It’s a good thing that toddler behaviour is only for toddlers. It wouldn’t get you far in the corporate world or win you any friends in the Tim Hortons lineup. Toddlers can be stubborn, impulsive and grumpy. To adult eyes, they’re sometimes impossible.
But from the toddler’s point of view, he’s just learning to make his way in a complicated world. He has lots of ideas (not all good ones) and often no way of carrying them out. He sees big people doing all sorts of interesting things that he can’t manage (or they won’t let him enjoy). What’s a little guy to do but colour on the sofa with a Sharpie — and fall into a heap of outrage when you express your displeasure?
Toddlers love a good mess. Tanya Barkhouse was moving laundry from the washer to the dryer. Her daughter Breagh, aged 22 months, and niece Cadence, two years, sat nearby playing with the diaper bag. “In two minutes, the cornstarch, Vaseline and Peneten cream were all over both girls, the carpet and everything in the diaper bag. For the first few seconds, I was frozen in shock.” Luckily, Barkhouse recovered fast enough to grab her camera and record the moment.
What’s the upside of a big oily stain on the carpet? It’s a clear reminder of how intensely your child needs to experience and explore everything she can — and how interesting Vaseline is. Kim Pawluck, manager at Mothercraft Eaton Centre for Early Development in Toronto, says, “Toddlers need to try it all out. But their attention span is limited and there are so many interesting things. They think, ‘Look at that! I can get it!’” They don’t — and can’t — anticipate the difficulties of stain removal to follow.
What can you do? Try to maintain your good humour. “If it’s a safety issue or someone’s going to get hurt, it can’t be allowed. But if she’s exploring and she’s dumped water on the floor, you might just say, ‘Why don’t you help me clean it up?’ Don’t make a big deal about it. That way, when something is a big deal, she will respond,” urges Pawluck.
The rag doll rag
When things don’t go well, Aliena, 27 months, lets the whole world know. Her mom, Julie McFadden, says, “She cries and screams. She flops on the floor and becomes a rag doll — or goes stiff as a board if I try to move her. At the grocery store, she had a tantrum because I wouldn’t let her open a box of pasta. Yesterday it happened because I wouldn’t let her put diaper cream on her stuffed elephant.”
Toddlers feel their emotions intensely. They don’t have the inner resources to handle disappointments — even small ones — gracefully. “Toddlers are one-note thinkers, so as soon as they think, ‘I want this’ or ‘I have to do this,’ it becomes almost a passionate need,” explains Cawley.
Cawley reassures us that “tantrums are a toddler’s very age-appropriate way of expressing frustration.” While you can gradually show your child more suitable ways to deal with his feelings, he won’t get there in toddlerhood: The process is complex and he’s operating with toddler-level thinking and verbal skills.
Shannon Stevens’ son, Liam, 13 months, loves stories. “He adores having books read to him. But if he points to his bookshelf and I ask him, ‘Do you want a story?’, he shakes his head: ‘No, no, no!’ He even does it when he really wants something. Sometimes we ask, ‘Are you hungry?’ at mealtime and he shakes his head no — and then he reaches for his food!”
Toddlers affected by no-itis don’t mean to be disagreeable, and it’s clear that to a toddler no doesn’t always mean no. It’s more about the power of the word. “Toddlers are just starting to exert some independence and become autonomous,” says Pawluck. On the positive side, your child is becoming her own little person with likes and dislikes — and she’s using her beginning language skills to let you know.
But it’s all a little out of sync. “Toddlers are starting to get new ideas and new emotions,” Pawluck explains, “but they don’t have the words or understanding for these complex new feelings like embarrassment or anxiety.” “No” is an easy word and a handy response when things are too complicated.
Lord of misrule
Isla, 17 months, has started to open and close (and open and close) the drawer on the bottom of the kitchen stove; it’s a metal door and there’s no way to put a lock on it. Her mom, Ailsa Chalmers, asks her not to, but Isla is back at it in a flash, opening and closing. “She’ll stand in the kitchen and look at me and do it.”
It’s pretty clear Isla understands that her mom doesn’t want her to run the drawer back and forth. From a grown-up’s point of view, it looks cheeky when a toddler gleefully runs to the very thing you’ve just asked her not to touch — almost like she’s playing a game. But van den Hurk asks, “Is it a game or is it learning? The toddler has figured out that when she touches the drawer, her mommy comes and says the rule again. Remember that a toddler understands more than she can say. The bright eyes and smile might be saying ‘I get the rule!’ And, as in most learning situations, the toddler may test us to see if she got it right.” Cawley suggests it’s a test for us, too. “It’s finding out: How consistent are you? Do you really mean it?”
Toddler actions that seem designed to bring chaos to your life won’t last long.
In time, your child will become a more co-operative little person. McFadden sees glimpses of that child already. “Aliena is so compassionate. On a playdate, her friend was put in time out. He was crying and she sat as close as she could to him, saying ‘It’s OK, don’t cry.’”
And Aliena knows what to do when she’s having a tough day, says her mom. “She’ll say, ‘It’s hard to be Aliena. I need a snuggle.’”
Some days it is hard to be a toddler. And every one could use a snuggle.
While messes are inevitable, you may curtail them a bit by encouraging lots of play. Pawluck suggests, “Make sure there are opportunities for them to go to the park, to climb, run and kick a ball to get that energy out. Make opportunities for the messy stuff too — clear a spot where you can put something on the floor so nothing gets ruined. They learn so much from messy play.” This is the season for taking it outdoors (where you can use the hose for quick cleanups) and letting them go wild with water, fingerpaint and mud pies.
Some toddler messes — the kind with every toy in the house in a pile — are the result of a hard day’s play. Begin to establish a cleanup routine, suggests Pawluck. “It’s a good idea to say, ‘When you’re finished with this toy, we’ll put it away, and then we can play with the next one.’” You’ll be doing most of the work yourself, but eventually she’ll understand that you expect her to keep the disorder under control.
It can be challenging (extremely at times), but try to keep your cool. “It’s very frightening for a child to be that out of control,” says Wilma van den Hurk, a retired professor of early childhood education at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. “You don’t want to slip into out-of-control behaviour, too. Role-model a calm reaction — you want to be the anchor for your child.” Stand by and make sure he can’t hurt himself or others. Once things settle down, a reassuring cuddle is good for both of you.
A tantrum is like an emotional short-circuit; once it’s happened, a toddler is not able to make himself stop, so threatening, bribing or reasoning with him will have no effect. While you shouldn’t “give in” to tantrums (unless you want to teach your child to have them on purpose), smart preventive action will often cut down on their frequency. Tired, hungry, confined or overstimulated toddlers are much more likely to melt down.
We can help toddlers move beyond “no” by giving them simple labels for what they want and feel. Van den Hurk explains, “A toddler starts off with maybe 20 words and those words don’t explain everything she wants to say.” Along with “ball” and “duck,” we can teach words like “hungry” and “sad.”
Toddlers hear “no” many times a day. Pawluck suggests avoiding the word, when you can. “They are absorbing everything they hear, so give them a positive spin. Rather than ‘No, don’t stand on the chair,’ say, ‘We stand on the floor and we sit on the chair.’”
Prohibitions like not touching the DVD player are hard to enforce — that’s why, whenever possible, it’s better to ensure your toddler can’t get at forbidden things. Remember also that your toddler sees you playing with the DVD player — how can he resist? Reassure yourself that you can live with some little transgressions, such as finger smudges on the DVD player, because you’re firm about issues that matter.
“If you are going to make rules,” says van den Hurk, “make sure they’re about safety and that you reinforce them: ‘No, you aren’t going outside unless Mommy is able to come outside with you’ is a rule that you can enforce.” So is “We sit at the table to eat to prevent choking” — no sitting, no food.
Remind yourself that you and your child are a team — take her grin as delight rather than as impudence or rudeness. “It’s better to maintain the attitude that toddlers are learning and that the adults in their lives are helping them,” says van den Hurk.
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