Maybe It Is Just a Phase: 7 Ways to Build Trust with Your Toddler

Does your toddler trust you? It felt like mine didn’t for a while.

I remember it vividly. It was almost two years ago- I was pregnant with June (our 3rd) and I was expecting someone to come over to help me with our 4 & 2 year olds. Just before the door knocked, Pearl (2 at the time) woke up from her afternoon nap. She had been going through a major daddy phase & I feared it would not go well when I went into her room to get her.

I was right.

I opened the door and as soon as she saw it was me, she started screaming & crying, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! I want Daddy!” With her arms flailing & legs kicking,  I picked her up to change her diaper and then went to answer the door to let Hillary in. Surely she’ll calm down in a bit.

But not only did Pearl not calm down, it got much worse. Over the next 10 minutes, she began to hyper ventilate and through hiccups & shortened breath, she continued in her tantrum, barely intelligible.

Innocently, Hillary asked the natural question: “What’s wrong??” Humbled, I answered her honestly, “She’s upset because I went in to get her. She wants her dad.”

Pearl didn’t like me for a while. It was easy to blame myself and feel like it was because of all the changes coming with my growing belly. And maybe she was struggling with the idea of a new baby coming. Or maybe it was just a phase. It sure didn’t feel like one.

This continued. Not usually this extreme, but often in small, equally painful gestures. At bedtime, for example. After reading books & singing songs, she’d snuggle into her bed & I’d reach out to give her a hug. “No! I DON’T WANT A HUG!!” And she’d jerk her body away quickly. Hmm, maybe Ginger was “the affectionate one” & Pearl was the “tougher one”. Or she’d fall & scrape her knee and instead of running to Mommy for consolation, she’d get mad at me if I offered a hug and insist she was fine- though she clearly was not. I thought there was some sort of written code where kids automatically always wanted Mom when they were hurt. Everything’s better with a hug from mom, right??? Apparently not.

It seemed this was never going to end. Ginger was growing more & more affectionate and meanwhile Pearl was… not. It was almost impossible for my heart to not equate this in black & white terms: Ginger loves me. But Pearl doesn’t like me.

It hurt my heart.

My husband & I had many late night conversations where he would encourage me to hang in there: “It’s just a phase. We have to be careful not to react in ways that perpetuate her behavior. If you act out of your insecurity, it could & most likely will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”  I knew he was right, but for this mom whose tendency can be to take things personally, I was struggling.

Although sometimes we need to hear other moms simply understand our struggle, we also from time to time, need vision for holding out hope, especially in the little years. Fast forward almost two years later and I can say with joy & relief, that really was just a phase. Pearl has even swung to where she is very clingy with me. She tells me she loves me and gives me big snuggles & hugs. Of course I’m not saying there won’t be new phases and challenges ahead- even at times cycling back into some of the very same ones. After all, we’re currently going through similar things with June… and soon it will be Annie. But I am encouraged by the pay off we’ve seen in Pearl after fighting really hard for my relationship with her & I’m confident the outcome could have been quite different if I’d responded to my natural tendencies. So, if you’re a mom who feels your phase will never end, this is for you.

Here are 7 general principles that have helped me fight for trust with my toddler:

  • Resist the mom guilt.  I give #Momguilt its own hashtag because I see it as a constant, unrelenting destroyer of moms. Guilt loves to drive its subjects with shame & self contempt and never, ever produces what we wish it will. With Pearl, it was the temptation to feel guilty that at a certain point in my pregnancy with June, I could no longer hold Pearl standing up. It was easier to sulk in these thoughts- which led to nowhere good- than to refuse them. Thankfully, my husband encouraged me to fight & resist the #momguilt and that while there were some disappointments and limitations that would come with growing our family, there would also be lots of benefits for Pearl and the rest of us. Guilt is the mom disease and its only cure is grace.
  • Resist the urge to label them & box in their personalities, especially early on.  It never ceases to amaze me how early on people will ask young parents: “What is their personality like?” And unless the baby is super colicky, the parents will answer back about how how laid back the baby is… until they come to around a year & a half or 2 (like my Juney) and you might hear how strong willed their child is- HA! Are they? Perhaps. Or maybe he/she is going through the very normal developmental state of learning boundaries. That he or she is his or her own person & separate from you. It’s easy to label them both out loud and even subconsciously: the good one, the bad one, the responsible one, the rebellious one, the stubborn one, the stinker and on & on. And some of that is just birth order. But I’ve also seen that it can be helpful to hold off on attaching labels, particularly negative ones. Even if it seems innocent, your child can hear the conversations you’re having about him/her right in front of them. And as my husband said, we have to beware the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe your child is one way, talk about him or her in that way and relate to them in that way…. some things can eventually become true that may not have needed to be.
  • Flex your Mom muscle. Not the one that says I’m in charge & I’m digging my heals in until you do things my way. Flex the muscle- though it may be weak & out of shape- that says I will not take that personally and I won’t hold it against you. When Pearl would pull away, I often felt the pull to want to withdraw as well. A friend lovingly reminded me that when the child acts like that, they don’t need us to respond like a child or punish them back. Our children need us to remain constant, to love them unconditionally. To flex that mom muscle that says, I choose to be the bigger person; I choose to be the mom.
  • Don’t stop disciplining. If our toddler doesn’t like us, it’s easy to want to swing the other direction and go easy on them in hopes that they’ll like us again. Unfortunately, this never works for so many reasons. You always need to emphasize that your love for them is your motivation in discipline (say it out loud ever time), whatever the consequence. But steer the course and stay as consistent as you can.
  • Meet them on their terms. Pearl didn’t want a good night hug or kiss, so instead of saying, “Fine, I won’t kiss you!” I started doing something with her where I’d cover my mouth & kiss her through my hand, mumbling in a silly voice, “Don’t kiss me on the lips!!”  She LOVED the silliness and this became our special thing for almost a year. I’m thankful to say I can’t remember now when she switched and started hugging & kissing me normally. But I tried not to force myself on her or pull away in the meantime.
  •  Defend, Protect & Champion them. I’ve noticed that with Ginger being the older sister, she was kind of becoming the “good one” like I said above with labels. It became important that Pearl wasn’t constantly the one in trouble, but that she felt protected and championed when she was wronged. I saw her feel validated & understood when I defended her. That doesn’t mean she was always off the hook. But I’ve seen how I publicly praising and defending her has caused her to trust me.
  • Keep praying for them. I prayed almost every night with Pearl among other things that God would give her a soft heart. I’m seeing it now and it’s amazing to watch.

So I hold out hope for you, dear Mom. Parenting is meant to be a reflection of the way God parents us. He loved us first and He never stops coming after us with that undeserved grace that turns us upside down. With His help, you can resist that Momguilt which threatens to destroy you & your relationships with your children. And you can flex that mom muscle, which says you will keep moving toward them even if it’s hard and sometimes on their terms. From this mom’s heart to yours: Hang in there, Mama.  Maybe it is just a phase. And maybe- just maybe- by God’s grace there will be payoff down the road.

My pearlie girl.
Learning to uniquely love my Pearlie girl.


What of this can you relate to? What does your #momguilt tell you? What’s one way you’ve built trust with your toddler?

One Comment on “Maybe It Is Just a Phase: 7 Ways to Build Trust with Your Toddler

  1. Great thoughts and wisdom on this! Not sure I’ve ever read anything on this particular topic. I completely agree with not giving them labels and not parenting to those labels. Our kids are ever changing and ever developing into who God has made them to be. They don’t need to be put in a box! Thanks for the encouragement!!


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