Toddler Demands? Give it in Fantasy!

When a toddler wants pizza for dinner every night or to stay home and play on the iPad instead of going to school, you have to decide what to say.

Your basic choices are:

  • ridicule: “That’s silly!  “I’d like a fancy car, but this is reality.”
  • reason and clever repackaging:  “If you want to grow strong, eat your dinosaur trees (broccoli).”
  • comparison: “Your sister is getting ready now.  She’s not giving me a hard time.  You should be more like her.”
  • threats:  “It’s take it or leave it.  If you want that iPad tonight, you need to get dressed now.”

There is another choice.  Give it in fantasy.

Dr. Karp’s “give it in fantasy” strategy from Happiest Toddler on the Block works best with toddlers and preschoolers about 3-5 years old, who can distinguish from your words that your comments reflect a dream, not your plan.  They still think magically sometimes, but they don’t really believe that their dolls can feel pain or that you can fly.  They have been around, after all.

Giving things in fantasy, using a reasonable amount of enthusiasm, makes you their companion in wishing life were sweeter than it sometimes is.  You wish for a better boss, a cooler car, or a sunnier day; I know that you do!  Share your wish that every night could be pizza night.  Tell him how great that would really be, and your fave would be pepperoni with extra cheese.  Share their wish for something they want, and become part of the dreaming for a moment, not just the person who sets down the chicken instead and walks away.

Deliver your shared dream with warmth and enthusiasm, and extend it long enough for your child to realize your excitement.  Do not extend it too far, as that will suggest that it could happen in reality or that the fantasy is so wonderful that nothing less will do.  Your intent is to share, not fuel a full-blown revolt.  You will get extra points for bringing yourself to eye level with your child, making the experience of sharing a fantasy more complete.

Once the reverie is over, you can say that tonight actually is chicken night, highlight the delicious dipping sauce, or suggest a fun drink choice like lemonade or a special strawberry smoothie for dessert.  You don’t have to transform an experience to make it tolerable, you can just spin reality as actually OK.  Remind a young child that there is the potential for fun at school that he cannot even imagine right now.  What amazing things will you create today?  What new game on the playground could you try?

Everyone has daydreams, and everyone wishes for something wonderful to appear.  Try to give things in fantasy but keep your promises and make your expectations/limits clear and positive.  You toddler could surprise you with his willingness to accept something “in fantasy” instead of whining for what he cannot receive.  This is the season for miracles, after all!


By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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