My 2½-year-old daughter, Zoe, is putting on her shoes. She proudly shows me her handiwork. “Nice job, Zoe,” I say. “Just let me switch them.” I pull on a Velcro strap. Zoe jerks her foot away and glares at me: “Shoes stay, Mommy.” I persist. “Bad Mommy. No.” Tears fall as she scoots away from me. I pick her up and put her in the wagon, mismatched shoes and all. As we head toward the park, I wonder: Should I have insisted? Should I have done something about the “Bad Mommy” comment? Should I have cancelled our excursion?
Turns out I walked right into a typical toddler scenario pretty much guaranteed to end in conflict. Zoe was trying to assert her new-found independence, showing me her new skill. I not only minimized her accomplishment, I started undoing her hard work without explaining, at her level, why the shoes needed to be switched. She did what toddlers do when they get frustrated: Lash out and cry.
“Parents need to understand that children are built to explore and experiment. And some of that behaviour parents may call misbehaviour. They are trying to be independent, but they don’t have the skills and get frustrated,” says Linda Gilbert, manager of training, youth and family development at the YMCA of Greater Toronto. She adds that the focus at this age should be on managing behaviour, not discipline as such.
Denise Marshall, an early childhood educator at the University of Northern British Columbia Childcare Society in Prince George, BC, agrees: “What is ‘bad’ behaviour anyway? A child’s definition and a parent’s view are often very different: You tell your child to put a toy away. He doesn’t. You see it as defiance. He simply doesn’t want to stop playing.”
All our experts agree that children will “misbehave” when our expectations are beyond their abilities. For example, it’s not realistic to expect a toddler to follow a string of instructions, or to remember a rule after being told only once.
Gilbert explains, “You have to keep language basic. There’s so much happening in their brains. It’s necessary to repeat yourself, otherwise it will get forgotten.”
To keep expectations realistic, it’s helpful to understand the developmental aspects that affect toddler behaviour:
At 18 months, toddlers are just starting to be interested in interacting with other kids, playing with them rather than side by side. But the rules of social play are not instinctive — kids need to be taught about taking turns and being gentle. In fact, aggressive behaviour, such as biting, is normal, says Gail Szautner, chairperson of the Saskatchewan Early Childhood Association and executive director of Children’s Choice Child Development Programs in Prince Albert, Sask. “It’s developmental. It’s how they react.”
Also normal is the reluctance to share. “Developmentally, they are just not ready for dealing with only one truck or always taking turns,” says Connie Delorey-McGowan, executive director and owner of Cobequid Children’s Centre in Lower Sackville, NS.
A lot of the defiance that we attribute to toddler behaviour stems from their limited ability to control their impulses. Your daughter may know that chucking food off the high chair is a no-no, but try as she might, the urge to see her mac and cheese go splat on the floor can be overwhelming.
On the other hand, when a toddler’s impulses and desires are frustrated, the reaction can be intense. (And there is so much frustration in a toddler’s world: from the noodle that won’t stay on the spoon to the grown-up who doesn’t understand what she’s trying to say.) It’s very difficult for her to rein in her anger and resist the urge to hit, throw or have a tantrum.
Toddlers have a hard time understanding their emotions, let alone controlling them. And they don’t have the perspective or experience to realize that the deep sadness they feel over a broken cookie will soon pass. “Toddlers need help to identify and cope with their feelings,” says Delorey-McGowan. Along with your own reassuring cuddles, it can be helpful to introduce self-soothing techniques, such as hugging a favourite toy, sipping water or breathing deeply.
“Toddlers have a budding awareness of others, but are self-centred,” says Delorey-McGowan. It’s for this reason that they struggle with empathy — they don’t understand that others react negatively to pain or frustration. This also explains why a toddler may react inappropriately to another child’s emotions, like laughing when a playmate pinches his hand in the toy chest.
How can a child follow instructions if he doesn’t understand what’s being asked of him? Language and attention skills are just developing in toddlerhood, so it’s important not to overestimate what kids can comprehend—that will just lead to frustration on both sides. Says Marshall: “Children can often understand what parents are asking, but it’s hard to follow directions the way we want them to. Adults need to guide them.”
Even if your child can understand what you’re saying, he may not be paying attention. “I don’t know any child who listens all the time. You have to get on their level and make eye contact,” says Delorey-McGowan.
So how, exactly, can you guide your child’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. Delorey-McGowan 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 Szautner. “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.
What doesn’t work
9. “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 Gail Szautner, executive director of Children’s Choice Child Development Programs in Prince Albert, Sask. “As far as they are concerned, it’s done. Bringing it up again won’t accomplish anything. They are not developmentally there yet.”
10. “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. “No, no, no, 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. “OK, OK, you can have your 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.
13. “I do it my way”
Kate, one, and her mom are having fun filling containers with water and dumping them into the bath. Then Kate pours the water onto the floor. “Water stays in the bathtub, Kate.” Kate fills the container, looks at Mom and dumps the water on the floor again. Now what?
14. Set clear expectations
Make sure your instructions are clear and she is listening to you: “If you throw water out of the tub again, I will take the cup away.” Older toddlers may respond if you explain why: “Water on the floor is dangerous. It can make us fall.”
Try to make keeping water in the tub more exciting — sing a favourite song together or introduce a different toy. “Your duckies need water to swim in the tub.”
16. Offer options
“Do you want to pour the water on your feet or on your knees?”
If dumping water continues, remove her from the tub and explain why: “You’re just not listening, so you’re going to have to come out.”
Have her help you clean up the water to show the results of her actions: “The water has to be cleaned up because someone could slip.”
19. “Mine, mine, mine”
James, two, and Sam, 2½, are playing at Sam’s house. James picks up the green truck, Sam lunges for it: “My truck!” James resists.
Having lots of duplicates may avoid this situation altogether, but sometimes nothing will do but the very truck that’s in the other child’s hand.
21. Set expectations and consequences
Make the rules clear: “These toys are for sharing. We can play with them as long as we can take turns.”
Since toddlers need lots of coaching in social skills, it’s important to closely supervise kids who are playing together: “You can have it in a little while when James is done. Let’s pick another truck.”
If Sam complies, it’s important to praise him and put words to his actions: “That is very good sharing, Sam. Thank you.”
If Sam continues to demand the truck and tries to hit James: “I can’t let you hit. We need to go and do something else now.”
25. “I want it”
Alistair, two, insists on having the chocolate bar at the grocery checkout. Mom says no, but Alistair lunges for it.
Before you go, make sure he’s not hungry or tired.
27. Set expectations
“We’re not going to have a chocolate bar, but you can choose a treat for the whole family to share.”
By engaging your child in the shopping experience, he may be less likely to rail against the no-chocolate-bar edict. “We need six apples — can you help me count them?” You might also want to stash a small toy in your bag to distract him at the checkout.
29. Offer options
“You get to choose a treat. Would you like granola bars or muffins?”
This article was originally published in October 2008.