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 and 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 because I knew that she was just being a kid and not 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 necessarily 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, but these are the strategies that I found to work best to bring balance back into my home and make the relationship that I have with my daughter the best its been since she's been born.
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 Sydney goes completely berserk on me it’s because she’s hungry, she’s tired or she needs 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’s simply not the case and I have 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 and their diaper changing needs. Picking up on these cues and beating them to the punch can save you a lot of frustration and headache. Even on the days when I'm not able to pick up on these cues, being able to rule them out as the cause of her behavior has made me more sympathetic towards her tantrum than annoyed.
Sometimes Sydney acts up its because she’s clearly asking me to rein her in. These are the times when she looks at me dead in my eyes as I’m telling her not to do something and does it anyway. As a parent, this can be infuriating and your first instinct may be anger. My approach is that rather than getting angry, give her what she wants. 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. When Sydney first learned how to climb, she wanted to climb any and everything. I wanted to encourage her growth in this new skill but didn’t want her to get hurt. This became an issue when she would try to climb a chair that wasn’t sturdy. I initially tried to stop the behavior by giving her a sturdy stool to climb on instead but she had zero interest in the stool and wanted to continue to climb the chairs. I found myself threatening to take away the chair many times before realizing that I sounded like a broken record and I stopped taking my words seriously, which meant that she did too. The next time she climbed on the chair and I told her not to, I gave her one warning before I did what I said I was going to do…take away the chair. I had to repeat this on two or three separate occasions, but eventually, she got the memo that mommy meant business and if I said don’t do something, I meant it. 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 key and 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 Sydney was exhibiting a certain behavior because she was just being a toddler and it was me as a parent that needed the adjustment. As parents, we have to reset our 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. I don’t believe that we should completely alter our lives for our children, but we do have to make some alterations. My husband and I dined out often before having Sydney and while we don’t go out as often as we used to, we try to make it out for either dinner or brunch once or twice a week. When Sydney was really little, she was often strapped to one of us and was just content to be outside. Now that she’s mobile, meals out often mean that one of us is chasing her around while she runs back and forth and tries to make friends with the other diners. We didn’t completely alter our lives because we didn't become hermits and we still go out and when its time to eat, we make it known to Sydney that she has to sit down and eat but before and after dinner, our expectations are that we’ll take turns running back and forth with her as she explores her new surroundings.
Sometimes your toddler is just acting out because they’re human! They have bad moments and bad days just like us. Or maybe they’re feeling helpless because they have so little control in their lives and their 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 not 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 from her nap! She still has tantrums, sometimes just because she can't get her way and other times because I've missed a cue but 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 and 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: