Jennifer, a 40 year old mom in New Glasgow, N.S., recalls having to add on 30 minutes of prep time when she had to go anywhere with her daughter, Natalie, now three. She figured it was a small price to pay for co-operation and a peaceful outing without meltdowns. “Giving her lots of warning before we were going out or leaving somewhere was (and still is) essential,” she says.
That’s not totally unusual in young children, says parenting expert Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist specializing in discipline from toddlers to pre-teens and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids (Wiley, 2009). What we call “misbehaviour” stems from the child’s solution to attaining fulfillment of some basic needs, says Schafer. She explains that many parenting challenges in the early years relate to attention-seeking behaviour and control issues. Things get sticky when toddlers figure out creative approaches to address those needs.
First, kids need to feel a sense of connection and belonging, says Schafer. If they can’t find that through positive interaction with you, they’ll try negative, attention-seeking behaviour. After unsuccessfully asking you to play and tugging at your pant leg, they find that feeding Cheerios into the DVD player gets you over in a flash — and voilà mission accomplished.
Another big need is to feel empowered, which you may recognize as that single-minded determination to completely ignore whatever you say to do or not to do. Power struggles arise because toddlers like to have a sense of control over themselves. That means craving predictability. Despite their freak-outs, toddlers are actually accepting of rules and limits — they just need to know what they are. Setting these standards early on for them, although it seems easier to cave, will certainly help pave the path for better behaviour as they grow older, Schafer assures parents.
Here are some stay-cool strategies you can try next time you’re about to lock horns with your little one:
SAY IT ONCE
There’s nothing more ineffective than making idle threats and repeating them. “Say it once, mean it, and then follow through,” suggests Schafer.
IGNORE THE BEHAVIOUR
“Ignoring, distracting and redirecting tactics are all great for addressing attention-seeking behaviour,” says Schafer. It’s important, though, to ignore the behavior and not the child, she adds. For example, if your toddler has resorted to taking dirt out of your planters, you might ask him to help you in the kitchen with counting out baby carrots for supper.
USE “WHEN” AND “THEN” STATEMENTS
You can turn a negative notion, like saying “No, you can’t go outside because you don’t have your jacket on,” into a positive proposition: “When you get your coat on, then I know you’re ready to go outside and play.”
“Time outs can be appropriate sometimes but I think they’re overused,” says Schafer. “I prefer to say, “Are you going to calm yourself down, or do you have to go? Oh, it looks like you have to go.” You don’t have to banish him to his room. He can just sit off to the side, at the end of a couch, she says.
Asking them to make a decision, such as “Which shirt would you like to wear, the yellow or the green?” is about sharing power as opposed to dominating them, says Schafer.
It pains your heart to see your little one wearing a wool sweater on a hot day, or breaking a favourite toy after you advised him against whipping it down the stairs. “But the best tool you have sometimes is to let them make mistakes,” says Schafer. “Experiencing consequences, not the threat of consequences, is what works.”
MAKE “NO” LESS NECESSARY
Reduce the need to say “no” by creating a child-friendly environment with minimum roadblocks. “Put up baby gates to rooms you don’t want them to enter; put away the Royal Doulton,” suggests Schafer. You avoid a battle of wills when you don’t have to say things like “stop” or “don’t” as often.
COMMON SENSE CONSEQUENCES
The consequence needs to be logical — don’t take away a treat because of misbehaviour with a toy; take away the toy. Schafer adds, “Consequences should be respectful, related and revealed in advance.”
DON’T CALL THEM “BAD”
You really have to separate the deed from the doer. “It’s the behaviour that’s bad, not the child. A child that feels good will do good,” insists Schafer.