Toddlerhood really is both the best and worst of times. Here are over 10 tips on parenting through difficult toddler behaviour that are centred in positive, empathetic parenting

10 + Tips For Parenting Through Difficult Toddler Behaviour

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I remember when I really thought a difficult toddler was really in the eye of the beholder. And while, there may be some merit to that notion, let’s get real.

Case and point, this evening, I had snuck out to yoga. Having worked on handstand more than any other pose, I left light, playful, and kiddish. My regular week in the mommy trenches didn’t feel as weighty and I felt like I could really breathe. Having found a cool video about making mini candy apples online earlier that day, I decided to stay true to my promise of making them and capitalized on my kid-free time to pick up the ingredients. As I made my way through our front door, sweaty, smiling, my arms filled with grocery bags ready to surprise my kids, I had barely gotten through the door when I was met with a meltdown. I scooped up my son, and assumed, “You missed Mama?” He settled only to realize his sister had found the mini M&M’s in one of the bags I had brought in. I set him down and offered him the chocolate chips from the same bag. Incensed at this pathetic attempt at compensation, he tried to swat them away. “Gentle touches, please. If you don’t want these why not ask if you can trade for the M&Ms?” Now he was on the ground crying. I brought him in my arms and hugged him. Crying persisted. Long story short, we ended up in his room for a calm down together and no candy apples were made. I could argue he is in the process of getting his molars in, he just started a cold, but who am I kidding?! This kid turned two at the beginning of the summer and is definitely expressing his autonomy and upset in a very pronounced, sometimes shrill way.

 

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One of my favourite developmental theories touches on this period of toddlerhood is Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. What I love about this theory is it offers a wonderful framework from which to see tantrums, resistance, crying, and other difficult behaviours that present themselves during the toddler years. In a nutshell, toddlers want to express their independence from you, show their preferences, and demonstrate their will for the first time. Read more about this theory and this stage here.

I am by no means a parenting expert and, though I use these techniques, I also am writing this post as a reminder to myself for when the going gets tough. Here are my 10 + tried and true tips for difficult toddler behaviour based on my university minor in psychology and my experience raising two toddlers.

The Best Tips For Parenting Through Difficult Toddler Behaviour

Toddlerhood really is both the best and worst of times. Here are over 10 tips on parenting through difficult toddler behaviour that are centred in positive, empathetic parenting

 

 1. Set expectations preemptively: Not only does this help set kid(s) up for success because they know what is expected from them in a given context, it also helps them make sense of potential discipline if their behaviour calls for it. For instance, this past week, I took both kids to a children’s museum. Knowing my daughter loves to flit from station to station without warning and because I was there without another adult to track her, I told her beforehand that she had to say, “Changing Mama” before she went anywhere. When we got inside, I had to take her aside two separate times to remind her of the expectation. Due to our conversation before, she didn’t react to me stopping her play because she knew she had made a mistake. The rest of the afternoon went off seamlessly.

 2. Avoid negative language & give other options: Here is something that gets under my skin. I am at a restaurant, I ask something like, “Do you have a whole wheat option?” and they answer “No.” What I like so much more is an answer like, “Unfortunately, we don’t but if you are looking for something healthier, I love ____” The message is the same: they don’t have the option I was looking for. However, highlighting what options they do have rather than just shutting me down creates a very different experience. Do I think you should edit every word you say or not say ‘No’ to your child? Of course not.  But, I do make a point of trying to tell my kids what they can do when they propose something that won’t work.

 3. Choose your battles: The goal of my parenting is to help my children become critical thinkers as well as law-abiding citizens. As such, I have non-negotiables such as dress appropriately for the weather (my daughter has been trying to wear heavy cotton pants and sweaters in the middle of summer), wear your seatbelt, and sit down at the table when eating. But I have wiggle room on things like matching clothes, who clicks the seatbelt, and the occasional floor picnic at dinner time.

 4. Give two options with the same outcome: For example, “Do you want to put on your shoes or have mama put them on?” or “Would you like to clean up now or in two minutes?” It makes them feel in control and you get them to agree to doing what you want done.

 5. Give warnings and use a timer: Imagine if you were out for dinner at a friend’s house having a blast and suddenly your spouse interrupts you mid-conversation and says, “We are leaving now,” ushers you away from your friend, and out the door. The car ride home would likely be a poignant discussion if not an argument. Likewise, kids do best when you preempt the end of fun with a warning. I find using a timer is the best indication of when to leave because it isn’t arbitrary.

 6. Count to 3: If my children aren’t listening or are insisting on adding an option to the two choices I’ve given them to get something done, I give them an ultimatum. For instance, “I’m going to count to three and I need you to do good listening, or I’m going to put you in the car seat myself.” Basically, in the case of #4, I choose the less desirable option to make my point. The majority of the time they jump at the opportunity to do what is expected of them on their own (who wants Mama forcing them into doing something?). When they don’t listen, they’ve been prewarned of the consequences. By prewarning them, it also helps me with follow-through because I’ve already told them what the potential consequence is.

 7. Choose logical consequences when you can: Defaulting to time-out can be more convenient than thinking of a penalty that directly links to their bad behaviour. However, consequences that are a byproduct of their choices or are directly tied to them are shown to lead to better internalised moral reasoning. In its purest sense, logical consequences should stem only from the behaviour and aren’t imposed by the parent. In the context of my household and in the interest of keeping my toddlers safe, I interpret this principle a bit more loosely. Examples include:

  •  running with scissors: loses the use of scissors
  • throwing puzzle pieces: must clean up all puzzle pieces before doing anything else

 8. Empathize & paraphrase: Feeling heard and understood is one of the most valuable gifts we can give our kids. So much of their upset is simply not having the words or the self-control to verbalise how they are feeling. In paraphrasing their feelings, they feel heard and can process their emotion more readily (read more from Child Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham on this subject here). Paraphrasing also helps them develop the language to “use their words”.

 9. Hug it out: When kids are screaming crying, it may seem counterintuitive to hug them. The majority of the time, I’ve noticed this softens them and helps them feel okay faster. There are times where their tantrums are more physical and as a result, it’s better to give them space.

Hug it out and 10 other positive #parenting tips for difficult #toddler behaviour <3 Click To Tweet

 10. Don’t negotiate with terrorists: When you’ve set them up for success and you’ve given them a lot of empathy, but they are still acting vile, remembering not to negotiate with terrorists is a nice mantra. Sometimes it is best  to disengage as they may need time to themselves. Having a calm down corner can work wonders. As a last resort, we go into timeout together. They don’t go alone because current research advises against separating yourself from your child when they are acting out.

 11. Get present, and if you can, get outside: I have found that the moments my kids’ behaviour tends to be the worst is when I’m on the phone, tied up otherwise, or distracted. Sometimes just dropping whatever was on my to-do list and getting fresh air solves everything.

 

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Toddlerhood really is both the best and worst of times. Here are over 10 tips on parenting through difficult toddler behaviour that are centred in positive, empathetic parenting. Erik Erikson, developmental psychology, gentle parenting, toddlers, parenting

 

 

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19 thoughts on “10 + Tips For Parenting Through Difficult Toddler Behaviour

  1. Great tips! My son just turned two this past August so we are in the same stage. I do almost all of these with my son. I agree with you that setting expectations does wonders. I used this a lot while teaching. I have found that often times children misbehave because they don’t truly know what is expected of them (we just assume that they know). I also try to practice good behaviors, especially if we are going out somewhere. The only one I haven’t done yet is counting down. I think I might be worried about what would happen if I hit 3 and the behavior didn’t change. Even with all these strategies, toddlerhood can be a tough age! haha I’m learning as I go.

    1. I’m WITH you!!!! It is so hard and it is so smart to set expectations. I can only imagine the implications in a classroom! Counting to three with my son does nothing except get me to follow-up with him. 9/10 with my daughter it works because she’s come to learn it’s much easier to do things on her own accord rather than have mama do it for her😜

  2. These tips are spot on. My daughter just turned 3 and I hate to say it, but it just didn’t get any better yet. Terrible threes…or so I have heard. “No” is a really big deal in our house and we try to give options rather than say “no”. Redirecting is also huge as she tends to just get stuck on one thing and won’t stop (whether it is food, or clothes or whatever!) so we need to redirect her onto the next thing, like coloring or playing with the dogs or something else!

  3. These are really great tips. With twin toddlers, since I am outnumbered, I find it even harder to control their behavior. They seem to feed off each other, or one will be behaving and the other will not. I love the setting expectations, and giving options other than just no. I’ve also tried hugging when tantruming, and it does seem to work. You’re “Don’t negotiate with Terrorists,” had me laughing out loud. So true!

  4. These are wonderful tips.I have two toddlers.. a one and a two year old. And I can say, I go a bit crazy at times with their behavior. The one year old is very much worse than my two year old with it though. I’m going to take some of this advice and see if it helps ease our days a bit more smoother.

  5. I love these tips Alana!
    Some that I try to use with my boys are setting the expectations and choosing consequences that fit the action. My youngest is told several times a day that he needs to use words instead of noises. Usually I can just tell him once and he will respond with words, other times it takes a little bit more work on my end. I also try to remind him to ask for help if something is frustrating him rather than start a fit.

  6. These are some great tips! My toddler is giving me a run for my money right now. Personally I am a huge fan of hugging it out and for Caleb it helps when we take deep breaths. Fresh air too. I have to admit, I found it a little strange that taking a quick step outside could calm him down in an instant. Anyway, these are awesome and just what I needed to read today.

  7. I have two boys 3&4 18months apart and boy i tell ya they sure give me a hard time espeically my 3year old ,sometimes i just wanna cry they drive me crazy but at the end of the day they cuddle me and love on me it makes it all better 🙂

  8. Great tips! I am a pre-K teacher of 4 and 5 year olds, so a lot of these I was using in my classroom already. My husband, being new to dealing with children, has to be reminded sometimes to give a direction and not ask a question. ( example: “Time to put your toys away” instead of ” Can you pick up your toys now?”) I find that not giving them the option to say no is helpful.
    I also find that in the middle of a meltdown, I can usually turn things around if I start singing, dancing, or doing something funny. It distracts then long enough to be able to rationally listen again (as rationally as a toddler can listen!) My son will be 2 tomorrow and we’re going through some trying times with him now, but hoping to make it to the other side unscathed… To be closely followed by my daughter who is 2 months! God, give me the strength!

  9. I have twin boys 14 months old and they are exhibiting terrible 2 behavior already. Which is very frustrating for me, because they really don’t talk yet. How can I discipline or “reason” them when they can’t express themselves clearly. L.M. shakes his head no when he doesn’t want to do something and has tantrums, L.J. is also very clear about what he likes or doesn’t like. My Problem is when they behave negatively how do I get them to understand without losing my cool.

    1. Christine, I too find it difficult. For instance, my son SCREAMS when even the smallest thing is off to show how upset he is. For myself, I try and remind myself that a lot is beyond their developmental abilities. I also am honest with my kids about how I’m feeling, “Mama is getting very frustrated right now.” No matter what, it isn’t easy. And to be honest, I don’t know a parent who has never yelled or never struggled with feeling exasperated with parenting.

  10. These are fantastic tips. I have used a lot of them in my past working as a preschool teacher. I especially like giving two options that have the same outcome. It gives the little one that sense of control that they crave! My own daughter hasn’t quite reached the toddler tantrum stage yet, but I have a feeling these tips will come in handy for us soon.

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