How do I get my toddler to go down stairs?
December 14, 2011 7:31 AM   Subscribe

My almost-3 year old, who is normally quite sweet, has started melting down about EVERYTHING and refuses to climb/go down stairs, and walk reasonable distances. Physical issue, school adjustment issue or just a phase? How do I grit my teeth and get through it?

My older son, Nathan, has turned from a sweet kid into a constant whining meltdown machine, and it's really testing my patience. I mean, the twos and threes are horrible for that, I know....

For the past three weeks or so he's refused to climb/go down our stairs (he has never, ever had an issue with this before) and refused to walk reasonable distances - say, 3 blocks to the YMCA or to school. He has always been quite a great little walker and I gave up on a stroller for him about a year ago. He also refuses to get out of his bed in the morning by himself when he's fully awake, even though he is capable of getting in AND out by himself. It's like he totally lost any interest in being independent. He's also just generally melting down about everything. When he does so, I try to sit by him and ask him what's wrong, but he can usually never give me an answer.

He started preschool at the beginning of November at our local Head Start program. The teachers are really great, but he is incredibly shy there - the teachers have never heard him talk. He speaks at home just fine. He has no issues going, says he loves going, and runs right off into the classroom without giving me a second glance, but he will sometimes have accidents because he doesn't ask to go to the bathroom, and I'm not sure how well he gets along with other kids- although they seem nice to him and engage him whenever I'm there to pick him up, and he has to be asked twice to end what he's doing to come home, since he's usually really wrapped up in playing/crafts/etc.

So I figure this is just kind of a phase/adjustment situation, but I am trying to brainstorm ways to at least get him to climb and go down the stairs. He will physically drop down on his butt and kick his feet and tantrum. He has no problems walking and playing outside at school, and there are several stairs down to the playground he uses every day. I don't want to turn it into a battle of the wills, but since he has a younger brother, carrying him down the stairs adds an extra layer of difficulty to my morning routine. I'm trying to be the best mom I can be, so how do I help him through this?
posted by kpht to Human Relations (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Does he seem to be in any pain? When my oldest daughter was 2 years old, she suddenly started limping and then stopped walking altogether. She ended up being diagnosed with toxic synovitis which is an infection of the fluid in the hip joint which was causing pain. They said it usually comes up after having been sick. I can't remember exactly how long it lasted...probably a couple of weeks.
posted by daydreamer at 7:37 AM on December 14, 2011

Response by poster: daydreamer: He doesn't seem to be in any pain. Occasionally he will say his feet hurt, but that always coincides with him not wanting to go somewhere (up to bed, into the car, walking to the YMCA before he realizes it's so he can go have fun, etc). He has no problems running around playing, and had a great time at another mefite's preschooler's birthday party this weekend using a trampoline and bouncy castle until he was blue in the face. After your story I think I'll place a call to his pediatrician to rule that out, though.
posted by kpht at 7:45 AM on December 14, 2011

How old is the younger brother? Do you carry the younger one around and down the stairs? Maybe it's a simple grab for mom's mental and physical attention?
posted by Katine at 7:50 AM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't want to turn it into a battle of the wills

Why? It seems like he does, which means you've already lost.

My first instinct is to say "Fine, you don't want to go down the stairs? Well you can just sit up here then." He'll get bored, and I'd be surprised if you didn't see him come down on his own within a few minutes.
posted by valkyryn at 7:51 AM on December 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

Has he gone through a growth spurt and are his shoes actually too tight?
posted by onhazier at 7:53 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Did he have a fall? Did something change in your decor?

And, as for the melting down - is he eating and sleeping well? Napping or not? He might need more sleep, or his sleep schedule adjusted, if his routines have changed and he's a little busier.
posted by peagood at 7:59 AM on December 14, 2011

Whenever one of my kids turns into a whiny beastie, they always turn out to have an ear infection. Well, once it was Tonsilitis. They don't always have fever, (My son never got fever. He just got unbearable.) and they don't ever tell me their ears hurt. In fact, once I brought them when they were much older to the doctor for colds because we were going on a long trip and they each had two earaches that they couldn't feel at all. So maybe rule out earaches and sore throats.
posted by artychoke at 8:00 AM on December 14, 2011

Best answer: I think valkyryn is on the right track. Some kids go through Terrible Twos -- and some (like my own son) seemed to peak with this behavior when they're three. With my son, I used a similar strategy to valkyryn's. If he melted down, I just told him to let me know when he was done and ready to act like a big boy, and I'd go sit down and read or do something else. After a few minutes, he would shape up and be fine. What didn't work was getting upset with him, using threats or punishment of any kind, or begging. I found that the trick was to stay calm and be patient. It's not easy (especially if, say, you're in the middle of a shopping mall), but it worked for me. Good luck!
posted by Shoggoth at 8:02 AM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My niece went through a stage at about this age of reverting to wanting more "baby" like treatment which sort of coincided with her realizing her baby brother wasn't going anywhere. Basically the assumption they came to was, like cats, toddlers are weird.

If you've checked that shoes are fitting well and he's not in pain etc then I'd chalk it up to a toddler checking or trying to establish his boundaries. There are a LOT of articles out there on this so you are not alone and I'm sure there are as many ways to handle it as there are people with the problem. My Brother just refused to let her get away with temper tantrums and she got a time out where ever the heck they were which is fun when you are out shopping with them and a contest of wills is going on and they played up the benefits of being a "big boy" and how it was better than being the baby. My nephew was too young to be bothered so he didn't get jealous.
posted by wwax at 8:02 AM on December 14, 2011

I think it's just a phase. My daughter had similar issues when she was 2-3. On days when I had time, I did as valkyryn suggests and just let her sit and wait and cry until she finally did the unwanted task/action of her own accord. On days when I did not have time, I just picked her up and did the "football carry" to get her where she needed to go (fortunately we drove so it was just house to car seat). My daughter was relatively small so I could put her in the car seat while she was still wailing.

She outgrew this and became quite a lovely child by age 4.

Hang in there
posted by crazycanuck at 8:06 AM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hmm. He sounds quite a bit like me as a kid. This is just a hunch (and I'm not a child psychologist by any means) but I wonder if he's reacting to the new "regiments" of preschool--different kind of structure, having to listen to someone who isn't a parent, etc.--by lashing out at you in a way he feels more comfortable doing than when he's at school? Kids act their worst with their parents because (so I've heard) they know that the parents won't just up and leave them, so maybe he's just venting out to you what he can't during the day with his teachers?
posted by Emms at 8:11 AM on December 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Kids just do this. It's my belief that they do this as soon as they figure out they can do this. I think Nathan is in the process of finding out what works. He will need to learn that melting down never gets him what he wants, which means that you actually need to be a total hardass about meltdowns.

That doesn't mean you need to punish him for melting down, or engage in a meltdown of your own; it just means you need to be scrupulous about making sure that having tantrums or displaying other forms of obnoxious behavior never gets him what he wants.

It seems all I do these days when offering kid-related advice is shill for 1-2-3 Magic. Honestly, I get no kickback from those people. What they have just works.
posted by flabdablet at 8:16 AM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

My experience with both son and daughter is identical to crazycanuck's and my advice the same: either give it time or "football carry". Except we actually carried ours over the shoulder like a sack of potatoes, holding the legs down. What's good about that approach is that it leaves one hand free (the most precious resource a parent can have, only second to sleep).
posted by Dragonness at 8:19 AM on December 14, 2011

I'm sure he's just mimicking bad behavior he's seen from other kids at preschool, testing it out. I'm with valkyryn on this one.
posted by hermitosis at 8:27 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Could have to do with pre-school and changes of routines, but likely it's just basic development psychology - the time kids find out that they can say "no", or act "no".

The son of friends, sweetest kid in the world, turned into a shrieking ball of refusal almost overnight when he was three. Now five, he's slowly working himself out of the pit. Don't give up...
posted by Namlit at 8:29 AM on December 14, 2011

Since he walks fine when it's to activities of his choosing, then I'd definitely rule out any kind of physical problem. This is completely about control. You're right that the change in routine probably precipitated it, but I wouldn't pull him out of preschool or anything like that. What I would do is start giving him choices on things. Anticipate the times when he throws a fit. For example, going up to preschool: before you get out of the car say "[kid], would you like to ring the doorbell or push the elevator button?" Something that applies, obviously, but it doesn't have to be a big thing—just something that the kid gets to do that he can focus on and think that he gets to choose to do it. Another standby of mine when encouraging preschoolers to go somewhere is say "ok, I'm going race you there! see if you can get there first!!" (and then let the kid win)

The more choices you can provide your child and engage him in seeming to choose to do these things, the happier he will be.
posted by Eicats at 8:31 AM on December 14, 2011

Rule out medical reasons with a trip to the doctor, for sure. But I'm going with normal toddler development. Sounds like he's learning to say 'no.' Totally typical. I've got two strategies for dealing with this:

1. "You don't want to come down stairs? Fine. Stay up here then. I'll see you downstairs when you're ready." And then just walk away. This is best when you've got the time to let him figure it out on his own and when there's no safety risk to letting him sit and tantrum or refuse.

2. "You have two choices: Move, or I'll move you, and you won't like it at all." Then pick him up potato sack style, walk quickly to a secure place and then put him down. Don't talk to him after you pick him up, don't negotiate. Put him down and then implement strategy number 1 until he pulls his shit together.

It will totally pass. It will pass more quickly if you don't let it dissolve into endless negotiating and power struggles. You can choose to see this stage as a good thing. He is learning to separate himself from you and assert himself. It's a stage he's got to go through in order to be an independent thinking little person.
posted by dchrssyr at 8:41 AM on December 14, 2011

Whatever you decide, stick to it. Talk it over with your partner, and make sure you are both using exactly the same methods, be it leave them, lift them after one warning (and always make it one, not one more, or three). The discipline you show here of a "hard line" that doesn't cross is hard - really hard - but it will pay off.

Or in one word, "consistency"
posted by ewan at 8:59 AM on December 14, 2011

I just got through the 3s with my 3 boys, so I'm going to vote for "he's 3." It's a very tough age, they are very stubborn. When mine don't want to move, I just go and they follow me. They don't want to be left behind MORE than they don't want to move.
posted by pyjammy at 9:13 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's like he totally lost any interest in being independent. He's also just generally melting down about everything. When he does so, I try to sit by him and ask him what's wrong, but he can usually never give me an answer.

It sounds pretty normal--the parents I know with young children always saw their kids go through an adjustment period when they first went to school.

Going to preschool and spending a half-day or day without one's parents is a huge step in the development of a child's autonomy. It sounds like he is really enjoying himself (gets absorbed in crafts and whatnot) but it is probably also new and stressful in ways he can't articulate. He has a younger brother who presumably does not go to school and must be taken out of bed and carried up and down stairs. Big kids get around by themselves and go to school, babies need their moms. He is probably expressing the anxiety of independence by imitating behaviors "big kids" don't do. Have you tried to dialogue with him in that way? "Little kpht, are you a Big Boy or a Baby?" He may express a preference for being the latter, in which case you guys can talk about growing up and the benefits of being a Big Kid or whatever. There have got to be children's books out there covering the "First Day of School" experience.

And then use the leave-alone-and-wait or football-carry method for times when he's still not cooperating.

Full disclosure: I don't have kids.
posted by schroedinger at 9:25 AM on December 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Given the timing, I would assume not that your child dislikes school, but rather that he's having difficulty transitioning to school. He may not be socially ready, though I assume you are all over that possibility. So, in addition to the consistency suggested by everyone else, I would be reading a lot of books about school and doing a lot of doll play around Going to School with his favourite toys.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:29 AM on December 14, 2011

I had a tiny girlfriend who had this very problem when she was four or five. It drove her mother mad, into actual fits of rage, but I always found it sort of funny. I'd like to pretend I'm a genius at solving this, but it happened by accident.

Clearly the little one had learned how to make a conveniently dramatic scene when it suited her purposes, and/or use the helpless-little-girl card that god gave her for maximum effect. Heaven knows where she learned this, right? I was always so genuinely amused to recognize the expressions that I would inadvertently laugh at the fake but cute drama. When I noticed this actually made her stop, I started doing it on purpose.

"Oh, that's a funny joke. I see, it's too far for such a tiny baby to walk. Oh that's awful. Should we call a taxi to take us to the corner?"

Soon she would learn that she wasn't going to upset me like this, so she would just glare at me in toddler anger (also cute), and come along quietly. Eventually we could communicate with some traded glares just before she started to whine: not now, please, princess. Usually then she'd sigh, like a divorcee expressing disappointment in how stupid men can be, before acquiescing. Third laugh for me.

Short version, too late: don't legitimize or inflate his attention-seeking drama by making more of your own. Marginalize it, and do so consistently.
posted by rokusan at 9:30 AM on December 14, 2011

Sounds like 3 to me! We've done it in our house.
The only additional pieces of advice I would offer are: only enter the control battles you are sure to win. Pick carefully. Disengage when needed. Stay calm. One minute of time out per year of age (use wisely). It's ok if your kid needs to get hauled to preschool in PJs or without brushing teeth (from personal experience, pack them along). If he melts down in a store, leave if you can (your cart in customer service and usually I was able to come back a few minutes later). Stay strong! He's still your little guy inside. Even when you swear his head might start spinning around. Good luck!
posted by mamabear at 10:10 AM on December 14, 2011

I would guess the preschool transition is the culprit too -- I know you say he loves it, but the fact that the teachers have never heard him talk makes me think he's going through a stressful adjustment period. I would try being extra kind and loving and patient to a point -- if he's refusing to do something reasonable like walk down the stairs, I would say, "Okay, I'll see you downstairs," and go down and wait. Calm, drama-free, and reminding him that you're not mad and you love him. Can you engage him about his interactions at school, too -- ask him who he's friends with, what he plays with them, what he thinks about the teachers? That might give you some more information about what's going on.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:25 AM on December 14, 2011

I'm going to chime in with the others and tell you that more than likely this is just a developmental phase - for us, the "terrible twos" was nowhere near as bad as the "terrible threes". That being said, if you don't see an improvement in, let's say the next 6 months, I'd check in with your pediatrician.

I was diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder at age 11. Some of my biggest problems were low muscle tone (got fatigued very easily) poor motor planning (hard time figuring in what sequence I should be moving my body to do a physical activity) sensitivity to light, easily overwhelmed by visual & auditory stimulation and problems with my vestibular system (had a hard time balancing, got dizzy very easily). I had these problems since I was a very small child, and it lead to a lot of crankiness and emotional outbursts on my part.

Again what you're telling me sounds like very typical 3-year old behavior and as he gets closer to 4, you should see an improvement in his behavior. IANAD, but I don't think that SPD would just pop up all of a sudden in a child who previously showed no signs of it. Still, if you don't see an improvement in his behavior, check in with your pediatrician.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:34 AM on December 14, 2011

I have a newly-3-year-old and I see other 3-year-olds at our preschool co-op. Sounds like being 3 to me.

I recommend a strong discipline system (1-2-3 Magic works for us) so he knows what to expect when these problems occur.

Stay strong!
posted by k8t at 10:46 AM on December 14, 2011

Make sure he has as much control as is practical--if he doesn't need to get downstairs this second, let him choose when to go, for example. If you can keep a situation from becoming adversarial, do so. Joking is one good way to defuse things. He's dealing with lots and lots already.

That said, I agree with advice to be consistent and avoid rewarding bad behavior. Just be relaxed and compassionate about it. It will make it much easier on you emotionally, too.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:20 AM on December 14, 2011

Best answer: Since I think a number of people have already given the answers that I would have added in here, I simply want to offer a word of encouragement:

Hang in there kpht.

Just because you're doing all the right things and doing all that you can, doesn't mean it isn't driving you absolutely and completely bonkers.

When my son was 5 and had started kindergarten he went through a phase for about 3 or 4 weeks where he had [pardon the yelling, but truly] THE MOST HORRENDOUS MELTDOWNS ANYONE EVER HAD, ANYWHERE, EVER! ...or so it seemed to my wife and I at the time. It was frustrating, maddening, made us both late for work pretty much daily and seemed like it would never end. It seemed like absolutely nothing we did was working. And then, almost as if by magic, one day it just stopped.

Again, my point is just to say, God speed my fellow parent, god speed!
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 11:27 AM on December 14, 2011

Also, Nathan is adorable. That is all.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 11:28 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe it would help if you could give him some extra babying every day in ways that are less inconvenient?talk to him whether he'd like some extra Small Nathan time in the evening, or something?

Maybe aside from discipline he also need some way to regress a bit.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:40 PM on December 14, 2011

It's a developmental phase.

I recommend Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg. If you go to the Amazon page and "look inside" they address it on page one!

Around thirty-three months of age, many children go through a stage of reliving their babyhood, of thinking about themselves in terms of their own past. The child may pretend he is a baby, even going back to the use of baby talk, though some are loath to give up their glorious acquisition of speech.

The fact that there actually is a baby in the house might exacerbate this, and so might going to pre-school, but mostly, it's just something they go through and there's nothing you could have done to prevent it.

My daughter did the same thing at that age, only with her it was escalators. We ride public transit and there are escalators everywhere. It was a nightmare having a kid meltdown during rush hour with a pile of people crushing in behind trying to get home. With her it also seemed like she was suddenly afraid of them. It drove me bonkers and then one day she just stopped. Three year olds are mysterious people. You just have to grit your teeth and muscle through.
posted by looli at 12:58 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I could have written every word of this post. This may not work for you but this is what I have done with my 3 year old son and it seems to be working so far (but who knows about next week!). I try to give in to the babyish requests some of the time. I know this is the opposite of much of the advice others have given but I think independence at that age can be overrated. They are not that age for long and so what if he wants to be carried down the stairs sometimes. If you can, then do it. Follow your instincts and deal with each incident depending on how he feels. If for example I think my son is feeling left out because I have been paying lots of attention to his little sister and he has been whining on and off or something then I'll give in and baby him if he wants but if I think I can get away with distracting him, joking or negotiating then I go with that. It may sound counterintuitive but I found that when I give in to it when I can without making a big deal out of it, then he quickly moves on and wants to do EVERYTHING all by himself (which can be a problem for another post). Goodluck!
posted by kishky at 1:46 PM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, my three yo just started with identical behaviors 2 months ago. Right when we moved. So I'm assuming it's the change in morning routine (we have to get a subway to her daycare now) and feeling like she lost some control. I assume it's a similar thing for your son.
posted by gaspode at 4:14 PM on December 14, 2011

I immediately thought this was a control issue. You can help your response by recognizing that a 3 year old is realizing he has some control over his life, his body, You. Choices. Good morning, do you want the curtains open or closed? Do you want the red shirt or the blue sweater? I'll be downstairs starting breakfast. If you get there in 5 minutes, there will be time for you to choose Eggos or Frosted Wheat. When it's time to walk to the bus stop, Do you want to hold my hand, or walk by yourself? You don't want to walk? Maybe you'd like a little extra help this morning. Shall I carry you?

With a younger sibling, he may be a bit torn between wanting independence, and wanting to be babied. When my son had conflicting emotions like that, everything got more difficult while he adapted.

At bedtime, spend some extra snuggle time, and ask. I've been wondered why you don't want to walk when we go to the bus stop. Why do you think that is? We had some stuffed animal puppets when my son was young. Sometimes he couldn't talk to me, but he could tell Polar Bear what was going on, even knowing that Polar Bear was on Mom's hand.
posted by theora55 at 6:09 PM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lovely advice above. Sounds like you're doing the right thing. The transition to nursery is always hard for infants and in Nathan's case it is being exacerbated by a new arrival at home. On their own each would be a big deal and I'm not surprised he's reacting to these stresses. Sounds like you're doing everything right. Keep telling yourself 'it's just a phase' because it is and he will.
posted by dmt at 7:18 PM on December 14, 2011

Response by poster: Great advice everyone, and thanks! I should've mentioned that his younger brother is turning 1, so Nathan actually doesn't even remember a time when he was an only child anymore. I'm sure the treatment of his little brother as someone who still needs assistance plays into him wanting assistance as well, but I think the adjustment of going to school is harsher than the adjustment of having a small person ogling your toys, since he's used to the latter.
posted by kpht at 6:12 AM on December 15, 2011

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