Why doesn’t my toddler like positive reinforcement?

Admit it: Sometimes you get a little overly excited when your toddler does something awesome.

Photo: Istock

Admit it: Sometimes you get a little overly excited when your toddler does something awesome. How could you not? You’re so proud and you want them to know it, so you clap, you cheer, you may even do a little happy dance.

The only problem is that your toddler might not appreciate the positive reinforcement. At all. In fact, in a matter of seconds, your child’s smile can turn to a scowl and you can find yourself face-to-face with one very pissed-off toddler. Sometimes, my daughter will even angrily wave her arms at me and yell, “No, Mommy! Stop it! I don’t like that!”

It would be easy to chalk this up to toddlers being, well, toddlers and a little emotionally unbalanced, but here’s the thing: It’s not them—it’s you. (And me.)

“One of the biggest reasons a kid can get grouchy when you clap and cheer is that you’ve stolen her sense of accomplishment,” says Sarah Rosensweet, a Toronto-based educator who specializes in a non-punitive, connection-based approach to parenting. “It becomes about what you think about what she’s done rather than how she feels about it.”

23 months old toddler with hands on her chin and smiling Your toddler: 23 months oldOther possibilities for this attitude about-face: Toddlers might interpret a too-exuberant tone as condescending, or they may feel judged, as if you’re only truly happy with them when they do something spectacular. The latter can create anxiety about making mistakes and wanting to be perfect in order to please you—in that moment and in the future. And on a more basic note, your child might simply be startled by your reaction.

So how can you acknowledge your toddler’s accomplishment and encourage them in a positive way that won’t send them into an emotional tailspin?

For starters, Rosensweet suggests “noticing” instead of praising, along with recognizing the effort. You could say something as simple as: “Wow, you did it,” or “Look at you—look at what you did.” With older toddlers, you can ask them to explain how they worked on the project or achieved their goal. You can still express enthusiasm and awe, of course, but don’t go overboard, and make sure to keep the focus on them.

This strategy can also help your child develop self-confidence. “If you’re constantly making it about what you think of your child,” cautions Rosensweet, “that’s what they will grow to depend on—what other people think of them instead of what they think of themselves.” Here’s what to do if your child seems to be going down that road: The next time they seem desperate for your approval, acknowledge their hard work then gently turn it around and ask them what they think of what they’ve done.

So tone it down, and if you mess up once in a while and get a less-than-desirable reaction, all is not lost. “Just correct yourself and say, ‘It looks like I made you a little uncomfortable—I was just so excited. You must be so proud of yourself for doing x, y and z,’” says Rosensweet. “Everything’s fixable.”

And those may be the two most reassuring words ever uttered when it comes to parenting—and two of the truest.

Read more:
Why does my toddler suddenly hate everyone?
Is my toddler’s bad behaviour normal?

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