Toddler behaviour

How to handle your destructive toddler

Even when toddlers are "helping," disaster can ensue.

By Susan Spicer
How to handle your destructive toddler

Photo: iStockphoto

Do toddlers have a knack for destruction? You bet they do, says Joelle Kovach, who is mom to two-year-old Sam. “Just take a look at my glasses!” she says, pointing to the twisted frames with missing nosepiece.

Grabbing, banging, throwing and dropping are par for the course when you have a toddler in the house. These little people can’t seem to resist the temptation of seeing their spaghetti go splat on the kitchen floor or hearing that satisfying squelch of ketchup on the tabletop. Likewise, toy cars must be thrown, regardless of the proximity of the window (or your head). And toddlers have the power to wreak havoc in the time it takes to answer the phone or go to the bathroom.

Should you discipline? Should you discipline your pint-sized demolition expert? “Nah.… You just have to suck it up!” laughs Kovach. “He’s not old enough to be given a time out, so we just try to keep one step ahead of him. I do sometimes put on my very serious face and say, ‘Do not do that.’” But, adds Kovach, anything really valuable is put away or protected: “My new iPhone has a really serious skin on it — which helps me relax about it.”

That’s the right approach, says Judy Arnall, a Calgary parent educator with Attachment Parenting Canada. Toddlers aren’t being bad when they pitch your phone across the room or paint the walls with chocolate frosting. They’re driven to explore, to learn how the world works. They are figuring out cause and effect, like what happens when you let go of something; it matters not whether it’s your grandmother’s china teacup or a wooden block. They can’t yet think ahead to consequences. According to Arnall, that milestone isn’t reached until kids are about three and a half.

Damage control Curiosity can have serious consequences. According to Safe Kids Canada, more than a few toddlers visit Canadian emergency rooms every day with preventable injuries, including burns, poisonings and falls.

How can you keep your stuff and your toddler safe, while still giving her some room to explore? “At this stage you’re really just doing damage control,” says Arnall. Here’s how:

Supervise “There really is no substitute for supervision with toddlers,” says Arnall. Try to organize some way for your child to play safely in the same space as you’re working. For example, a low cupboard in your kitchen stocked with plastic containers or wooden utensils will keep him amused while you work.

Childproof The best way to proactively childproof is to get down to your child’s level and scope out potential hazards — like that dangling lamp cord. Remember that anything that can be pulled, thrown, toppled, dumped or opened probably will be. And never underestimate toddler ingenuity; two-year-olds have been known to push the button that opens the DVD drawer and insert a cookie, or drag a kitchen chair to the counter to climb up and redecorate with flour. “My son used to get into the fridge and drop eggs on the floor,” says Arnall. “Our fridge was sealed shut with duct tape.”


Accommodate Some reorganization can go a long way in preventing disasters. If she loves to open the drawer where you keep your stamp collection, move it to a high shelf and fill the drawer with some of her toys or blocks.

Substitute and redirect If he’s ripping pages from a book, offer an old magazine from the recycling bin. If he’s throwing a ball in the house, suggest that the two of you go outside and throw the ball where there’s lots of room.

Give simple instructions Toddlers aren’t able to understand complicated explanations, but they will eventually take in simple commands if you repeat them often enough, says Arnall; for example, “Water stays in the tub.” If she continues to pour it on the floor, remove the cup she’s using and end bath time.

Model good behaviour If she’s clutching the cat, use her hand to stroke her own leg and say, “This is how we touch, very gently.” Then you can apply a bit more pressure (but not enough to hurt!) and say, “This is too hard.” “What you’re doing is showing her in a positive way what to do,” says Arnall.

Teach by experience When she does make a big mess, let her know that it’s not OK and involve her in the cleanup. “Oh dear, now we will have to scrub all these walls.” Give her a damp cloth so she can help. She’ll figure it out…eventually.

This article was originally published on Apr 11, 2011

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