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Our son is 2.5 years old. At this age I expected him to start disagreeing with his mother and me, but although he does, occasionally, he seems to be disagreeing with himself more. Especially when he just wakes up, or when he needs to go to bed, but also at random other times, he just doesn't know what he wants.

When he is offered a drink, he doesn't want it, but when you turn away, he does. If you put it on the table for him to take whenever he likes, he can debate with himself endlessly, and get really frustrated or hysterical.

He talks really well for his age, and usually can describe his woos and wishes in great detail, so I don't think the frustration comes from wanting something else and not knowing how to ask for it.

It's probably a phase like any other, but although I could find plenty of references online of his behavioral changes so far, I can't find anything about this particular behavior.

Do you have any idea what's going on, and any tips how to deal with it? We mainly feel bad for him, because he's feeling anxiety for (to me) trivial reasons, and we don't know how we can lift that. To be clear, this is not all the time. There are just short periods when this happens.

  • It might help if you could describe a conversation in detail - particularly how is this different from just changing his mind? It sounds like it is, but I’m not sure I understand exactly how this is going. – Joe Jun 24 at 1:53
  • It looks like changing their mind, but really quickly, going for yes, no, yes no, in a split second. In these periods he's also less verbal, maybe changing his mind so quickly that he can't really verbalize it. – GolezTrol Jun 24 at 9:58
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My daughter also went through exactly this at 2.5 years old. I remember opening the drawer with her shirts in it and asking her to pick a top. She would take one, immediately put it back, take another, put that one back, etc.… I would finally say, “Pick one or I will.” After another minute of this, I would end up picking one… whereupon she would cry out in panic, “No, that one!”

I’d put my choice back, and take out hers and try to shut the drawer – and she would change her mind again.

I think she was literally scared of having this much power, and she was panicked at the thought of making a “wrong” choice.

In the beginning I would let this go on for a while, but after a few days I started reducing the amount of time I would allow for this. I also kept telling her, “It’s okay if you chose this one today – you can choose that one tomorrow!” Eventually she saw that no matter what she chose, it was in fact okay. Nothing bad happened. It only took two or three weeks before she was choosing her clothes quite calmly, if somewhat colorfully.

Epilog: She ended up becoming quite comfortable with making choices in general, whether clothes or high school courses – much better than I am. I don't know whether this is due to this early positive experience in choosing things or her innate character, but it certainly makes life easier. When shopping today, she’ll often pick the first jacket or pair of shoes she sees if she likes it, and not need to see every option the store has in stock before buying something. Plus when I can't decide between refrigerators, or vacation options, I ask her to choose, and voila, it's done.

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  • What you describe is exactly what I feel is happening as well. I'm going to try your solution, not taking away the choice entirely, but trying to explain that sometimes there isn't really a wrong choice. I hope it will work out as well as for you, because his dad sometimes needs a hand as well in making decisions. – GolezTrol Jun 29 at 20:58
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That is a phase like any other; I don't have an English-language reference on hand but I've seen it described in Isabelle Filliozat's "J'ai tout essayé", which is about child behavior and discipline between 1 and 5 years old. In that section she describes giving a child a choice of two pastries to buy at the store, and them choosing one, but then later wanting the other one.

The book argues that the child is at a developmental stage where they have achieved the ability to picture the choice they did not make in their mind, and as they picture it they want it. It basically says to accept this as a stage that will pass, and in the meantime avoid giving the child too many choices that will stress them out and accept that they'll go back on the choices they do make. So for example, buy that second pastry for yourself in case they want it later. In your case it's a bit hard to remove the choice from "having a glass of water", since he knows better than you whether he's thirsty or not. But you could still frame it as less of a choice, by deciding yourself if it seems he needs water and offering the glass with "time for a glass of water!" instead of "do you want some water?" (obviously he still has the choice to refuse, but it isn't presented to him as such). If you do want him to have the choice and he hasn't opted to drink right then (which he presumably would if he were dying of thirst) then I think having the glass of water available is a good idea but maybe it could be helpful to frame it as "putting it here for later" and moving on to a different activity, distracting him from the whole issue so he doesn't stay stuck in that moment of decision. Then when he really does feel thirsty the choice will presumably be easier to make.

You could also look into how decision-making works in the brain in general, it's an interesting and complex question and it could give some insight as to how it might misfire in an immature brain.

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  • I'm not sure you really do grow out of it: in an adult this would be called Buyer's Remorse. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buyer%27s_remorse – Paul Johnson Jun 25 at 19:38
  • @PaulJohnson I do think all mentally healthy adults grow out of being so paralysed by indecision that they regularly find themselves stuck on whether to have a glass of water or not. But you're right, even as adults we still face the same problems, they just manifest less frequently, present in a milder form and the situations involved are rarer or higher-stakes. Thinking of those situations could help build empathy for a child, understanding that what's going on in their brain is very similar to what goes on in ours, it's just the situation and manifestation that might not be quite the same. – Oosaka Jun 26 at 9:45

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