by Michele Borba, Ed.D.
Toddlers: they're adorable, lovable, and absolutely precious (at least most of the time -right?). They're also unpredictable, impulsive and can be absolutely exhausting. These little critters are like energizer bunnies except their batteries just never seem to run out. You can't reason with them: they don’t have the cognitive development. You can’t tell them to “calm down”: they don't have the internal regulatory system. You can't talk them through most of their issues: they don't have the vocabulary.
Here are my favorites "tamers" for this unique age group. Just a word to the wise: they do grow up all too quickly! Enjoy now. Your little one will never be this active or cuddly.
1. Naming the toddler’s upset feeling:
"Mad. Sam is mad" helps reduce tantrum onset. Telling a two year old to "Calm down" just won't cut it. But it sometimes helps to play "emotion coach." (Note the "sometimes" – you really have to experiment with what works – but this is worth the try). At the first moment you see your toddler’s frustrations coming on, get down eye-to-eye and in an exaggerated tone, name the feeling. "You’re soooooo angry!!! Johnny is soooooo mad!!!" Verbalizing an upset feeling to a nonverbal kid can be empowering and helps to reduce the frustration. It's almost as though you see your little one look up at you with a, "Well yep. That's how I feel! Glad you caught on!"
2. Don't overuse "NO" or a toddler will mimic:
Save for real red flag issues. If you catch the Raising Sextuplets tape you'll hear both parents admit that saying "No" to their two year olds (all six!) is no longer effective. They overused the term and so it wore out the impact. This is the copy-cat age and toddlers are experimenting with words. "No" is one of the easiest words to say and because they hear it often (from Y.O.U.) they will pick it up. So beware! Save "NO" for those moments when safety or health is at risk, you want an immediate response, or your little one has really crossed the line. You could substitute the word, "NO!' with a clap, the word "Danger!" or "Safety!" You could also teach a hand gesture or sign language. I taught the sextuplets the sign for "Stop' (hand straight out in front) and "Gentle" (palm softly rubbing the top of the other hands). The nonverbal sextuplets started using the signs with each other and aggressive behaviors such as biting and hitting were greatly reduced.
3. Lower voice to a whisper to give requests:
Toddlers love variety and fear loud noises. So try using softer voice tones. A little one usually responds. (They also love you to make your voice sound like Daffy Duck or some other character. Go for it! Your toddler won't tell). Or turn your hand into an instant puppet and make your hand talk. Come on – try it! This is a magical age when you can use their imagination to your advantage.
4. Turn DON'T to DO:
Their little egos are forming and their little independence streak is churning, so watch out for negatives. You'll get far better responses if you turn your "don't run" into "Let's walk." Or "Don't pull the doggy's tail." Instead "Watch Mommy. Pet the doggy like this." Also SHOWING what you want a toddler to do is always better than telling. Model!!!! They are great little copy-cats.
5. Anticipating a toddler's frustration triggers is the best way to curb a tantrum:
Get to know your kid. Tune into when he is most likely to have that meltdown. And if he does have an "exorcism' ask yourself the key question: "What happened right before?" The biggest frustration triggers for a toddler are fatigue, hunger and boredom. You'll reduce many of those meltdowns by taking him shopping after the nap or eating a snack, or letting him play with something while you wait. ANTICIPATE!
6. Don't try reasoning with a tantruming toddler.
Once that flail or wail or exorcism begins, forget trying to reason with your child. Doing so is like trying to reason with a goldfish. Remember that when those strong emotions kick in the "reasoning" part of the brain tunes out. Just let him wind down.
7. Respectfully and selectively ignore some behaviors.
Toddlers are attention-getters and they love to figure out what pushes your buttons. If you're not careful you'll discover a lot of things do bug you. So when those annoying behaviors kick in (the whine, pout, screech, your best response is NO response. Pretend your toddler is invisible and that you are deaf. I've coached many parents on this one and most won't believe me. So I tell them, "Watch." The first sign the toddler tries a whine I just turn and pretend to do something else. And within seconds the toddler stops the behavior. Why? Simple, it doesn't work. Also watch out on those tantrums. Boston College found the more attention you give a tantrum, the longer it lasts. Once a tantrum starts, ignore, ignore, ignore.
8. Use calming rituals to help a toddler soothe and calm down.
Research shows that the most active (and aggressive) time EVER in our lives is between the ages of two and four. Toddlers are always on the go. Use a preschool-teacher's secret: always follow an active activity (running, jumping, marching, etc) with a calming activity (reading a book, giving a massage, singing a quiet song, doing a finger play). A toddler doesn't have an internal brake system and needs you to help calm him down. They also need "transition" time. Because they don't have an internal clock, they will rely on you: "Let's start putting our toys away. It's almost time for lunch." "When we've finished singing Twinkle-Twinkle it will be time to brush our teeth. Warning: not giving an adequate warning that a change is coming is one of the fastest ways to cause a meltdown. Give warnings!
9. Teach feeling words.
Hitting and biting are common with toddlers. In fact the top reason toddlers are "expelled" from day care or preschool is biting. One way to help reduce the biting and hitting is to teach emotion words and the best way is always in context: "You’re sad! Is Johnny sad!" "Look at that little boy. He’s happy. See his happy face!" "Let's look at the pictures in our book. See Sally’s face. She looks scared. Make your face look scared!" You can teach little ones sign language for emotions. (And don't worry about purchasing some fancy book with sign gestures, just make up your own signs. My doctoral dissertation was in trying to determine the emotions toddlers and preschoolers are able to identify and the developmental sequence. I interviewed hundreds of two to five year olds and discovered that the four emotions toddlers learn first (in in this order) are "sad, happy, mad and scared." I also discovered that toddlers frequently confuse sad, mad and scared.
10. Be calm so your toddler can mirror you.
Toddlers are active and so their frustrations can quickly escalate. And they don't yet have that little brake switch inside to help them stop and cool down. So be their brake system. The fastest way to escalate a toddler's frustration is to yell or be upset yourself. The faster way to slow them down is to get eye to eye and calmly mirror their emotions. Be calm to help your toddler be calm.
Of course, the real trick is to find out what works best for your toddler. Once you discover the secret use the same trick over and over. Toddler Tamer Trick #11: Toddlers love routines! And never forget Toddler Tamer Trick #12: PRAISE. PRAISE. and PRAISE what your little one does right! Just use an exaggerated voice and add an exclamation point to the end of your acknowledgment.
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an educational psychologist, former teacher, and mom who is recognized for offering research-driven advice culled from a career of working with over one million parents, educators, and children. A frequent Today show contributor she also appears on Dr. Phil, The View, CNN American Morning, and The Early Show, Michele is the author of 22 books including her latest release, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. Visit her daily blog on or follow her on twitter.
Copyright © Michele Borba. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.