How you respond
Many parenting problems
stem from a belief that a toddler is being willfully naughty, has an
ulterior motive, or is scheming to get his own way. In reality, he does
not yet have any moral reasoning skills and needs your help to
understand the boundaries between “right and wrong.” While it is true
that he is very determined and focused, and may have a specific
short-term goal in mind (“I want it, and I want it now!”), he does not
have an overall game plan and does not want to trigger your disapproval.
It is tempting, when your
child is acting up, to tackle the problem by confronting him head on:
“Don’t do that!” and by raising your voice. There are several problems
with this approach. Firstly, you have given your toddler exactly what he
wanted. “Mommy is paying attention! I’ll do it again!”. Secondly, it
fails to give him an alternative, more acceptable way to express
himself. And finally, if you tend to shout, you are increasing the
levels of stress hormones in his developing brain . Over time, this may affect his ability to cope in stressful situations in later life.
Why telling toddlers off doesn’t work
toddler is now old enough to understand that his behavior has had an
effect (“Daddy is pleased with me”/“Daddy is cross with me”), he is
still too young to understand the reasons why it has had an effect. It
will be another year or two before your toddler’s moral reasoning skills
have developed , enabling you to explain the rights and wrongs of his behavior.
Your child gives you his
love unconditionally and he craves your attention. He would like to have
lots of love and hugs and praise, but if he can’t get those he will
settle for any attention going. He is a vulnerable being at this age and
will continue to love you no matter how you treat him—for now. As a
result, if a parent pays more attention to a child when he is being
naughty than when he is being good, he will give his parent more of what
they seem to want: more naughty behavior; or if you give him attention
when he is being funny, he will continue to play the clown. If, on the
other hand, you praise your child more often than you scold him, he will
understand that you like that behavior and he will repeat his “good”
How to be consistent
Shaping your toddler’s
behavior is a team effort, involving all those who have responsibility
for his care. It can be very confusing for a child if one parent is
being clear, firm, and consistent and the other is lenient, or if the
person responsible for day care is inadvertently undermining all the
hard work you are doing. The answer is to talk to one another and to
anyone else involved in your child’s upbringing.
These guidelines should apply to anyone involved in caring for children:
Be committed to your child, and consistent in your approach.
Present a united front. Make sure other adults involved in your child’s upbringing are following the same ground rules as you.
Face your past. Understand how your own experiences may be affecting the way you react to your child’s behavior.
Be a good role model and believe in yourself.
Stick to the behavior guidelines outlined in these sections.
You may be a loving
parent, but first and foremost you are human—which means that sometimes
you will feel tired, angry, or vulnerable, and unable to cope with your
toddler’s whining or tantrums. It is easy at such times to question your
parenting ability and to wonder if you are doing something wrong. When
this happens, try to see the situation in context. Remind yourself that
all toddlers behave this way and that most behavior is normal behavior
for the next few years.
Your toddler is
experiencing feelings that are new and dramatic and that he does not
know how to handle. With your help he will do better next time and
today’s problem will be smaller tomorrow if you manage it effectively.
If you are concerned that you may lash out or do something that would
upset or be harmful to your child, or you simply feel you can’t cope,
you must take measures to calm down or seek support .
If you are not coping:
distance between yourself and the problem—either by imagining that
distance, or if it is safe to do so, by removing yourself physically
from the room.
Relax, by breathing deeply and slowly.
Remember, if you yell at your toddler you will be reinforcing the behavior by rewarding it with undue attention.
Look for support: from your partner, from family or friends, or from a professional person or organization.
Remember that feeling overwhelmed sometimes is normal. It simply means you are like everyone else—and probably exhausted.
It may feel like an emotional battlefield at times, but if you
try to stay calm and handle the situation carefully, your toddler’s
outbursts will be short-lived.
Your toddler’s view of the world
Here’s an insight into what your toddler might be thinking…
“I do like talking, but I don’t always get my words right.”
“I like to try to dress myself, but I can’t do buttons.”
see my friends but I don’t like them playing with my toys. Mommy calls
it sharing—but that’s not much fun because they all belong to me.”
worst thing is when I get upset. They call it a tantrum. Sometimes I do
these on purpose, but usually I can’t help it. I get all hot and
bothered and everything seems to go wrong.”
“I really like being silly. Words are often silly. Mommy and Daddy sing songs and say rhymes and do actions that make me laugh.”
“Picture books are my favorite thing. There are so many things to look at. I like cuddling up for a story before I go to sleep.”
I was getting on the bus
with my boys—Jim, age four, and Adam, age two-and-a-half. Jim climbed on
confidently, but Adam was anxious. He hung back, fearful and hesitant
and pulled away from me. With one boy on the bus, the other on the
sidewalk, and the bus driver becoming impatient, it was getting
embarrassing and I was tempted to get angry with Adam. But instead, I
crouched down, spoke to him gently and encouraged him—“Take a big step,
sweetie, you can do it.” He succeeded and I lavished him with praise—“My
clever boy. You are getting so good at that now!” The situation was
resolved calmly, without anyone getting upset.
As your toddler’s
personality begins to emerge it is easy to look for character traits
that seem familiar and to make comparisons with other members of the
family, especially you, the parents. This is natural; after all, his
genes play an important role in the development of who he is. However,
be aware that your personal history may be affecting your
interpretation. Be careful not to attribute fixed traits too young,
especially if you are starting to notice elements that remind you of a
Perhaps you didn’t get
along with your mother; if your toddler looks or acts like her, it may
inadvertently make your relationship more difficult. A single parent who
had a difficult relationship with her baby’s father may find herself
saying “You’re just like your father” in the midst of her toddler’s
spectacular tantrum. This can have a significant impact on both the
mother’s feelings about her child, and in due course the child’s
perception of both his father and his own inner nature. At this age, it
is just as likely to be developmental and environmental factors
affecting personality as any long-term behavioral tendencies.
Ignoring negative behavior
Twin toddlers Piers and
Rupert are playing together. Piers hits Rupert, who bursts in tears, and
Piers soon follows suit. Their mother leaps across the room and focuses
first on Piers. “You’re not to do that, you naughty boy.” She then
picks up Rupert, checks that he is okay, settles him on the sofa out of
harm’s way and then returns to Piers. Picking Piers up, she wipes his
tears and tells him sternly that he is a naughty boy to pick on his
Time Mommy spends with Rupert: none; time Mommy spends with Piers: five minutes.
Message to Piers
Hitting Rupert means I get more attention and get to spend more time with Mommy.
on the other hand, their mother had removed Piers to the sofa, ignored
him and given more attention to Rupert, the message to Piers would have
been the opposite.
Time mommy spent with Piers: none; time mommy spent with Rupert: five minutes.
Message to Piers
Hitting means I am ignored and Rupert gets lots of hugs and attention.