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

Although your 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” behavior.

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.

Difficult times

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:
  • Put some 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.

Handling emotions

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.”

  • “I 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.”

  • “The 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.”

Real life

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.

Family traits

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 challenging relationship.

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 brother.

  • Result

    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.

    If, 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.

  • Result

    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.

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