While gathering information for articles about toddlers, I have discovered desperate posts like this on the Internet: "Two-year-old for sale. Cheap!" Raising little ones can be very hard!
In order to parent children under 3, adults need to accept the challenging parts that come during this time (along with the super-cute parts). Toddlers will yell, throw, bite, kick, break things, climb things, fling food into the air, keep you awake or get you up VERY early. They don't care if you need them to brush their teeth, stay in their beds or get out the door on time. They can only see to the end of their cute noses -- everything revolves around them and belongs to them.
It is not surprising, then, that the most common complaint I hear from parents of toddler is, "HELP! My toddler is driving me crazy!" or, "I'm frustrated All. THE. TIME. Please make it stop."
Raising a toddler can really bring out the worst in us and grow feelings of desperation and exhaustion. We all know how incredible, funny, and endearing toddlers are so let's assume that while I talk about the challenging parts, I'm not forgetting these qualities.
First, we need to acknowledge that the toddler years can sometimes:
• Require a massive amount of energy
• Be mind-numbing
• Turn you into a broken record
• Bring out the most intense anger a person has ever felt
• Be a strain on your marriage
In order to thrive with a toddler, we need to understand how we might be inadvertently creating tension or growing some negative self-talk in the child's mind, which can elevate anger, exhaustion and disconnect for both parent and child. This usually happens when we are trying to manage our toddlers while they are breaking things, hitting, fighting us when we want to get them out the door, not wanting to eat, refusing to use the toilet when they obviously need to, crawling out of their beds or having a complete meltdown.
Our parenting challenge is how we respond to toddlers when they aren't doing what we'd like them to do. In this respect, one of the most frequent questions I receive is, "How do you discipline a toddler?" My answer to that is, "You don't really -- you teach and connect with a toddler."
There is a serious consequence to using harsh discipline with toddlers, as sobbing mothers of "rebellious" teenagers will attest to, which is that negative core beliefs might be planted. These negative beliefs, and their associated negative self-talk, can really hold a person back throughout his or her lifetime.
A toddler does not have the rationality to understand why they are being shouted at, spanked, timed out or belittled for following their natural instinct to explore and push the limits. Little ones take any harsh action by another person as his or her fault.
The reason physical punishment isn't the best choice with toddlers is that when toddlers are disciplined this way, they can go into a defensive mode. The focus of the brain goes on intense feelings rather than thinking clearly. They might stop spilling their drink if they get shouted at each time, but they also might develop negative self-talk that they are incompetent.
For example, using cups with lids and a straw until they are old enough to be aware of their surroundings and their elbows takes one battle off the field and can reduce anxiety. Then you can take time to train the child how to use a cup when they are able. "Are you ready to try using a cup? Let's see if you can remember to see where your cup is and to not hit it with anything. Why don't we put it in front of your plate?" The child will LEARN how to have space awareness, not be AFRAID they can't do anything right.
Along with learning how to not inadvertently be too hard on your toddler, the two most important skills for parents during this time are:
1. Your ability to reduce your exhaustion.
2. Your ability to calm yourself when your child is freaking out, which I wrote about in this post.
When you are rested and calm, you are more able to be rational -- which is really the biggest thing you can do to help yourself during the toddler years.
Need some tricks to improve toddler cooperation? Here are my suggestions for things to do instead of using punishment with young children:
Do not pose instructions as a yes/ no question. "Do you want to put your shoes on?" will often get a reply of "NO!" Use an "it's time to..." statement. "It's time to put your shoes on."
Do not use the word "OK" when giving instructions. Throwing "OK?" with a high-pitched tone turns your instruction into a yes/no question.
Try using races (if your child likes that). "Let's see if you can get into your car seat before I count to 10!"
Be creative and/or gross with everyday tasks. For example, "There's a fire in the potty! Who can put it out?!" Sound effects and silly faces are extra cool.
No surprises! Announcements like, "OK, it's time to go," may result in an hour of yelling. Use transition signals and warnings.
Find a way to give directions in a way that doesn't feel coercive. Instead of "Wash your hands," try, "everyone with clean hands can sit down to eat."
Invest time in them. Your child needs your undivided attention more than anything else. Undistracted, on-the-floor time (cell phone/computer/TV off) every day will help form a secure attachment.
Routine, routine, routine. A predictable order of things at a consistent time reduces yelling. Ask her to help you create a morning or bedtime routine and then make a chart using simple drawings to post on the fridge.
Reduce compromisers. Take care of hunger, sleep needs and overstimulation.
Get used to being a broken record. It might take hundreds of repeats of "Hitting is not OK. Let's hit the chair instead when we feel full of anger." These directions will eventually sink in.
Toddler-proof the entire house. The more thoroughly you toddler-proof your house, the less you will have to convince them to not climb on, pull down, or get into things that will hurt them.
NEVER say "HURRY UP!" This will make your child slam into slow motion. There is a deep instinct in all of us called counterwill. If a child feels he has lost control, he will be compelled to do the opposite. Try hard to not be in a rush yourself.
Don't ask your child to stop yelling. He is yelling because he is likely angry or scared. Give him a safe place to get it all out. Yelling into pillows, sweaters or his elbow allows him to resolve his feelings.
Learn to support your child through a tantrum. Stay nearby, calm and quiet while your child is melting down. Have a tantrum management plan, responding the same way each time freak outs occur.
Try not to take it personally. Even if you feel more equipped to handle fits of yelling, they still might be difficult to go through. Try saying this to yourself during these times, "This child is not trying to hurt me. This too shall pass." I also found it helpful to do slow, long breathing.
I do provide free parenting resources on my Facebook page so I welcome you over there to learn more, ask questions and cheer each other on.