The changes that take place in children during the first years of life are unmatched later, except perhaps in adolescence. The totally dependent infant rolls over, sits, stands and begins to walk. Increased mobility and mastery of the body is matched by cognitive development and emerging language. With each new skill comes growing independence and greater self-assertion.

At the same time, new skills bring with them changing parental expectations. Parents begin to think about giving up nursing or bottle feeding. Toilet training is on the horizon, as is the move from crib to bed. As children develop self-help skills parents begin to expect that they can dress and feed themselves. Greater independence may bring with it less acceptance of dependent behavior.

The impact of the changes in children’s skills and parental expectations is reflected in the behavior of both children and parents. Children go from feeling like masters of the universe where seemingly every wish is their parents’ command, to discovering the limits of their powers. And parents are taken aback at the discovery that children’s greater skills also bring greater self-assertion and resistance to parental wishes. Children rebel against parental control but still need and want their parents care. They are frustrated when they can’t do things themselves and express this in behavior that leads parents to feel that whatever they do is not right.

This state of affairs has the potential to create conflict between parents and children. Parents expect compliance to their wishes; children want compliance to theirs. Power struggles can ensue over who will give in to whom. Children, who realistically have less power, use their only weapon — unpleasant behavior.

Parents search for ways to defuse these actual and potential conflicts. Winning or losing is not what it is about. What can help is understanding how children are expressing their own developmental conflicts through their behavior.

A mother described a conflict emerging over her daughter’s discovery that she can put her finger in her nose. Mom finds this objectionable and tells her to stop, which has led to an increase in the behavior. Young children, who developmentally are interested in exploration, may also begin to explore their bodies. Parents are often disturbed when this leads to the exploration of their genitals — especially in public.

A negative reaction from a parent arouses a child’s curiosity about why this behavior leads to such a response from mom? The child is prompted to repeat the behavior in an attempt to figure that out. In addition, the message is that she is doing something bad, and can become still another reason to repeat the behavior. Alternatively, it may become something to be hidden.

If, on the other hand, the mother sees the child’s behavior only in terms of defiance, she has a greater need to assert her own wishes and may start on the road toward a punitive response. It is the initial misreading of the child’s behavior that can lead to a power struggle without a useful resolution.

Understanding a child’s behavior in a developmental context can often provide clues to successful responses. For example, in this instance knowing that young children become interested in exploring their bodies, especially if they are not occupied in another way, suggests ignoring the specific behavior but instead involving the child in something else that she will find interesting. Children at this stage are still easy to distract.

What can be most helpful, is understanding what children are telling us through their behavior about their feelings, and about the issues they are working on, wherever they are in their development.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.