1. DON’T: RESPOND IN ANGER
You’re wasting your time and making things worse, according to toddler wrangling expert Ann Richardson. Ann, who is a specialist nurse practitioner, parent coach, and author of Toddler Sense (2011, Metz Press), explains that toddlers who are “misbehaving” are too caught up in the emotion of the moment to take in anything, so it’s best not to react in anger no matter how angering their behavior may be. “Try to take a big breath and stand absolutely still or turn your back and walk out of the moment,” she suggests.
2. DON’T: HIT
“This will only teach your child that hitting is a way to behave and to resolve conflict,” stresses Ann (see “To smack or not to smack” overleaf for more on why it’s not a good idea).
3. DON’T: ENGAGE IN CONFLICT
A back-and-forth “fight” between you and your toddler is never productive. “Remember, you are the adult and your child is looking to you for boundaries and guidance,” says Ann.
4. DON’T: EMBARRASS OR HUMILIATE
This can be anything from shouting at him, dragging him out of a shopping mall, or imitating his tantrum. That doesn’t mean you have to stand by and do nothing, notes Ann. Only that you need to act in a calm, non-aggressive way: for example, instead of dragging him out, carry him out calmly and talk to him gently while doing this.
5. DON’T: BRIBE
A bribe is rewarding your child for stopping unacceptable behavior (for example, “If you stop screaming I’ll buy you an ice cream”). It’s a bad quick fix that will cause problems in the long run. As Ann explains: “Bribing teaches children that there is always something for something, no matter whether they have been ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”
But be careful not to confuse bribing with rewarding your child for positive behavior using methods like star charts and bean jars. This type of incentivization is a positive and effective discipline tool, especially among older toddlers/preschoolers who better understand delayed gratification.
6. DO: LAY DOWN THE GROUND RULES
Children need clear, firm boundaries in place in order to feel secure, so don’t be shy to lay down the law! Child and educational psychologist Anel Annandale believes it’s important not to have too many rules to obey otherwise children get confused, so try not to exceed 10. “Keep the rules simple and discuss them with your child regularly so that he knows what to expect and also what is expected of him,” she advises. “Also make sure that everyone involved in raising your child – from grandparents to nannies – knows firstly what the rules are and secondly what the consequences are for disobeying the rules.”
7. DO: ENFORCE THE RULES
Consequences need to be implemented every time and immediately, stresses Anel. “Telling a toddler that he will be disciplined later in the evening for a rule disobeyed in the morning has no impact. Even if you stick to your threat and discipline the child later, he will have forgotten about his unacceptable behavior earlier and will feel that you are being cruel and unfair,” she explains. “He is also likely to continue with this unacceptable behavior in the future as he has not fully made the connection between his actions and the consequences for these.”
8. DO: BE AUTHORITATIVE
“Be the voice of authority: it makes children feel safe,” says Ann. Being authoritarian, however, isn’t helpful. What’s the difference? Authoritative means you set clear boundaries and are consistent in reinforcing them, but you are also compassionate, supportive, and empathetic to your child’s needs and emotions. Authoritarian means what you say goes, no matter what. Think of it this way: authoritative means guiding your toddler down the right path; authoritarian means marching your toddler down it, military style.
9. DO: POSITIVE ENCOURAGEMENT
Toddlers like to feel important, helpful, and proud of their achievements, so you’re going to get a lot more out of praising positive behavior than zooming in on the negative. It also helps to phrase instructions positively by telling them what they should do as opposed to what they shouldn’t do. For example, say “Show me how you stroke the cat softy with gentle, golden hands” as opposed to, “Don’t be so rough with the cat!”.
10. DO: ENSURE A GOOD EATING & SLEEPING ROUTINE
Being tired, hungry, or sugared up can have a huge impact on your toddler’s mood. Sticking to a healthy balanced diet and a regular sleep routine can head off temper spikes. “Avoiding sugar is a good idea,” suggests Ann. “If you don’t buy the junk then they won’t expect it, because they haven’t seen you buy it, store it or offer it.”
11. DO: LEARN TO SPOT OVERSTIMULATION
Overstimulation is one of the big reasons children have meltdowns. If you know what your toddler’s overstimulated signs are (such as ear pulling, eye rubbing, irritability, whining, and aggression), you can remove her from the situation before she reaches the tipping point. “Each child has a unique personality – you can’t change that,” notes Ann. “But you can change the way you help her to manage her world.”
12. DO: CREATE CALM SPACES
Ann says she has seen time and time again how having a calm, safe space to go to when your toddler’s feeling overstimulated can bring his temper down from boiling point to room temperature. Here’s where a time-out can come into play. Used correctly, a timeout is a tool to help your toddler calm down and self-regulate his emotions. It’s also one of the few discipline tools that provides a good alternative to a smack while giving the parent a chance to calm himself or herself down.
13. DO: VALUE THEIR EMOTIONS
Having a full-blown meltdown because you pushed another child on the swing may seem ridiculous to you, but remember that your toddler’s emotions are very raw, real, and powerful. Always value the intensity of his emotions and don’t scold or punish him for simply having negative emotions such as jealousy or anger.
14. DO: EMPATHISE
Try to understand what your child is feeling and acknowledge that feeling (“I know you are cross right now”). However, Ann cautions against confusing empathizing with excusing unacceptable behavior – the two are not the same and you need to make this clear and follow up with the consequence. For example, “I know you are cross right now, but that doesn’t make it okay to hit your sister. You need to have a time-out now.”
15. DO: IGNORE TANTRUMS
“Easier said than done, I know,” sympathizes Anel, “but every time you react to your child’s tantrum, be it by giving in or by becoming upset yourself, you are reinforcing this behavior.”
“Rather stay calm, look at your child and say in a sweet, low voice ‘Honey, I can’t understand you when you scream like that. Once you have calmed down I will listen to you,’ and then simply walk away or carry on with what you were doing,” she advises. “Your child will probably scream even louder the first few times, but eventually he will begin to realize that he is simply not getting any reaction from you and will abandon this method of attention seeking.”