It seems like only moments ago that you were holding a cuddly, helpless baby in your arms. Now, suddenly, that little bundle of joy is toddling about the house, reaching, grabbing, and loudly declaring “No!”
Welcome to the next phase of parenting.
“The time of parenting a toddler is the most labor-intensive time in your parenting journey,” says Barbara Desmarais, a parenting coach based in Vancouver. But it’s also one of the most important. Toddlers are combining their language, body, and reasoning skills, and applying them to a world made broader by their ability to get around on their own. That means they’re getting into problems (little ones, you hope) and developing problem-solving skills on the spot.
How do you help them, and keep yourself from going completely crazy?
Desmarais makes a critical point: Be prepared. “All toddlers will throw a tantrum at some point. Get educated on what to expect, and be prepared to prevent the worst of toddler behaviors before they happen.” Why do they melt down? Your toddler may seem radically independent compared to the baby you rocked to sleep, but she is still very limited. Even the chattiest toddler will melt down when frustrated by her lack of language skills. Your best strategy to prevent tantrums is to make sure she’s well-fed and rested. When the meltdown comes (and it will), keep calm. Don’t add to it by raising yourvoice or handling your child in anger.
“Your job as the parent is to set the agenda,” says Dr. Mayra Mendez, program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. She emphasizes a gentle but firm parenting style. During infancy, you made all the decisions for your baby, but now he can make some of his own. But that doesn’t mean he is in control, no matter how much he seems to want to be. Help him make simple choices, says Mendez. “You don’t want to offer him the whole ice cream store, but you can say, ‘Would you like vanilla or chocolate?’”
“You have to say things at a level children can understand and that helps them narrate the world,” explains Dr. Mendez. “‘Good job’ means nothing. When you praise their accomplishments, be descriptive.” That means if your child strokes the cat gently instead of grabbing its ear, point that out by saying, “See? You touched her softly, and she didn’t run away. Now you and kitty are friends!” Those descriptive words help your child frame her actions. You’ll often find your toddler repeating your very words when she repeats the action on future occasions.
Not every interaction you have with your child is a teaching moment. Sometimes you’re too tired to think through what your kid might get out of the situation. In those situations, sometimes a change is all that’s required. “If he’s doing something he shouldn’t do,” says Desmarais, “pick him up and distract him with a toy.” Taking the risk of seeming to reward bad behavior is sometimes worth it just to push the reset button. Dr. Nekeshia Hammond is a psychologist and founder of Hammond Psychology & Associates, P.A. She suggests making that distraction a choice as well. For example: “No, you are not allowed to touch this lamp, but you can play with your toy or read a book with mommy.”
“Kids, and adults actually, tend to learn best when there are natural consequences for their actions,” says Ben Michaelis, Ph.D. and author of Your Next Big Thing. “So in situations where these consequences can be achieved without significant pain or injury, parents should consider allowing the natural learning process to occur.” Permitting natural consequences is an especially good strategy for older toddlers. For example, if your child is playing outside, it begins to rain, and she doesn’t come in when called, she will be uncomfortably wet and realize she should have listened.
“Parents should be consistent in administering whichever consequence they have decided upon,” says Hammond. No matter how many times your little one performs the same misbehavior, you must repeat the same consequences. This dance can get tedious, but like all of your child’s phases, it will pass before you know it.
This article was originally published on Healthline