Toddler, by definition, are not easy. They are just beginning to grasp the importance of their newfound mobility and they use it to explore their surroundings. They are still prone to exploring through all of their senses – touching everything in sight and placing everything small enough into their mouths. They have found speech and the word, “No,” allows them to assert their independence. For any parent, a toddler is a challenge, but for the single parent, they can be pure trouble after a long day at work and no relief in sight. So how can we deal with toddlers in a way that allows them to discover their world and their abilities without driving ourselves mad and/or damaging their fragile egos?
The first thought to keep in mind is that your toddler’s goal is not to defy or disrespect you. Truthfully, they are too young to understand these concepts. They are driven by curiosity and the need to develop their own sense of personal self. When they tell you, “no,” they are testing their limits and objecting to your attempts to change what seems to be logical to them. Their desire to touch, to taste, to experience is natural. As parents, we need to understand that if we don’t want things broken, we should box them up for a time or place them where they cannot be reached (and cannot tempt little children to try to reach!). Expecting your toddler to behave at the level of an older child is not logical.
Toddlers learn quickly through natural consequences. Now, this does not mean that you should allow your toddler to touch a hot stove or play in the street! What is does mean is that when they are unwilling to pick up their toys, they may disappear (for a time). “I told you that your toys would get lost if you did not put them away.” Often you do not have to do anything to allow natural consequences to take their course. “If you leave your toy in the kitchen, Fido will chew on it.”
Watch for good behavior and praise it! It is very easy to find the behaviors in young children that require us to speak the words, “No”, “Don’t” or “Stop.” But how often do we pay attention to the behaviors that warrant the words, “Good job”, “Well done” or “Thank you”? It is human nature for negative behaviors to catch our attention easier than positive behaviors. Talk to anyone in Customer Service and they will tell you that the ratio of complaints to compliments weighs heavily to the complaint side. Young children want your attention and they will get to a point, if they don’t get enough of it, where they do not care if it is good attention or bad attention. Look for the good and praise it often to avoid frustrating temper tantrums and caustic behavior battles.
Create a schedule for your young child that allows for choices within a structured environment. Children need structure. They need limits. They need direction. Bedtimes and bedtime routines are excellent examples. If, after dinner, a child is bathed, read a story or allowed to watch a favorite program, and then put to bed with wishes for sweet dreams every night, then they will not question that bedtime is a normal structure in their life. However, if they are kept out late a couple of nights each week, allowed to watch additional shows because you need them to be distracted and/or meal times fluctuate frequently and/or drastically, they will not develop a concept of bedtime and will eventually begin to object based upon their experience. This is not to say that occasional exceptions cannot be made! However, exceptions should be few and far between if you want your child to understand that there are rules and schedules that govern his/her behavior.
Teach self-control instead of shame. When a child throws their blocks out of anger or hits in frustration, do not tell them that they – or even the behavior – is “bad.” Instead, explain to them that you understand their anger/frustration and that all people – even mommies and daddies – feel that way sometimes. Then show them ways that they might use to deal with their anger/frustration that are acceptable to you. Some parents of hitters find that if they allow their child to go to their room and hit the pillow on the bed, it releases the pent-up anger without doing damage to anything or anybody. Another found that allowing the child to run around the back yard until the anger dispersed taught him to release the anger through physical activity that does not hurt anyone. One therapist who helped me with the anger issues of my oldest suggested that, since she was a thrower, she might go out into the back yard, near the edge of the woods, and through rocks at the trees. (Mind you, this must be accomplished where there is no danger of people, animals or property being damaged by a misplaced missile!) Shaming a child damages their self-esteem; learning appropriate behaviors gives them a sense of self-confidence.
This is a sensitive time in your young child’s development. They can learn much that will aid them in life through the ways they interact with other and their own self-discipline. What they learn is dependent upon what we teach. Take your time and teach them well. You will be given this opportunity only once.