Top 10 Strategies for Dealing With Toddlers
(This post does contain affiliate links. If you click the link and purchase the item, I do receive a small commission, but the thoughts and opinions are my own, as always.)
In my earlier post, I discussed 7 things that toddlers wished that you knew. In this post, I will discuss strategies to actually DEAL with them on a day to day basis. I have used ALL of the strategies I am about to discuss! Toddlers are tough, or they were for me. They are so cute and babyish, but not babies. They are often defiant, impulsive, and explosive! Some days, they just know which of your buttons to push to drive you absolutely nutty!
I mentioned a book in my earlier toddler post called “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” by Dr. Harvey Karp. (affiliate link) If you are at the end of your rope and you want more in-depth advice than what this blog post offers, by all means, I recommend checking out that book. Several of the strategies that I am about to discuss were inspired by that book, but I can honestly say, I field tested all of them!
1. Relate to their feelings first, and parrot back to them what they said.
We all want to be understood. As adults, we love it when someone actually listens to us and we feel like they understand us, not just that they waited for us to finish speaking so they could reply. Toddlers want to be understood too!
Imagine if you were upset and you were talking to your friend. Let’s say that you told your friend “I have had SUCH a bad day! I woke up late this morning, my kid missed the school bus, I had to take him to school, and then I got home and I realized that he left his lunch at home, so I had to go BACK to school. On the way home my toddler threw up all over the car, so I once I got home I had to give her a bath and clean the car seat and her, and then I needed a shower. I put all the dirty clothes in the washing machine, but now the washing machine is not working!”
Let’s look at these two responses from your friend:
- Oh, girl, that’s nothing! Let me tell you about this bad day that I had one time…..
- Oh, my! It sounds like you really did have a bad day. You woke up late and missed the school bus, so you had to take your son to school, and then realized he had forgotten his lunch so you had to go back to school, and then your daughter threw up in your car? Oh yuck. That is just the worst feeling when you hear them start and can’t do anything about that! And your washing machine is broken too?? Ugh. Talk about bad timing!
Which response would make you feel more understood? Which response makes you feel like your friend really “gets” it? If I was picking, my answer would be B. It reflects the feelings and it parrots back to show you that your friend was really listening to what you said; not just simply waiting for you to stop talking so that she could respond. Your toddler needs that too! As an additional bonus, when you practice this with your toddler, you also convey another important idea: respect.
2. Use short sentences.
I am not sure if I should label this one as #2 or #1B because this point and the previous one go hand in hand. When you acknowledge their feelings, they are usually upset or very well on their way to being upset. I talked a little bit about this in my previous post that when their emotions run high, their speech patterns and speech recognition run lower. In the “Happiest Toddler on the Block” book, (affiliate link) Dr. Karp refers to this as “Toddler-ese” language. You use short, repeating phrases and you mirror a little bit of your child’s emotion.
For Example: Let’s say that your toddler wants to brush her own hair. She is CONVINCED that she needs to brush her own hair, but today is picture day and you need her to look nice.
Toddler: “No! I do it! I do it, I DO IT”
Mom: “Mad, mad, mad! (reflection of feelings) Jane says I do it, I do it, I do it! She wants to brush her hair.”(parroting back what she said)
“Jane wants to do it herself.”
Toddler: *calmer* “Yes. I do it!” (feeling understood)
Mom: “Jane wants to brush her hair herself,(again, reflecting feeling) but Mommy has to help this time. (statement of what will happen on parent’s part) Let’s take turns! (compromise) Mommy brush, then Jane brush, then Mommy brush.”
3. Catch them being good.
Oh, back to my old friend, positive reinforcement! Toddlers hear “no” a lot. They get into all kinds of things and let’s face it; us grown-ups are total sticks in the mud! I mean, unrolling all the toilet paper? What’s not to love about that?! Or, what about making “snow” and spreading baby powder all over the floor?! That sounds fun too! No wonder they get frustrated! Their “job” is to explore and grow. One of our jobs as parents is to put limits on that exploration to keep them safe and to teach them acceptable behavior and not acceptable behavior.
One of the things that I found most effective was to catch them being good and point it out. There are numerous ways to do this. Some of my favorites are:
-Putting a checkmark on their hand with a pen. It rubs or washes off easily, but at the end of the day when you are putting them to bed, go through each check mark and discuss what was done to earn it. ( I will issue a bit of a warning. My kids absolutely LOVED this one! However, it also caused a fascination with pens and drawing on themselves. I had to be extra vigilant to keep the pens up out of reach, otherwise, my little darling would attempt to give themselves all kinds of fun checkmarks!) Alternatively, give stickers or put a pom-pom in a “being good” jar. Just as long as it is something they can visually SEE and be reminded at the end of the day what they did to earn it, it should work.
4. Be their personal sportscaster.
This is a great strategy that makes your toddler feel like you are really paying attention to them. It can also work mid-tantrum to get them to come out of it.
For example: “ Mad, mad, MAD! Ben is SO mad! His face is getting very red. He is clenching his fists. He is crying and screaming now that he’s so mad. Now he is kicking his feet in the air.” Odds are, they will stop for a minute when they hear you sportscasting their every move. Then it is YOUR turn to talk.
Now, they are in a more receptive state and you can say your piece. “Good stopping Ben. (praising the desired action) I know you don’t want to leave the park right now. (Acknowledging his feelings again) I wish we could stay all day! (granting the wish in fantasy) But right now it’s time to go home and have a snack. What kind of a yummy snack do you think we should make at home? (Distraction! Make that bouncing from activity to activity work in your favor!) Should we have apple slice or oranges? (Giving 2 choices, both of which are acceptable to you).
There are actually several techniques used in the example above, and I will get to them in a little bit, but on the sportscasting, you can also use it when your child is just playing. My oldest son especially loved this as a time in. He just wanted me to watch him play and pay attention to what he was doing. “The digger is powering up and moving towards the block building. He is moving his boom up, up, up! What will he do to the blocks? He smashes into the blocks with his powerful bucket! The building is destroyed! What amazing demolition!”
We all know what time-outs are. Time-ins are the opposite. They are when you give your child attention for a certain length of time. For a few minutes, focus exclusively on them. It can be reading them a book, it can be sportscasting their play, it can be playing with them, or letting them help you do something. The idea here is that you give your child exclusive time with you. There will be times that they have to wait. There will be times when you are busy and you can’t do what they want. Time-ins can be a great reward for waiting.
5. Let them choose.
Toddlers LOVE making decisions. It makes them feel big and important. It makes them feel like they have some control. The trick to this is to let them choose some small things, but LIMIT their choices. Of the choices that you set, let either one be acceptable. In the above example with leaving the park, Ben got to choose what kind of a “yummy snack” they would fix at home. He could choose apple or oranges. Both are healthy snacks and were acceptable to his mother.
Sometimes, though, toddlers do not like being limited in their options. Sometimes they will test the limits and say “I don’t want apple or oranges! I want bananas!” If that’s acceptable to you, you can say ok. If they say something like “I don’t want apples or oranges, I want candy!” and it is NOT acceptable to you, then you can redirect. “Candy is not an option. You can choose apples or oranges. Would you like an apple or an orange for a snack?”
If they still persist, then you can say “Candy is not an option. You can choose either apples or oranges, OR I can choose if you do not want to.” Again, if they persist. “I want candy for snack!!!” Then you say “Ok. You have chosen to let Mommy choose. I choose apples. We will have apples for snack today.” It will not take very many repetitions of this until they learn that they are limited to the choices that you have stated.
6. Be goofy.
Toddlers LOVE it when adults act silly! This is probably one of the things that you can do that will generate the most laughs out of them. It also helps build their confidence, and helps to fill their emotional “bucket.” When their emotional “bucket” is full of good things, they are less likely to have meltdowns. The same can be said for adults and their emotional buckets. We ALL do better when they are full of good things.
7. Clap, clap
When your toddler is intentionally ignoring you or what you have told them to do, try clapping instead of yelling. This gets their attention and it lets them know that you mean business. For myself, I liked clapping, because often it preceded “no-no!” when I was mad. The clapping gave ME a productive outlet for my frustration.
8. Pick your battles
Your child is not a perfectly molded child who will always do everything you want. Sometimes, especially in toddler-hood, you have to pick your battles. If something is not all that important, and you can live with it, then let it go. You have to decide what “battles” are worth fighting and which ones will not amount to a hill of beans. For example, with my sons, I could not stand for them to grab on to my legs and hang on.
I was usually trying to go somewhere, and I found it dangerous because I thought I would wind up falling on them, or falling into something else and hurting myself. That one, I was pretty firm on. However, if my son really had his heart set on going to the store dressed up as a transformer, ok. In the grand scheme of things, what does it hurt if someone sees a little kid dressed up in a costume walking through a store? Nothing. You might get some amused looks, but that’s about it. You will still get the mission accomplished by getting what you need at the store.
(My husband, however, thought that the boys hanging on to his legs was adorable! He had the strength to walk with them wrapped around his legs. They loved going for fun “rides” on Dad’s feet. They quickly learned that this was ok with Dad, but not with Mom. )
9. Timeout the right way
This is a popular discipline tactic, but to be effective, it has to be done correctly. 1) Timeout immediately after the offending behavior. If you wait to discipline the child then they will not know why you are disciplining them. Tell them no *insert name of wrong behavior*. Then place them in a designated time out spot. Don’t wait too long, though. I have read that timeout minutes should equal the child’s age. So for a 1-year-old, that means 1-minute MAX. Put on a timer (so that you don’t forget! I have forgotten my child in time out a few times. It did nothing to help, it just made them more fidgety. oops.)
When the timeout is over, walk over to them and sit down beside them, so that you are on their level. You calmly say “Time out is over. You were in time out because…” and then go over (briefly) why you put them in timeout. Then when it’s over, move on. We all make mistakes. We move on from them, not by dwelling on them, but by moving forward.
10. When you are at the end of your rope, take a breath and give them a hug.
This one comes from the REAL expert: My Mom. The fact that I am still alive is living PROOF that this works! (ha!) Sometimes, despite our best efforts, despite all our reading and good intentions, we still have hard days. There are times that our patience runs out and we are completely frazzled. Sometimes, Momma needs a timeout, but can’t take one. Some moments come when your toddler has done ONE MORE THING and pushed your buttons one too many times. When you are about to snap, take a breath.
Look down at your little one. Look into those big eyes that look up at you with love and admiration. Go down to one knee, and wrap your arms around them. Tell them that you love them. Hold them tight for a few seconds and let that hug wash away your frustrations. Let them wash away and feel the LOVE that you have for your child and that your child has for you. Remember when they were born and the soft feel of the new baby skin on yours, and the scent of their baby hair. Take another breath, and laugh if you can at whatever they have managed to get into this time.
As the last word, remember that this stage will not last forever. Remember the good times. Write down all the sweet and funny stuff that they say. Laugh at things when you can. Take pictures and videos. Things that are aggravating at the time, will make for some great stories later. In my experience, grandparents are really good at this. My boys have a sandbox at my parent’s house. My youngest son especially LOVES the sandbox. He plays in the sandbox, he pours sand over his head, he gets it all over his clothes and in his shoes. Instead of restricting sandbox use, my parents just told me to bring a change of clothes over for him.
He has a change of clothes at my parent’s house. When he gets dirty, they laugh, they enjoy the moment, and then they change his clothes and give me the sandy ones to wash. He has all sorts of sandbox toys. He loves playing with the diggers and sometimes dumps it out of the sandbox. They may make him put the sand back from time to time, but they let him be a kid and enjoy the sandbox.
They cherish the memories that they are making. When you are a Mom, it is harder to do that, I know. But once that time is gone, it’s gone. They are only Toddlers for a few years. Count your blessings. Put checkmarks on your OWN hand if you need to in order to help remind you of the good parts of the day. They are not little for long. Sometimes a little perspective goes a long way to save your sanity.
If you would like a more in-depth look at some of these strategies or have found them helpful and would like to try others “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” (affiliate link) was the book that really saved my sanity when mine were little.
Edited: Jan 18, 2018 for better readability and Search Engine Optimization