Ahh, toddlers. You’ve got to love them. Toddlerhood is actually my favorite age of childhood, because it’s a time of such huge growth. One of the most notable changes happening during this phase is child’s desire to be independent… the child’s desire to do things their way.
Wanting to do everything their way, along with other major cognitive and social gains creates the perfect storm for negative behaviors (like screaming, hitting, biting, saying “no”) to rear their ugly head.
All toddlers go through this phase to some extent or another… it’s how they are trying to figure out their place in this world. Two and three year olds test the limits to find out how much control they have over their environment.
Toddlers don’t yet have the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. They can’t really comprehend that other people have competing goals and motives that differ than their own.
Because of this, there needs to be a systematic way of addressing toddler behaviors. They need to feel safe and supported, and over time, learn how to calm down, regulate themselves, and listen to their parents.
Here are 5 easy steps to take when dealing with negative behaviors in toddlers:
Step 1: Redirect
This is always my go-to first step when I see a toddler engaging in an annoying (but not dangerous) behavior. Much of the time, toddlers just need a new suggestion or idea to change their actions into something more productive.
For example, if they are banging blocks on the table loudly you can say, “Let’s try building a tower.” If they respond positively to your suggestion, you probably don’t need to do anything further. If they don’t respond or keep up with the behavior, then it’s time to move on to Step 2.
Depending on the severity of the behavior, I may skip this step and go directly to Step 2 (or Step 3 if the behavior is serious or done out of anger).
Step 2: Say What You See
Saying what you see is a powerful tool in shaping toddler behavior.
“I see you are using running feet. Please use walking feet.”
“It looks like you are feeling frustrated, do you need a hug?”
“You really wanted the blue cup, and I gave you the red cup. That’s disappointing.”
Try getting down on their eye level, and telling them exactly what you want them to do. Always try to frame it in a positive way. For example, instead of saying “No yelling,” say “Use an inside voice please.”
Step 3: Take a Break to Calm Down
If your toddler is having a hard time, then the next step is taking a break. This is NOT a “time-out.”
In a “time-out,” children are expected to basically “pay the price” for their negative behavior. They are expected to sit for a specific amount of time as a punishment for their actions. This is a form of “love withdrawal” which can make your child feel a threat of abandonment.
Remember that toddlers are little people who are just learning – they do not need to be “punished.” Punishment assumes that the child understands what he/she is doing, and has full control over their actions.
If you’ve ever seen a toddler meltdown, it’s quite obvious that the child is not in control over their emotions. Our goal should always be to help the child regulate themselves, not punish them for what they are not yet developmentally capable of doing.
Taking a “break” is completely different from “time-out,” philosophically. Taking a break means that your child has a certain place that they can go to calm themselves down and recollect until they are ready to try again. There’s no time constraint.
The goal is NOT for your child to “learn their lesson.” The goal is for your child to learn how to calm themselves down. You can sit with them, modeling appropriate calming strategies like taking deep breaths. Once your child is calm, you can give them the opportunity to try again and be successful!
Step 4: Talk About It
Even though toddlers don’t always have a huge expressive vocabulary, they understand almost everything you say. After a child is able to calm down, talk to them about their behavior.
Say “I asked you to take a break because you were throwing your toys. Throwing is not safe. Are you ready to try again?” The calmer you are, the more beneficial the interaction will be for your child.
If you child has hurt someone else, make sure to have them follow up and “check on” that person. Teach them to approach the other person and see if they are okay, and offer to help. To read more about how I foster empathy through conflict resolution, visit the post: “Why I Don’t Make My Child Say Sorry.”
Step 5: Repair the relationship
Children feel ashamed and disconnected after having a meltdown, so it’s important to let your child know that you aren’t still mad at them. Remind your child that you love them no matter what, and that it’s your job to keep them safe and to help them learn.
Offer a hug, so they can feel close to you again.
Most importantly, express that you believe in their ability to do the right thing next time. Smile and say, “Next time I know you will remember to not throw your toys.”
Your child needs to know that you believe in their desire to listen and cooperate. Always hold your child in a positive light! When you do, they will learn to think positively about themselves as well. Remember, above all else… the child that FEELS better, BEHAVES better.
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