Last week, D started a part-time Montessori program, and loves it already! She is excited to go see her teachers and friends (and class fish!), and is happy when I pick her up later in the morning. As all transitions do though, this new start has stirred up some big emotions at home. She is clearly working through a lot, and it has resulted in less sleep and a few more tantrums at home. I know this will pass, but in the meantime I’ve been reading back over my favorite books and remind myself how to deal with some of these big feelings and reactions. I figured some of you might be going through similar transitions as school starts back up, or just have a toddler who acts like a toddler! ;)
I don’t like to call the twos “terrible” because they really aren’t. Yes, toddlers can be very difficult but it’s only because they are figuring out how to be their own little people. I think our attitude about our children plays a huge role in how we react to their behaviors. I know that it helps me to remember just how much growth and development is happening in their brains and body, and how much they need our love, respect, and understanding right now. I can better deal the toddler ‘tude when I remember it isn’t coming from a malicious intent, but rather figuring out limits, exerting their autonomy, and figuring out their place. At the same time, none of us are perfect, and we will all occasionally react in ways we don’t feel proud of when we are tired and frustrated ourselves. Cut yourself some slack and remember there’s always next time.
Below are ten ideas and strategies I try to implement in almost all cases of toddler behavior, from tantrums to refusing to cooperate to throwing or hitting. Maybe one or two will resonate with you too!
Provide a “yes space” - The more freedom a toddler has to explore and play, the happier they are. If we constantly have to tell them “no”, they will say it right back to us. Child-proof your house as much as possible and choose your battles. Save the “no’s” for when they are about to touch the hot stove, rather than dumping tupperware out of the drawer. Sometimes we all just need to get outside, which is usually a giant “yes space”!
Embrace the big emotions - Toddlers experience emotions in extremes, and there isn’t much we can do to change that. Rather than try to fix it, give in, or tell them “it’s okay”, let them feel their feels. It can help to wait until they are calm to try to have a conversation. Simply offering a hug or a safe space is best when they are in the middle of a tantrum, while you let it ride out. Then when they are a bit calmer, you can address the issue if needed.
Acknowledge and empathize - Toddlers can get frustrated or scared about the strangest and most trivial of things. It is tempting to laugh or get annoyed, but I find it’s helpful to think about how it feels for them. The more we get down to their level and acknowledge how they’re feeling, the better they will feel. Acknowledging and labeling feelings also helps them work through their own emotions.
Redirect - Often toddlers need to get energy and frustration out and the only way they know how is to throw, hit, or bite. If they are throwing dishes or hitting a friend, we have to let them know that’s not okay while still giving them opportunities to release that energy and feeling. I might say something like “I am not going to let you throw that toy towards your brother. I need to keep both of you safe. If you’d like to throw, let’s throw these balls into the big basket instead.” It’s helpful to be matter of fact, while stopping the unsafe behavior.
Be a Confident Leader - This is one of the most important tools. Janet Lansbury talks about this a lot, - how toddlers are constantly testing us to make sure we are in control. They don’t actually want to be in charge; they want a calm and loving, but authoritative (NOT authoritarian) leader. When we feel out of control, they feel scared and more out of control. Being a gentle leader means setting clear limits ahead of time, such as how we behave at the dinner table. It also means setting consequences that we can actually follow-up on rather than empty threats. An example is, “when you throw your food, that tells me you’re all done with lunch” (and then end the meal). We can always offer another chance later.
Give them Autonomy - Finding opportunities for a toddler to do things themselves, e.g. pick out clothes, serve their own snack, wash their own face, gives them that sense of independence that they so deeply crave. Offering limited choices is a great way to give toddlers some autonomy, e..g choosing between using the potty or brushing teeth first before bed. (Just be careful that your choices aren’t “yes/no” or you will almost always get a “no” in response.)
“Do” rather than “Don’t” - This is a trick I learned from working at a Montessori school. We would always ask the children to “use walking feet” rather than “don’t run”. Phrasing requests or questions in a positive rather than negative way makes children much more agreeable and sounds less nagging. Another example is “let’s use quiet voices” rather than “don’t yell”.
Make Time Tangible - Time is a very tricky concept for toddlers to grasp. Telling a toddler “5 more minutes” doesn’t really mean anything to them. Instead, try saying something like “two more runs down the slide until we get in the car” or “one more book until bedtime”. The important part is to follow through on whatever limit you set! It’s even more helpful to have consistent routines throughout the day so that your toddler knows what to expect (this comes before that) without you always having to remind them.
Be Real - Sometimes when we are really frustrated, the best thing to do is to say so to our toddler. It’s okay to say to a toddler, “Mommy is feeling very frustrated and needs to take a break." Walking away from an intense meltdown (when possible) and taking some deep breaths is great modeling for your toddler. We want to show them that we all have feelings and there are strategies, such as breathing and movement, to deal with them. Additionally, you will be able to come back and react in a more calm way if you’ve caught a breath first.
Be Playful - The book “How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen” is good at highlighting this. I don’t find it always works to actually get a toddler to do something, but it never hurts to lighten the mood and get us both out of a negative space. An example of this can be in offering two choices - “Do you want to walk or gallop like a horse to the car?” Another way to get a toddler out of a grump is to play music, sing and dance around, or do yoga together!
My favorite books on the topic are:
Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen
No Bad Kids by Janet Lansbury
How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber
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