The year between the ages 2 and 3 is an exciting one. Toddlers are realizing that they are separate individuals from their parents and caregivers.
This means that they are driven to assert themselves, communicate their likes and dislikes, and act independently (as much as possible!).
Toddlers are also developing the language skills that help them express their ideas, wants, and needs.
At the same time, toddlers do not understand the logic and still have a hard time with waiting and self-control. In a nutshell: Two-year-olds want what they want when they want it.
This is why you may be hearing things like “no” and “I do it” and “no diaper change!” more than ever before.
ABC’s of behaviour management at home
To understand and respond effectively to problematic behaviour, you have to think about what came before it, as well as what comes after it. There are three essential aspects to any given behaviour:
Preceding factors that make a behaviour more or less likely to occur. Another, more familiar term for this is triggers. Learning and anticipating antecedents is a beneficial tool in preventing misbehaviour.
The specific actions you are trying to encourage or discourage.
The results naturally or logically follow a behaviour. Consequences — positive or negative — affect the likelihood of a behaviour recurring. And the more immediate the product, the more powerful it is.
The first step in a good behaviour management plan is to identify target behaviours. These behaviours should be specific (so everyone is clear on what is expected), observable, and measurable (so everyone can agree whether or not the behaviour happened).
An example of poorly defined behaviour is “acting up” or “being good.” A well-defined behaviour would be running around the room (wrong) or starting homework on time (good).
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Learning to Handle Strong Feelings
As a parent, your job is to help your young toddler navigate the tide of strong emotions she is experiencing this year.
This is no small task because the emotional lives of 2-year-olds are complex.
This year, they begin to experience feelings like pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment for the first time.
Older toddlers are a lot like teenagers. Their feelings may swing wildly from moment to moment.
They may be joyful when getting a popsicle and then despair when it drips on their hands.
So toddlers need your loving guidance to figure out how to cope with their emotions. Your child is struggling with this when:
- He has a meltdown when you can’t understand his words.
- She says no when she means yes (you are offering her a favourite treat)
- He gets so angry that he might throw a toy.
- She cannot settle for a substitute—if the purple pyjamas are in the wash, she is inconsolable (even though you have offered the pink ones, the polka dot ones, the ones with the cupcake patch on the front, etc.)
- He acts out when frustrated—will give up or get angry when he can’t figure out how to make the jack-in-the-box work.
Your child is learning to manage strong feelings when he:
- Uses words or actions to get your attention or ask for help
- He talks to himself in a reassuring way when he is frustrated or frightened. For example, he might say to himself; Daddy will come back after you drop him off at child care. Or, I can build this again after his block tower collapses
- Re-enacts a stressful event, like a doctor’s visit
- Uses words like I’m mad rather than throwing or hitting
- She tells you the rules or shows that she feels bad about breaking the rules. For example, your child might say no to herself as she does something off-limits, like opening the fridge. Or he might tell you at the park, Don’t walk in front of the swings.
When you see challenging behaviour, it usually means that your child can’t figure out how to express her feelings acceptably or doesn’t know how to get a need met.
What helps your child learn is when your response shows her a different, more constructive way to handle these feelings.
Learning to cope with solid feelings usually happens naturally as children develop better language skills in their third year and have more experience with peers, handling disappointment, and following rules.
Although children won’t wholly master self-control until they are school-age (and practice it all their lives!), here are some ideas for helping your toddler begin to learn this critical skill:
Talk About Feelings and How to Cope.
Read books and notice aloud how the characters feel: The dog is thrilled that he got a bone.
And share your feelings: I just spilled the baby’s milk. I feel frustrated! Will you help me wipe it up? Wow, it feels so good to have your help.
When your child can label how he is feeling, it helps him control his emotions and communicate them to others.
Once your child has named his feelings, you can suggest what he might do to feel better or solve the problem.
This helps him learn what to do in the future when he faces a similar challenge. For example, if he is sad because his grandparents just left after a 2-week visit, you can suggest looking at photos of them or drawing them a picture.
Offer Your Child Ideas for How to Manage Strong Emotions.
Young children need guidance when figuring out how to deal with big feelings like anger, sadness, and frustration.
So when your child is furious, validate what he is experiencing: You are angry right now because I said no more television.
Then suggest that he jump up and down, hit the sofa cushions, rip paper, cuddle up in a cozy area for alone time, paint an angry picture or some other strategy that you feel is appropriate.
What’s important is to teach your child that there are many options for expressing his feelings in healthy, non-hurtful ways.
Empathize With Your Child.
It’s okay to let her know that you understand that her choices are not the ones she wants.
Give Your Child a Visual Aid to Make Waiting Easier.
If your child has to wait until his oatmeal has cooled down, show him the steam rising from the bowl.
Tell him that you can test the oatmeal on a spoon when the steam goes away to see if it is cool enough.
If you need to help your child brush her teeth for 2 minutes each day, use an egg timer so she can watch the countdown.
Need 10 minutes to fold some clothes? Set a kitchen timer so that your child can keep track.
Timers are also great tools for helping children learn to share. Give them each a few minutes—using the timer—to play with a toy they both want, like the shiny new tricycle parked outback. It’s also helpful to state the obvious: It’s hard to wait sometimes.
Let Your Child Make Choices Appropriate to Her Age.
Some examples include what to wear (perhaps offer two choices), what to eat (within reason), what to play, and who to play with.
This gives her a feeling of control and supports her growing confidence and sense of competency (the belief that “I can do it”).
Offering choices also help head off the “Not That One” game where you keep offering your child different things, and he keeps saying, “Not that one, the other one!” Instead, try giving your child three choices and let him pick: You can have an apple, a string cheese, or a bagel for a snack. What sounds good to you?
Look for Ways to Help Your Child “practice” Self-Control.
There are many daily moments when you can teach your child this skill. For example, games that require turn-taking are great for practising how to wait and share. Rolling a ball back and forth is an example.
This game gives children the chance to wait and control their impulse to grab the ball. You can also take turns hitting a soft foam ball off a tee.
Or try acting out a story. Pretend play offers many chances to wait, take turns, and negotiate as children decide how the story will unfold.
Another idea is playing “sharing music”, where each of you chooses an instrument to play and sets an egg-timer for 1 minute. When the timer goes off, switch devices and set the timer again.
Pick Your Fights.
Battle your 3-year-old over every bad behaviour, and you’ll be at war all day. Instead, list the top few behaviours that bother you — because they’re dangerous, uncivil, or annoying.
For those you deem forbidden — riding a tricycle in the street or leaving the house without an adult, for example — set clear, specific rules and logical consequences.
Biting back, for example, is not a logical consequence for a child who bites because it simply teaches that the bigger person gets to bite.
A reminder of why it’s not nice to bite and a brief time-out in a boring place make more sense.
Always follow through on whatever discipline you decide on. Lack of consistency confuses kids and promotes rebellion.
For less serious misconduct — lying, not sharing, swearing — develop an overall policy, but deal with each case as it arises.
When your child feels tired, sick, or hungry or is facing stress (from a move or a divorce, for example), you need to be flexible.
Use your knowledge of your child to head off needless blowups.
If he likes to clean out the kitchen cupboards while you’re cooking breakfast every morning-and it drives you crazy-buy cabinet locks; if he can’t keep his hands off the VCR, put it far out of reach. Childproofing works wonders in reducing family feuds.
Also, plan if your child tends to be happy and energetic in the morning but is tired and grumpy after lunch, schedules trips to the store, and visits the doctor for when she’s at her best.
Prepare her for any new experiences, and explain how you expect her to act. To stave off boredom, pack a bag of toys or snacks.
Also, prepare her for shifting activities: “In a few minutes, we’ll need to pick up the toys and get ready to go home.” The better prepared a child feels, the less likely she is to make a fuss.
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If you cannot avoid bad behaviour, then face it calmly. Try to use a quiet, unruffled tone of voice and words that are neutral and positive.
And keep in mind that suggestions (“Why don’t you wash your hands now, so you’ll be all set to eat when supper’s on the table?”) promote far more cooperation than commands (“Go wash your hands at once!”) or criticism (“Your hands and face are filthy!”).
It also helps to turn “you” statements into “I” messages. Instead of saying, “You’re so selfish that you won’t even share your toys with your best friend,” try “I like it better when I see kids sharing their toys.”
Another good technique is to focus on do’s rather than don’ts. If you tell a 3-year-old that he can’t leave his trike in the hallway, he may want to argue. A better approach: “If you move your trike out to the porch, it won’t get kicked and scratched so much.”
Finally, make sure your tone and words do not imply that you no longer love your child. “I really can’t stand it when you act like that” sounds final; “I don’t like it when you try to pull cans from the store shelves,” however, it shows your child that it’s one specific behaviour — not the whole person — that you dislike.
Kids feel better when they know they have been heard, so whenever possible, repeat your child’s concerns.
If she’s whining in the grocery store because you won’t let her open the cookies, say something like: “It sounds like you’re mad at me because I won’t let you open the cookies until we get home.
I’m sorry you feel that way. The store won’t let us open things until they’re paid. That’s its policy.” This won’t satisfy her urge, but it will reduce her anger and defuse the conflict.
Explain Your Rules.
It is rarely apparent to a 3-year-old why he should stop doing something he finds fun — like biting, hitting, or grabbing toys from other children.
Teach him empathy instead: “When you bite or hit people, it hurts them”; “When you grab toys away from other kids, they feel sad because they still want to play with those toys.” This helps your child see that his behaviour directly affects other people and trains him to think about consequences first.
Offer choices. When a child refuses to do — or stop doing — something, the real issue is usually control: You’ve got it; she wants it. So, whenever possible, give your preschooler some control by offering a limited set of choices.
Rather than commanding her to clean up her room, ask her, “Which would you like to pick up first, your books or your blocks?” Be sure the choices are limited, specific, and acceptable to you, however. “Where do you want to start?” may be overwhelming to your child, and a choice that’s not acceptable to you will only amplify the conflict.
When you want your child to stop doing something, offer alternative ways to express his feelings: say, hitting a pillow or banging with a toy hammer.
He needs to learn that while his emotions and impulses are acceptable, specific ways of expressing them are not.
Also, please encourage your child to think up his options. For instance, you could ask: “What do you think you could do to get Tiffany to share that toy with you?” Even 3-year-olds can learn to solve problems themselves.
The trick is to listen to their ideas with an open mind. Don’t shoot down anything, but do talk about the consequences before a decision is made.
For moments when reasoning, alternatives, and calmness have no impact, use time-outs:
Please send your child to a dull place to sit for a brief period and pull herself together. This gives you both a chance to cool down and message that negative behaviour will not get your attention.
The less you reward any negative behaviour with attention, the less your child will use that behaviour to get her way.
Admit Your Mistakes.
Be sure you let your child know when you’ve goofed by apologizing and explaining why you acted the way you did. This will teach him that it’s okay to be imperfect.
It’s doubtful that your child will always do whatever you say. If that happened, you’d have to think about what might be wrong with her!
Normal kids resist control, and they know when you are asking them to do something they don’t want to do.
They then feel justified in resisting you. In cases in which they behave appropriately, a prize is like a spoonful of sugar: It helps the medicine go down.
Judicious use of special treats and prizes is just one more way to show your child you’re aware and respectful of his feelings. This, more than anything, gives credibility to your discipline demands.
Creating Effective Consequences
Not all consequences are created equal.
Some are an excellent way to create structure and help kids understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. In contrast, others have the potential to do more harm than good.
As a parent, having a solid understanding of intelligently and consistently using consequences can make all the difference.
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