I put some feelers out on Instagram to get an idea of what you all would like to read about, and many of you mentioned tricky toddler issues. I feel ya! We are definitely dealing with toddler ‘tude these days, and I know there’s only more to come. I wish I had all the answers myself, but I think everyone struggles with this one. I know it’s much more difficult for me to deal with Dakota’s tantrums than it was with other people’s toddlers as a teacher! But I do appreciate having the Montessori background to reference during these times.
When Dakota was just entering toddlerhood, I wrote this post, so you may find some helpful tips there, as well as our general positive discipline approach. Six months later, some issues have resolved and mostly they have just changed. So I’ll address a few of the tricky behaviors we are seeing at home, and how we are approaching them. In addition to my Montessori education, my husband and I try to follow ideas from the book Positive Discipline: The First Three Years, as well as Janet Lansbury’s work, especially No Bad Kids.
Clinginess and Separation Anxiety
Dakota has always been a mama’s girl and loves physical contact, but starting around 15 months, she developed major separation anxiety and clinginess, even sometimes at home. While I know this is developmentally normal (it typically peaks between 14-20 months), and I’ll miss these snuggly days when she’s older, it can still be difficult to deal with. I know I need my own space sometimes for me to stay sane as a stay-at-home mom, and I’m sure many of you do too! I also think it’s important for her to have confidence in her own abilities, without always holding my hand.
At home, I find the best way to encourage her independence is to set up her environment in a way that promotes autonomy. For example, her toys organized and accessible, her dishes in her small kitchen, and water for her to pour and drink independently. That way, she learns she can take care of (some) of her needs without my help. Even so, sometimes she wants to cling to me at home. When she does this, and I’m available, I give her the one-on-one time she craves. We spend 15 minutes or so reading and snuggling or prepping food together. Then I transition to separate time.
Often after that, she’s more open to playing by herself for a bit (sometimes that means stacking tupperware from the kitchen drawer rather than using toys from her shelf which is fine by me!). I make it clear that I have to work/tidy/sweep for a few minutes and that I’m not available to play right now. She isn’t always happy about this at first, but usually once I start the task I’m doing, and she can still see me, she finds something to occupy herself. (Note: sitting on the couch on my phone does not count!) I don’t stop her from standing close to me and observing, or standing at the kitchen helper when I’m cooking, but I do set limits on picking her up or her being on me during these moments, because sometimes I just can’t! I think it’s important for her to learn this boundary, and that sometimes we have to wait a little bit for what we really want.
As for separation anxiety when we are out or when I am leaving, this is just a part of who she is right now. I know Dakota is usually going to have a hard time going somewhere new and/or watching me leave, and that’s okay. I accept her feelings and let her know I see them. I try to make her more comfortable with new people and situations by talking her through it and staying together as she eases in. But when it’s time for me to leave or step away, I confidently and concisely tell her so, and that I’ll be back soon and that I love her. Although it may seem better to sneak away when they are distracted, I know from working with toddlers in a classroom that it only confuses and upsets them more more. So I always say goodbye and kiss her and she often cries out, but stops once I’m out the door. Most importantly she sees over and over that I always come back. That is what really matters! This phase won’t last forever.
Throwing at Mealtimes
This is an issue that seems to come and go throughout the infant and toddler years. Over the past month, Dakota has gotten in a habit of throwing her glass (or similar) off the table. It started on vacation, when her routine and environment were all mixed up, and unfortunately it’s continued since we’ve been home. My knee-jerk reaction is often to react with emotion, but it helps me to remember that it’s that exact reaction she’s hoping for, and isn’t helpful right now.
The best way I’ve found to stop the throwing is to catch it before it happens. Sitting down with her at meals helps me to pay attention to signs that she’s all done, not hungry, and possibly ready to throw. Sometimes just giving her that focused attention can prevent attention-seeking behavior, sometimes not. When I see signs she’s done eating I ask her if she’s all done and often she signs it back to me. If she says or signs “more”, I give it a little more time but keep an eye on it because sometimes she still throws. If I can, I stop the throw with my hand and say “I can’t let you throw your glass” before it happens, but I’m not always fast enough.
If she does throw her glass, I tell her “It looks like you’re all done. You can tell me “all done”. We don’t throw glasses. Let’s clean it up”. I take her out of her chair and have her help me wipe up the water or pick up the glass. I try to keep my reaction neutral rather than scolding. I want her to simply understand that there are natural consequences to throwing, e.g. mealtime is over and she will need to clean it up, I tell her we can try again later. Sometimes she gets pretty upset when I remove her from the chair, but this passes fairly quickly too. I let her snuggle if she needs comfort and we usually are able to move on without too much drama. The more consistent we are, the better. Toddlers thrive on us being firm, consistent, and loving. Not that it’s always easy!
Note: throwing is a normal toddler behavior, and throwing can be useful for getting out pent up energy. It can help to redirect throwing to things like balls in a basket at home!
Big Emotions & Tantrums
We all know that toddlers have big emotions and strong opinions. I like the quote from Positive Discipline (linked above): “The very same qualities we want for our children as adults can make life challenging when they’re young.” So true! The irony is depicted well in the cartoon below. We don’t need to take the passion out of the toddler, we just have to help them learn how to work through it in an appropriate way. I myself feel big emotions sometimes, and I want Dakota to be able to feel all her feels too, from the high highs to low lows.
The low lows can be really hard though. I know Dakota often melts down when she’s overtired, hungry, or hasn’t had a chance to exert her independence in a while. There is almost no way I will budge her nap or bedtime because of this. Yet even in seemingly perfect circumstances, even when choices have been offered and tummies have been fed, tantrums happen. Often when she doesn’t get something she wants. When they happen at our house, I first give Dakota a chance to feel the feels. (If this is out of the house, I would probably remove her from public situation first). I stay close by and help her identify her emotions, e.g. “I see you are frustrated/sad/angry because….” Sometimes we don’t know why they are upset and we don’t have to make up a reason for them. I don’t say much while she’s upset, but I offer her a hug when she’s ready for it.
Once she’s calmed down, we might read a book or play together for a bit. Importantly, I don’t give in to whatever it was she wanted when the tantrum began. Limits are important for toddlers. When she’s a bit older, I’ll discuss more with her, but at this age, too many words can be confusing, especially after the event has passed. I do try to teach her strategies to deal with feeling upset. One of my favorite board books for toddlers is called Calm Down Time, so we read that together sometimes. Yoga is another great way to provide calm-down strategies for toddlers! It has also helped to give her words/signs to use when she needs something such as “help”, “eat”, “up”, and “please”.
Those are some of our tricky toddler behaviors and strategies for dealing with them! I am sure some of you have similar issues and others of you have entirely different ones. Feel free to reach out! I’d love to do a part II. ;)