Many parents know that toddlerhood can be a period of great frustration—for both parties. As these little humans begin to test their boundaries, parents are often at a loss for how to manage their behaviour.
“Parents need to understand that children are built to explore and experiment. And some of that behaviour parents may call misbehaviour,” says Linda Gilbert, manager of training, youth and family development at the YMCA of Greater Toronto.
She adds that while toddlers are trying to gain more independence, they often don’t have the skill sets, so they get frustrated. Gilbert recommends that the focus at this age should be on managing behaviour, not discipline as such.
So how, exactly, can you guide your toddler’s behaviour? Just as your child is experimenting with her behaviour, you will need to experiment with your discipline techniques, depending on her age, temperament and your values. Our experts share their favourite tactics:
“Always think ahead: ‘How can I make this a successful day?’” says Gilbert. This means setting up the environment to promote good behaviour. If your child is really into dressing herself, make sure you have lots of pants with elastic waists and shirts that are easy to put on to cut down on frustration. And allow extra time to get dressed in the morning.
When it comes to playdates, plan ahead to minimize conflict. Connie Delorey-McGowan, who is the executive director and owner of Cobequid Children’s Centre in Lower Sackville, NS, suggests making sure there are enough toys to share (duplicates if necessary) and a variety of activities to cut down on boredom.
A child who’s hungry, thirsty, tired or rushed is more likely to misbehave, so forgoing a snack or planning a playdate during nap time is a surefire ride on the Meltdown Express.
2. Offer options
Because toddlers are experimenting with independence, it’s important to give them safe, reasonable chances to assert it: “Do you want your juice in the red cup or the green cup?” “Do you want to go to the park in your wagon or the stroller?” Adds Delorey-McGowan, “Toddlers want to make choices. If you say no, they want it even more.”
It may not seem like a discipline tool, but you can’t help your child learn appropriate behaviour if you aren’t there to coach him. This doesn’t mean stepping in to solve every problem, but rather guiding him on how to behave: “I know you want to go down the slide, but Ruby is in front of you. She will go and then you can go.” And the more you watch, the more you’ll be able to tell what situations set him off and how you can help.
4. Set expectations and consequences
Children can’t follow the rules if they don’t know what they are. Make sure instructions and rules are clear and simple, says Gail Szautner, chairperson of the Saskatchewan Early Childhood Association and executive director of Children’s Choice Child Development Programs in Prince Albert, Sask. “Establish eye contact and check that she’s nodding when you talk to her.”
Marshall adds that directions that use “I” appeal to toddlers who want to please: “I’m scared you will fall off the chair. Please sit down.”
And be clear about what will happen if rules are not followed: “We draw only on paper. If you draw on the table again, we will have to put the crayons away.”
5. Show and tell
Toddlers are very visual, says Szautner, and while words are important, so is modelling the behaviour you want. Consider turn taking, for example. You could try saying: “It’s your turn to put the penny in the piggy bank, now it’s my turn, now it’s your turn…”
As egocentric as toddlers are, they still want to please you. Complimenting your son when he comes to the table the first time you ask not only shows him what good behaviour is, it also reinforces your bond. “Children need lots of attention; that’s our job as parents. Be careful to give attention to appropriate behaviour,” says Szautner.
“If you see a tantrum building, distract them with something they like to do,” suggests Szautner. If your 2½-year-old is frustrated that her older sister won’t share her new doll, say, “Let’s play with your stickers at the kitchen table.” And at this age, kids love to help; ask them to help you put the condiments on the table or put the clean towels away.
Redirection can also “unstick” your toddler from a no-no she can’t get off her mind. If she’s drawn like a magnet to Grandma’s stereo system, get her involved in a completely new activity.
Along with redirection, naming a child’s feelings may be helpful: “It looks like you’re really angry that Max took your car. Do you want to go to the couch with me and calm down?”
If no amount of coaching and distraction works, it may be time to say, “If you can’t take turns, we have to leave.” And as with all discipline strategies, follow through.
Delorey-McGowan recommends establishing a comfortable, quiet spot where your child can go with you, when he’s lost control. It isn’t punishment, but rather a place to calm down and relax—the couch, a step on the stairs or a spot on the carpet with some cushy pillows.
9. Don’t tell them, “Think about what you did”
Though it seems to make sense to talk to a child after an incident of misbehaviour, that’s pointless with toddlers, says Szautner. “As far as they are concerned, it’s done. Bringing it up again won’t accomplish anything. They are not developmentally there yet.”
10. Don’t tell them to say sorry
You can’t make a child feel remorse. And this method sends the message that hitting, for example, is OK as long as she apologizes afterward.
11. Don’t just say “no”
It’s more helpful to tell—and show—children what to do rather than what not to do. Instead of “No yelling,” try “Please use a quiet voice”—and say it quietly. Of course there are situations where a firm no (coupled with swift action) is called for; when your child reaches for your mug of hot coffee or walks toward the road. But save no for when you really need it.
12. Don’t just let them have their way
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, toddlers pitch a fit or just refuse to be swayed. Be sympathetic, but don’t cave in. Your child needs to see that you mean what you say and are strong enough to stand firm, even in the face of toddler fury.
This article was originally published in October 2008.