When you’re faced with difficult toddler behaviour, it can be painful. You simply want to move forward with your day, yet your child is digging in his heals or throwing a tantrum. Find positive parenting tips that will mitigate meltdowns and willfulness.
I had just got back from a feeing yoga class.
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. Earlier that day, I had come across a video on how to make mini candy apples. I capitalized 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.
“You missed Mama?”
I scooped up my son.
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 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 shrill way.
Parenting toddlers through tantrums is no easy feat.
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 behaviours. In a nutshell, toddlers want to express their independence from you, show their preferences, and demonstrate their will for the first time.
So when my toddler arches his back when getting into his carseat or insists on only drinking out of the red cup, he isn’t trying to push my buttons or be disobedient. Instead he’s started to taste independence and wants to continue working on this skill. The desire to express autonomy can override all reason (to the point of tears and tantrums) but is developmentally appropriate and important.
That said, it certainly isn’t easy.
These tried and true positive parenting tips help work through those difficult toddler moments. They are based on psychology research and my experience raising two toddlers.
Positive discipline strategies for parenting toddlers
1. Set expectations by front-loading (letting them know expectations ahead of time)
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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 do 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: Parenting a Strong-Willed Child? This is how to do it right
4. 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.
7. Choose natural or logical consequences
Consequences that are a byproduct of their choices or are directly tied to them are shown to lead to better internalized moral reasoning. Natural consequences stem from the behaviour and aren’t imposed by the parent. For instance, when my daughter doesn’t want to wear her jacket, I suggest she stand on the porch for a few minutes. Each time she comes in and grabs her jacket.
Sometimes natural consequences are too risky and a parent must impose consequences.
- running with scissors: loses the use of scissors
- hitting a child at the park: must sit to the side of the park for a timeout with mom or dad.
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 verbalize how they are feeling. In paraphrasing their feelings, they feel heard and can process their emotions 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, take a timeout.
11. Get present, and if you can, get outside
More often than not, I have found tthat the most difficult behaviour arises when I’m preoccupied or rushed. Sometimes dropping or postponing what’s on my to-do list, getting present and some fresh air solves everything. Being outside has a way of regulating both parents and children alike.
12. Wait it out
When possible, waiting for the emotional storm to pass can be the best course of action. The crying will end and simply being there and loving a toddler through their big feelings is the quickest way through it.
Shortcuts generally don’t work. Saying, “calm down” only intensifies the reaction. Often the best course of action is to deep breathe and wait for cooperation.
In situations where time isn’t a luxury, parents can still help their toddlers work through their emotions. This may be something like scooping my son up, grabbing his shoes and saying, “I know you don’t want to wear your rain boots. It’s frustrating when you want to wear sandals. We have to go. It is upsetting. You can wear your sandals on the next sunny day.
For additional reading for difficult toddler behaviour, check out:
FAQ about parenting toddlers
- What is a child considered a toddler?
According to Wikipedia, toddlerhood is from 12 to 36-months-old.
- What do toddlers need from their parents?
According to developmental psychology, when children hit toddlerhood, their main focus is establishing independence. So, on top of all of the basic needs they had as an infant – for comfort, unconditional love, safety, sleep and nutrition – they also need to feel independent. This means caregivers should support toddlers' curiosity, give options for them to demonstrate preference, allow for new challenges such as puzzle-building, going down the slide by themselves, and more.
- How do you discipline a toddler?
Start by front-loading. Tell the toddler what is expected of him and what will happen next.
Redirect negative behaviour. For example, if the child hits, show her how to be gentle or what words she could use to convey her frustration. If the child is being destructive, find toys he can stack and knock over.
Use positive language as much as possible. Negative language, such as 'Don't do that,' requires the child to process what she shouldn't be doing and deduce what he should be doing instead.
If the child needs a timeout, go with her and sit somewhere quiet and work on calming down together.
- How do you discipline a child for hitting?
Instead of punishing, redirect the child's energy. For example, coach him to say, 'I'm mad,' or show him how to be gentle. If need be, take her for a timeout until she's calm but stay with her to help her calm down.