Loving Your Terrible, Terrific Toddler

Toddlerhood can be a maddening time for parents. But you'll be glad to know you can reduce your child's rebellion by giving him freedom to do his developmental work.

How much is he allowed to explore? To set his own pace? To feel in control of his world? To discover that he's a competent person? Can you appreciate his bids for independence without taking them as personal insults? Can you give up some control so he can develop some sense of mastery over his world?

Your baby is growing into her own person. Your challenge is to keep your sanity and keep her safe. Your best strategy is to cultivate a great relationship with her and enjoy her emerging independence. How?

  1. Cultivate empathy for your child. Kids begin to develop empathy (and therefore, the ability to play well with others) as they themselves feel understood. And it'll make you a better parent.

  2. Don't force her to share. Instead, encourage taking turns. Let her put her favorite toys away before another child visits.

  3. Allow time in your schedule for your toddler's need to explore the world. Rushing toddlers is one of the common triggers of avoidable tantrums.

  4. Use age-appropriate discipline: distraction, reasonable limits, redirection. Don't unwittingly teach your toddler that might makes right by spanking her. And if you yell at her, you're teaching her by example that tantrums are ok.

  5. Let your child be in charge of potty training. They all get out of diapers sooner or later. Fights with your child about his body are fights you will never win. If your child shows zero interest in toilet training, find opportunities for him to be around other kids who are using the toilet, and he'll quickly want to emulate them. For a step by step potty training plan, see my website, YourParentingSolutions.com.

  6. Sidestep power struggles. You don't have to prove you're right. Your child is trying to assert that he's a real person, with some real power in the world. That's totally appropriate. Let him say no whenever you can do so without compromise to safety, health, or other peoples' rights.

  7. Feeding is the toddler's job. You provide the healthy food. She feeds it to herself. Don't obsess about how much she eats; kids don't starve themselves. Many toddlers are too busy during the day to eat enough and ask for food at bedtime. Build a bedtime snack into the routine to help him sleep better.

  8. Forget about stimulating your child's brain by teaching her the alphabet. The intellectual work of toddlers is about talking and being listened to, observing the world, being accepted and validated. Emotional self-management lays the foundation for intellectual development. It's never too early to develop a love of books, if you want your child to love reading, then read to her and tell her stories.

  9. Pre-empt whining. Whining is an expression of powerlessness. It can become a habit. Try to avoid making whining necessary, and if it does happen, try to avoid rewarding it.

  10. Use routines. Kids develop self discipline partly by living in a safe, predictable structured routine where they know what to expect. When you disrupt routines with Grandma's visit or simply exceptions for your own convenience, you can expect tantrums, difficulty falling asleep, and other challenges. Grandma, of course, is worth it, but choosing disruptions wisely is part of protective parenting.

  11. Help your toddler feel more powerful by listening to her, letting her make decisions whenever possible, and giving her the opportunity to experience competence by helping you with simple household tasks.

  12. Minimize or eliminate visual electronic media. Sesame Street creates a watcher, not a doer, shortens attention spans, and starts an addiction in kids who are prone to it. When they're a little older, they'll flip on the TV instead of reading a book. Not to mention that you'll have stopped being able to monitor what they watch by the time they're eight. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not watch TV or videos at all because it impacts brain development. The AAP recommends that children over two watch AT MOST an hour daily of nonviolent, educational TV.

  13. Pre-empt tantrums. Since most tantrums happen when kids are hungry or tired, think ahead. Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, cozy time with you, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation -- whatever it takes to stay grounded -- prevent most tantrums. Learn to just say no -- to yourself! Don't squeeze in that last errand with a hungry or tired kid.

  14. Try to handle tantrums so they don't escalate. If your kid does launch into a tantrum despite your best preventive efforts, stay calm. He needs to know you're there and still love him, even if he won't let you touch him. Don't try to reason with him. Think about what you feel like when you're swept with exhaustion, rage and hopelessness. He needs to know that you're in control, and as soon as he's ready, you'll help him recollect himself. Afterwards, take some reassuring "cozy time" together, but don't give in to the original demand that prompted the tantrum.

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com