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My younger son, who just turned two a month ago, is going through one of those common stages in toddlerhood (that I remember the older one going through - but less roughly - at the same time). His brain development skyrocketed, but it's come at a cost: he can't decide anything right now.

This is a bit complicated by his cold (which probably makes food harder to taste -> harder to decide on), but it's not just food: clothes, toys, what he wants to do. Any time he'd normally have a choice, he sits there, says "don't know" for a while, then sometimes makes a choice - and then regrets it almost instantly.

For example:

  • Picking out clothes, he often would pick out a specific shirt, and if not, I could give him a choice of two and he'd pick one reliably. Now, all we get is "don't know" and when I offer anything, "I don't like that". Not a specific objection to getting dressed (we do now and always have had some of those, but I know what those look like). Once I pick for him and put it on he's fine.

  • Getting breakfast this morning, he really struggled. I gave him his choices - fruit, yogurt, some cereal - nada. I narrowed it down to two choices that he loves both of - "don't know". Finally I got myself a bowl of cereal (of a cereal he likes) and told him I was going to eat and he could tell me when he was ready to decide; he said "I want that" pointing to my cereal. Okay, fine, went over to get a bowl; he picked the bowl he and his brother fight over because they both love it (a dip bowl that has a christmas train on it!). I said "Excellent", picked it up, immediate "I don't want that" cry. He picks another bowl, okay, great. I pour the raisin bran in, he immediately says "I don't want that, I want wheaties" (which was on offer earlier, but wasn't what he'd said). At this point I'd already put milk in it so it wasn't going to change, so we sat down and after some crying he finally ate a few bites, was fine, and ended up eating three (small- 1 c rice bowl size) bowls of it.

We had thought this might be hunger related at times (or head cold related), but it seems to be all the time with no stopping. His brother had something like this for a week or two, but nothing like this - it was more that he became more opinionated and objected to everything we did out of principle. I don't think that's what's going on here directly: I think he's probably too aware of decisions and is being indecisive.

What can we do to help him out here, other than just power through? Is it better to make decisions for him, like I did with the clothes above, or to let him muddle around for a while? My wife and I are both not great 'deciders', so we'd like to give him the best shot at learning how to be decisive: but we'd also like to not have him too sad because of this.

Is it a good idea to let him change his mind until he finds what he wants? Or does that lead to a child who always changes his mind and never is happy with anything? I'm generally happy to let him (or his brother) change his mind prior to a hard cutoff, which is usually the point when some waste would occur (milk in cereal for example).

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    How does he deal with not having a choice -- e.g., you make the decision for him (Breakfast will be cereal today) instead of providing options? I wonder whether he is perhaps overwhelmed by the responsibility; he certainly seems to have immediate "buyer's remorse." – Acire Apr 23 '15 at 2:03
  • That's what I've been having to do lately - just pick things out for him. Sometimes it works okay, sometimes he argues with it the same as above. I do think the overwhelmed by responsibility part is where this is ultimately coming from (due to some cognitive development, I suppose); but even with me picking for him, he complains more than usual. – Joe Apr 23 '15 at 14:57
  • I will say that prior to this, he'd sometimes had strong opinions and sometimes didn't care at all - so that's probably why he doesn't always complain when I choose for him. (His brother always cared, on the other hand.) He would have days he'd eat anything I put in front of him or wear any clothes, and some days he wanted to choose the food or clothes to wear. The last few months he's been more independent and wanted to be in charge more - then all of a sudden something clicked and it became too hard to pick. – Joe Apr 23 '15 at 14:59
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    I will answer this when I get some wisdom about it. That you don't have an answer yet may be a reflection on how difficult this question is (I'm kind of stumped!) Just don't want you to feel there's no interest. – anongoodnurse Apr 23 '15 at 22:50
  • I'm not sure how to formulate this into an answer (as I have no evidence or experience to really back it up), but I think you could quite easily rely on the coin-flip method here: Flip a coin, and go with what it says. After a while stop looking at the coin and go with what you are secretly hoping it says. Then, once you can do imaginary coin flips, you are basically there. – Weckar E. Dec 28 '16 at 10:59
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This is a guess. I'm wondering if it might be a situation where he made the following two, distinct cognitive steps:

(1) A while back, he developed the understanding that he could choose things. Make decisions. Affect the outcome. Make his will known, and have it followed. This is a big, important thing to understand, and it gives him control over his environment. Awesome!

Then, recently, he started to understand

(2) WAIT A MINUTE! Choosing "A" means I DON'T GET "B"!!!! AAAAAARRRRGH!

He was ok when he was just choosing something. Now, he's made the cognitive leap that choosing one thing deprives him of the other thing.

You said that you narrowed down choices to two things that he likes both of.

See what happens if you offer him a choice between something he really likes and something he's not very fond of. If that makes it easier, this theory might be true.

If it turns out that this theory is true, you might address it by helping mitigate the "loss". If he seems to be having trouble, suggest something like "How about you wear this shirt today, and you can wear this other one tomorrow?" (And of course you can continue to, when possible, direct him toward easier choices by suggesting between things he likes a lot and things he likes less. If you're lucky it will be a passing phase :) .)

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    +1 - This makes a lot of sense, and offers a good experiment to boot! Very nice. – anongoodnurse Apr 25 '15 at 5:30
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    I spent most of the week doing things this way - not giving him a choice - and while it's not always perfect, it certainly has helped, and often he just goes with what I give him (clothes, food, etc.). I don't want to do this in the long term, but for a week or two while his brain settles down it seems to do the trick! – Joe Apr 30 '15 at 14:28
  • @Joe I am glad to hear you found a solution (if temporary) and, as a person who always wants to know the end of every story, wanted to say thank you for posting your followup comment. – msouth Jun 17 '15 at 7:29
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This might sound a bit obvious, but I'm gonna try and share some thoughts from my own experiences:

  • He might not want any of the choices and instead want something else; but, perhaps due to his age, he might not be able to express what he wants clearly opting for no decision.
  • He might be "not in a good mood", which makes it difficult to choose; i.e: when everything "looks grey/dull/bland to him", it's difficult to decide. This actually still happens to me as well.

When my daughter is like this I either:

  1. Go over all inventory of X (by showing many items of clothes, offering food, etc) until something "catches her eye" (please be patient).
  2. Pick an item and discuss some feature ("what a beautiful blue shirt") or point out some kind of a connection ("Here is the cereal that you like", "these should will be great for rain").

If you think about it, this is how we usually decide, weighing pros and cons and deciding on a "winning set of features" for A or B in a given situation. Even when we seemingly take a "random" decision, it's usually a subconscious (read: too fast to cognitively realise) decision.

If we follow through, I believe that helping him be observable of features (and their meaning in real life) will build a good logical decision mechanism, though it might incidentally update his "set of favorite stuff".

  • That's largely how we do things 'normally' (ie, a few weeks ago or earlier) - unfortuantely that's what stopped working here. Something about the level of choice overwhelmed him. – Joe Apr 30 '15 at 14:29
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Is it better to make decisions for him, like I did with the clothes above, or to let him muddle around for a while? My wife and I are both not great 'deciders', so we'd like to give him the best shot at learning how to be decisive.

I wouldn't worry at this stage about whether he's going to turn out indecisive as an adult.

Consider that giving him the freedom to choose also means giving him the freedom to choose to be indecisive if he wants to.

However, he shouldn't be allowed to drive you nuts or waste food. Therefore:

  • for now, find an alternative to cereal and milk for breakfast.

  • set things up so that he can be as autonomous as possible, and so there is lots of opportunity for him to do things for himself.

  • for some meals, set out a simple smorgasbord, give him a plate, and let him take a little of this and that, eat that, and take a little more of this or that, and so on.

  • let him do lots of pouring.

  • do some cooking projects. A two-year-old can do mixing, dumping (after you've done the measuring), etc. Also there's a lot he can do with a microwave. You can cut down some oven gloves to his size.

  • if you don't have time for the super-carefully made decision, then it is fine to decide for him, but give him the opportunity to decide for himself. Here's how you do it -- you say, "Would you like the red cup or the blue cup? (tiny pause) I'm going to count to three, and I'm going to decide for you." And then do it. "One - - two - - (at a predictable rhythm) three - - blue." If at that point he suddenly says, "red," that's fine, let him have the red one.

(That was a pretty inauthentic example -- really, he should be getting his own cup. You may have to turn your kitchen upside down for a while so that he can comfortably do this.)

You can model indecisiveness occasionally, so he can see that adults also face this difficulty at times. This normalizes what he's going through. Amazingly, this really helps.

  • The issue isn't that he can't pick a cereal per se, it's that he is having issues with any sort of decisions, and getting frustrated by that cognitive developmental stage. – Joe Apr 30 '15 at 14:27
  • Modelling indecisiveness is a good suggestion for the future, though, I like that. – Joe Apr 30 '15 at 14:30
  • @Joe, your comment helped me get another idea. Could you observe carefully to find out where his threshold currently is, and give him more of the type of choices he can handle comfortably? (If there is such a thing, currently!) – aparente001 May 1 '15 at 5:06
  • I think indecisiveness is more an indication of anxiety than a character flaw or a weakness. Perhaps helping him develop self-awareness about anxiety will be helpful too. Here's another area where you can have some fun modeling. (Obviously, not in an area where you are really in distress yourself -- you'll want to start by talking about something mild.) – aparente001 May 1 '15 at 5:08
  • Maybe he needs you to do a lot of choosing for him at present. Perhaps you could just hand him a shirt (chosen randomly) and assume that's okay with him unless you hear an objection. Buy the cereal you like best and leave it at that, for the time being.... – aparente001 May 1 '15 at 5:12

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