If ever there was a test of a parent's patience, it's when your complicit baby learns that they have choices and becomes a trying toddler. Suddenly the baby that would eat anything that you put in front of them refuses any and every food you offer. Your baby that used to squeal with delight during bath time now screams and cries when its time to get in the bath and then again when its time to get out.
As a parent, you may be feeling a combination of emotions, including overwhelmed, anxious, and uncertain because you have no idea how to manage your baby's newfound independence and personality. As a new mom to a toddler, I found myself losing my cool with my daughter often. I didn't feel comfortable with the lack of patience that I was feeling for her. I knew that she was just being a kid rather than testing me because she maliciously wanted to take over my role as matriarch of the house!
I grew up in a household where getting "popped" or spanked was the norm when we misbehaved but I didn't want to replicate the type of discipline that my parents used with my daughter. Compelled by an intuitive feeling that there had to be a better way and desperate to get rid of the feelings of frustration I was having on a regular basis, I reached out to different parenting groups I belonged to as well as searched online for solutions for my toddler woes.
There are multiple approaches out there and like with everything else related to parenting, you have to do what works best for you and your family, These are the strategies that I found to work best to bring balance back into my home.
The first thing I learned was to try to find the source of the behavior. Typically if your child is acting out, it's because they need something. 90% of the time, when my daughter went completely berserk on me, it was because she was hungry, tired or she needed a diaper change. While it would be wonderful if my 19-month-old daughter could come up to me and tell me she wanted to go to sleep, needed a snack, or pooped her pants, that simply was not the case. As a result, I had to become a master at paying attention to signs of pending distress and knowing her patterns.
Not every baby may be on a schedule but you generally have an idea of how long your child can be up before getting tired, how long they have between meals before they get hangry or how often their diaper changing needs. Picking up on these cues and beating them to the punch saved me a lot of frustration and headache. Even on the days when I wasn't able to pick up on these cues, being able to rule them out as the cause of her behavior made me more sympathetic towards her tantrum than annoyed.
Sometimes my daughter acted up its because she was asking me to rein her in. Those were the times when she would look at me dead in my eyes as I was telling her not to do something and do it anyway. This was infuriating and my first instinct was usually anger. I had to modify my approach so that instead of getting angry, I gave her what she wanted. I set a boundary.
If your child is doing something that they shouldn't be doing, rather than repetitively tell them to stop doing it and getting irritated when they don't stop, stop the behavior for them. Kids watch what we do more than what we say. If we start to sound like a broken record of empty threats, that is exactly how they would perceive us. The same way you wouldn't respect the words of a boss who threatened you about being late constantly without there ever being any real consequences, our children feel the same about us. Mean what you say and follow up with action and not words. Consistency is also huge. Lack of consistency causes confusion for them. If a particular action really is a no-no, it should always be a no-no and not just when it's convenient.
Sometimes kids are just being kids. We get frustrated with our kids for doing what they're supposed to be doing because we have unrealistic expectations that they should be more mature. We have to reset these expectations for what is and what isn't acceptable behavior from our children. Putting our children in adult situations and expecting them to act like adults isn't fair to them. We shouldn't completely alter our lives for our children, but we do have to make some alterations.
For example, you don't have to stop going out to dinner because you have a kid, but you will find that your night out is a lot shorter. You'll also find that you'll look for restaurants that are more kid-friendly or at a minimum, visit the restaurant during hours when they're not super busy. You'll set expectations for your child that they'll sit and eat dinner when it comes but understand that they don't have the attention span to sit through three courses.
Sometimes your toddler is just acting out because they're human! They have bad moments and bad days just like us. They have emotions like feeling helpless because they have so little control in their lives. Going against our will isn't so much an act of defiance as it is a cry for control.
While these suggestions have helped me tremendously, they are no magic solutions. They take a lot of work and there are times and days where I'm still frustrated and the countdown for bedtime begins as soon as she wakes up. Tantrums still happen. Sometimes just because she can't get her way and other times because I've missed a cue. Implementing these strategies has made me feel better equipped to prevent meltdowns from happening as well as less anxious and uncertain when they do happen. They've made me feel more confident as a parent overall.
If you're looking for resources for setting boundaries for your toddler, please see the recommended reading list below.
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, Janet Lansubury
Your Self-Confident Baby, Magda Gerber, Alison Johnson
No-Drama Discipline, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. & Tina Payne Bryson, PhD.
On the web: JanetLansbury.com, RegardingBaby.org, MagdaGerber.org, TeacherToms-Blog.blogspot.com