind myself to think of all the ways that could be useful when he’s an adult. Won’t take “no” for an answer? Amazing entrepreneur! Won’t eat anything I cook? Amazing chef! Argues to no end? Amazing lawyer! Won’t let me pee by myself? Great investigative journalist! By the time he was 4, I could see these traits without trying so hard. Now he’s basically my favorite person on the planet to hang out with.
    Remember: Everything is a phase and you do get to insist on taking care of yourself. Even if it is hard for him to be apart from you so you can go out with your husband or you worry he won’t eat a new recipe, you still get to do those things anyway. Teaching him by example about individuality and self-care is one of the greatest gifts you could ever give him. You sound like a very engaged and compassionate mother. Please show some of that compassion to yourself, too.

  11. says

    This is one of the most important parenthood discussions. Newborns and toddlers are indisputably overwhelming. EVERY parent not only thinks that at one point or another they are alone, but it is inevitable you will also feel like the frustration and fatigue will never go away.

    This advice given to my wife during the first months after our son’s birth; it was a watershed of relief for BOTH of us which still has legs today (our son is now 8, our daughter 6): IT’S OK TO SOMETIMES NOT LOVE, OR EVEN LIKE, YOUR BABY.

    Yes! It’s true! The love will come back, during a quiet bathtime, or cuddle moment. But, putting the kid down in a crib, closing the door and letting yourself have a moment or two of resentment is OK.
    It’s also not illegal to voice these thought out loud to a fellow parent. You’ll be comforted by the unexpected response. Talk about it!

  12. says

    It will get a bit better. My son is now almost 22 months so I’m right there with you. My son sounds just like yours: strong-willed and “relentless,” as you said. I felt so betrayed by everyone who told me that the first months were the toughest, it would get so much easier after the first year, etc. etc. My son’s most difficult age was from around 16-18 months. I think there’s a ton going on in a toddler’s brain at that point. They’re frustrated because they can’t verbalize what they want. They’re so physically active, but not yet able to do everything. They’re defiant. I was literally at the end of ropes then. My suggestion (and this what I did): find help. This is the age when I finally put my son in preschool for a few hours a few times per week. And his sleep patterns were horrible for a couple months too!

    But I will tell you: at least for my son, who’s still very difficult often, it will a little easier, once he’s able to speak more. And his sleep improved almost overnight. And just know, that there’s a lot of us right there experiencing and feeling the same thing!!

  13. Sarah in Georgia says

    If I get out the changing pad and a diaper, my 22-month old will ignore me and let me read for at least several minutes. He won’t leave the room, and I can keep an eye on him and get some quiet time for myself. I’ve also enjoyed my gym time with my son in the children’s room. I know my gym hires moms for the children’s room (you can take your kid with you) so there may be options for a gym membership even if it doesn’t appear to be in the budget. Good luck!

  14. says

    Ah, balance! Especially for parents of small children I think remembering that “balance” is dynamic, ever changing and often fleeting or momentary – vs. a destination or thing to achieve as a goal.

    My kids are 9 and 7 yrs old now, and while it can feel so difficult as times, trying to do what you can to take care of you now like other have said is sooo important. Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.

    Remember parenting is an 18-20 year/lifelong marathon, not a sprint. The qualities we can find challenging at times in our children (curiosity, strong opinions, emotionally expressive) are in the long term qualities that we want them to have as they grow into adults!

  15. LifeLearner2013 says

    We tried it all — read every book, starting with “The Spirited Child”, we tried Love and Logic Classes, spend tons of money on anything that held an ounce of promise. Nothing worked. My mom was dumbfounded, as was everyone else that saw us trying and struggling. *******Years later we found out that he has ADHD, and that nothing would have helped.*******

    My biggest piece of advice:

    Lower your expectations.

    Seriously. Don’t expect to shower only 3x per week, don’t expect the child to “outgrow” this in a month, don’t compare your child with anyone else’s, and never – never compare to another family members child. GULP!

    Expectations nearly killed me. I was uber depressed and felt like I failed. Once I finally got into my own life (and no one else’s) just as it was, I realized we could be happy just the way it was. It was not perfect, and it was not what I thought it was going to be, or what everyone told me it should be. But it was the life I was living, and I accepted that and tried to find the best in it.

    Finding balance as a parent is so hard — but it is easier if you are only trying to find balance that fits you and your family.

    Good Luck!

  16. Nicole says

    Just to add my experience: I’ve always been extremely Type A. I have very high expectations of myself and others. My five years of parenting has been a crash course in adjusting my expectations. It was really hard – if that’s not the understatement of my lifetime.
    I’m still working on the balance, but I find that I truly can’t do EVERYTHING and be EVERYONE at the same time. So my goal is to balance and check in and adjust and put more energy where it is obviously needed most. Some weeks it’s work, some weeks it’s my marriage. While my focus is on one or two things, everything else gets the minimal acceptable attention. It is a constant back and forth.
    Also, slowly, you regain yourself a bit. Never the same, but suddenly I turned around and realized I had been ok for a while. For reference, my boys are 5 and 3 respectively. I’m hoping to keep moving in that direction as they get older.