Helping your toddler manage his angry mood, or stop unwanted behavior, is challenging and time consuming, and time is often in short supply. If behavior-shaping is to work, your toddler will need to understand that there will be a negative consequence if he does not do as he has been asked—or a positive consequence if he does.

An important aspect of seeing problems off before they begin is to ensure that your toddler has a clear idea of your expectations. A young brain needs clear and simple instructions. Try using if and then, or when and then, so he understands the cause and effect of his behavior.

Examples of if, then; when, then:

Your toddler will need the consequences to be very simple and immediate, as he will not be able to relate to “later.” A negative consequence normally involves something being taken away, such as not being able to take teddy shopping, or not coming with Mommy. A positive consequence is usually more effective and will involve something being given, such as playing with Daddy, or having a favorite story at bedtime, if he does as you ask. The treats should be simple, everyday “favorite things,” rather than candy or gifts.

When stating a consequence, you must be consistent, and you must follow through with what you have said—otherwise it becomes meaningless. Your response needs to show your child that you are serious about the boundary you have set, and if he crosses that boundary, that his behavior is unacceptable. If a tantrum or aggression results, ignore it—and remember he will grow out of this phase before long. Whatever his action and response, still treat him with respect.

Help him learn

He is beginning to understand the consequences of his behavior, but it is important to keep explanations very simple at this age.

  • If you speak quietly, then we can go to the park.”

  • When you are nice to your sister, then you can play catch with her.”

The art of ignoring

To be disregarded and overlooked is the ultimate negative consequence for your young child. Your toddler is used to thinking of himself as being the center point of the family. To suddenly discover that no one is interested in him is a powerful behavior deterrent for the future. This style of ignoring is not about withdrawing affection and is not meant as a malicious or vindictive act. It is an immediate and effective tool to stop unwanted behavior. It works because it isolates your toddler and gives him an opportunity to calm down.

Remember that ignoring your child is not ignoring if you remain focused on and looking at him. For it to work, you need to remove eye contact and stop talking to him, to show apparent disregard (while always ensuring he remains safe). If he is sitting on your knee just reduce your attention for a time (see Letting go and moving on). This approach can sometimes work after a few seconds and at other times may take up to two or three minutes (although don’t continue for any longer at this age). Once he has become calm you can re-engage with him.

If, for example, you are in a crowded supermarket and your toddler starts to grab things from the shelf, disregarding your instruction to stop and being defiant, you have two choices: either to ignore him and continue to shop, or to ignore him and leave the supermarket immediately. Leaving the store is not a good option since it will give your child too much power—he will think that when he is bored he just has to “act out” and Mommy will take him home. Do not look at him or talk to him. Once he has calmed down, give him a hug. You could then suggest playing the “find the color” game, where you find colored packages on the shelves, or other supermarket games. Your toddler will learn from this that calm behavior is rewarded with hugs and a game, and that being defiant and ignoring your instructions won’t reap rewards.

To give another example, perhaps your friend has come over who you have not seen for a long time. Your toddler has plenty to keep him occupied, but he keeps screaming because he wants your undivided attention. You both physically turn away from your toddler and ignore his behavior completely. Once he has calmed down, turn to him and say, “Come and have a hug.” Introduce your friend and show him that his “good” behavior gets attention and praise.

Ignoring can also work well if combined with distraction techniques. Distraction works well as a way of changing your toddler’s mood in an instant. This is less likely to work, however, if a full-scale tantrum is in place. “Time out” and variations of this, such as “the naughty step,” are other forms of ignoring that can be used briefly to calm your child if he is aggressive or out of control.

Selective behavior

You might discover that your toddler only behaves in a certain way when he is with you, and that he does not act up for other people. There could be several reasons for this, but often it is because you are the only one that responds to his behavior. It has worked. He has got the attention he wanted (for example, you have given him treats). You can take strength from the fact that children grow out of this phase. Your toddler will gradually learn how to manage his feelings appropriately and find better ways to get what he wants. In the meantime, however, remember not to reinforce his behavior by reasoning with him. Withdrawing attention is still more effective than talking and negotiating at this age.

Aggressive behavior

A firm “No” and removing positive reinforcement, such as fun toys for a limited time, sends a message that aggressive behavior is not acceptable.

Letting go and moving on

It is always a relief to be able to make up after a disagreement, and never more so than when your child is calm and ready to apologize. The time to ask him for an apology is after the consequence of his behavior has run its course. The tears are over, he is calm, he has had time to reflect, and everyone wants to be friends again. It is a hard lesson for a toddler to learn, but it is important that he understands that he has to learn to say “sorry” as part of the process of taking responsibility for his behavior.

At 2–3 years, it is unlikely that a toddler will truly “feel” sorry—he has not yet developed sufficient empathy and understanding of others to feel the effects of his behavior on someone else. However, it is an important response to begin to teach. When your child has done something to physically or emotionally hurt someone else and you ask him to say sorry, you are teaching him an important social skill. Over the next 18 months he will start to feel increasing levels of empathy and will begin to really mean it when he says it. An apology is a vital part of behavior-shaping because it will help him understand that we must take responsibility for the impact of our behavior on others. Your toddler does something wrong, you put him right, he apologizes—everyone moves on. He needs to feel safe in the understanding that no matter what he does, you will still love him. Making up and moving on is vital in showing him that his behavior was unwanted, but he is still loved and wanted as a person. Your challenge is then to “let go” of the event and to try not to use it to label his behavior, or to bring it up again when he misbehaves at a later date. Do be aware, though, that your toddler saying “sorry” shouldn’t stop you following through with a consequence for bad behavior.

Putting space between thought and deed

As a parent, it is normal to frequently overestimate your child’s ability to understand the reasons why you are unhappy with his behavior. Even now his brain has developed further, he will learn more by what you show him than what you tell him. Putting space between his thoughts and his deeds is the most effective way to stop the unwanted behavior.

Distraction, ignoring, holding, and “time out” are all ways to help him learn to calm himself and choose to act differently. In the next section there is a description of how to use “time out”, a more extreme form of ignoring. It is more suitable for slightly older children and is used as a technique to help children to cool down and reflect on their actions. It should ideally be used only after all other methods have failed. If your child is completely out of control, has been aggressive—especially toward another child—or is being extremely antisocial in some way and needs to learn to modify his behavior, then “time out” can be used in the 24–36 month age group as well, but for no longer than two minutes. A more appropriate technique is firm holding (see Managing extreme behavior).

Time to reflect

Sending your toddler to a safe place to calm down following unwanted behavior is a good technique, which can be used more as he gets older.

Seeking help

Poor toddler behavior can instill intense feelings of guilt or hopelessness in many parents. If you are having ongoing problems with managing your child, do not suffer in isolation. Ask your pediatrician for help, join a parenting class or workshop, or ask other mothers for advice.

Some of what you are experiencing will be normal toddler behavior, which will pass in time, but it can be helpful to speak to other parents, to keep things in perspective and normalize your child’s behavior.

Recognizing patterns of behavior

Toddlers become conditioned to respond in certain ways to particular situations, as this example shows:

Lara knows Daddy well. She has learned to recognize his mood by how he acts when he comes home from work. If he throws his keys on to the table, sighs deeply, and slumps into a chair, she knows that he is in a bad mood, which means he will have no patience with her. Over time, her response to this sequence becomes conditioned, so that thrown keys (Daddy is angry) becomes a trigger for her to stay out of the way (I feel rejected). But if he is humming a tune as he walks through the door, and hangs his keys on the hook, she knows he is in a good mood and is likely to give her a hug. In time, the conditioned response becomes Dad humming his favorite tune (Daddy is happy), which triggers an impulse to run up and hug him (I feel loved).

Managing extreme behavior

Some toddlers take their behavior to extremes. Occasionally this is about attention-seeking and finding their parent’s weak spot, but more often it is triggered by overwhelming feelings that they cannot control.

Actions such as banging his head as a tantrum reaches its peak, or holding his breath are alarming, upsetting, and very hard to manage. No parent can ignore a child who is distressed or hurting himself, so what is the best course of action and coping?

Very, very careful holding may be helpful:
  • Minimize the amount of attention you are paying to your child and his actions. It is possible to hold your child firmly, to keep him safe, without giving him positive attention.

  • Carefully hold him, facing outward, against your body. His head should be against your chest so that he doesn’t smack it into your face. (Say no more than “No, calm down,” occasionally and very softly).

  • If your child is holding his breath, he will eventually gasp for air and cannot harm himself, but you can also try splashing a little water on, or blowing gently into, his face

  • Do not rise to the bait and panic, and do not give in to the temptation to talk to him or pay attention to what he is doing or saying. If you give in once, then next time it will be twice as difficult to handle.

  • Wait until he is calm to give him positive attention. 

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