Toddlerhood is not for the faint of heart. Here are positive parenting tips for difficult toddler behaviour, such as toddler tantrums, that are rooted in research.
I remember when I really thought difficult toddlers were really in the eye of the beholder. 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 capitalised on my kid-free time to pick up the ingredients.
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. Assuming, “You missed Mama?” I scooped up my son. He settled only to realise 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 that he is in the process of getting his molars in. And, he just got 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.
One of my favourite developmental theories touches on this period of toddlerhood. Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development offer a wonderful framework from which to see toddler tantrums, resistance, crying, and other difficult toddler behaviour. 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.
Here are my 10 + tried and true positive parenting tips for difficult toddler behaviour based on my university minor in psychology and my experience raising two toddlers.
Positive Parenting Strategies for Difficult Toddler Behaviour and Tantrums
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
This is one of the simplest tips for parenting through difficult toddler behaviour. Giving two options with the same outcome makes a toddler feel in control. Meanwhile, you get them to agree to doing what you would like done. 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?” Same result different answers.
[Related reading: Strategies to End Power Struggles with your Strong-Willed Child]
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. When I say, “One last slide,” my kids tend to put off that last slide for as long as imaginable.
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 pre-warned of the consequences. By pre-warning 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 timeout 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 internalized 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
[Related reading: Why Punishment is Ineffective and What You Can Do Instead]
8. Empathize & paraphrase
Feeling heard and understood is one of the most valuable gifts we can give our kids especially when they’re acting out. So much of difficult toddler behaviour, or kids acting out in general, is simply them not having the words or the self-awareness 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.
10. If it’s not negotiable, don’t enter into negotiations
When you’ve set them up for success and you’ve given them a lot of empathy, and they still aren’t listening, remember not to negotiate. Sometimes it is best to disengage. Entering into a power struggle will only make matters worse. As a last resort, we go into timeout together. They don’t go alone because current research advices against separating yourself from your child when they are acting out.
11. Get present, and if you can, get outside
I have found that, more often than not, I’m faced with difficult toddler behaviour when I’m preoccupied. For instance when I’m on the phone, tied up otherwise, or distracted my kids tend to act out more. Sometimes dropping what was on my to-do list, getting present and some fresh air solves everything.