Toddlers learn the limits by testing them. It is normal for toddlers to assert their developing independence by saying no or ‘escaping’. This doesn’t mean you will thwart their development by setting limits. In fact, now is the time to gently lay the foundations of discipline.
Keep expectations realistic. Toddlers don’t understand concepts like hurry, tidy and wait, and taking turns or sharing depend on developmental readiness, not parental demands. Keep teaching, but be patient.
Notice the good things. Toddlers like to please the people they love, and they delight in attention. Comment positively and give hugs when you notice good behaviour and you will get more of it.
Mind your tone.
Your voice affects the atmosphere and your child’s willingness to listen and comply, so please don’t plead, nag or shout. Instead, try to be calm and positive. Take a few deep breaths if your buttons are being pushed and make requests without sounding like you are attacking: ‘Blocks are for building’ (not throwing); ‘Tables are for eating at’ (not climbing); ‘We only bite food’ (not people). You may need to physically redirect a strong-willed child (read, scoop him off the table and offer a diversion) as you speak calmly but firmly.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings.
Different parts of the brain are involved in emotions and speech, so being able to express his feelings in words (rather than physically) will take a few years and developmental readiness. However, giving your child words and showing him he is being listened to is likely to minimise physical aggression. When little ones feel understood and, later, can talk about feelings, it is easier to release pent-up stress without resorting to kiddy violence.
Give clear instructions.
Telling children what you do want is more effective than telling them what not to do – ‘Hold my hand,’ is better than ‘Don’t run on the road.’ And ‘Use your spoon,’ works better than ‘Don’t eat with your fingers.’ For some reason, little ones only seem to hear the actual request, not the ‘don’t’ that comes first. Even a one-year-old can follow very simple instructions if you present these clearly with lots of repetition. You will also need to demonstrate what you want and set a physical boundary. For instance, you can say, ‘Safe, safe,’ to your twelve-month-old as you turn his body so he learns to go down steps backwards rather than headfirst. Later, you will just have to remind him with words as you supervise. A toddler of eighteen months who is a little ‘escape artist’ will need to have his hand held as you tell him to ‘hold hands’. If there is a threat such as a busy road, always take the initiative of holding your toddler’s hand as you give an instruction, whatever his age.
Children learn the rules more quickly when there aren’t too many of them: the more you say no, the less effective it becomes. And if we keep changing our minds on the little ‘nos’, kids learn not to take us seriously on the big ‘NO!’ Make the environment as safe as possible, so that no can be saved for things that really matter. And be sure to follow through: if your resistance is low and you know you will probably give in to a request, it is better to say yes in the first place, than to change your mind for peace.
Say yes more than no.
Your child is a mimic – too many ‘nos’ could have a little tike whose favourite (and most powerful) word is no. When your child asks for a biscuit, instead of saying no you could try, ‘Yes, after dinner.’ Or instead of, ‘No TV,’ try, ‘We can watch TV when all the toys are packed away.’
Create a diversion.
Divert your toddler from potentially harmful or dangerous situations (or things that simply drive you bananas) by giving her something more acceptable to play with. For instance, if she likes to fiddle with TV knobs, remove her from the vicinity and try offering her a torch to switch off and on. If she is fascinated with photos in frames, give her some photos of special people or pets in empty CD cases. If she jumps on the sofa or bed and this is against your household rules, provide an acceptable jumping place, such as an old mattress on the floor or a trampoline outside.
Offering choices helps your child to become a decision-maker and think for himself. This helps develop self-esteem and enlists cooperation. Don’t, however, offer open-ended choices or your child will be confused. Above all, make sure the options you offer suit you! Instead of asking, ‘What do you want to wear?’ say, ‘Would you like to wear your red shirt or the blue one with cars on?’ Or, at snack time, ‘Would you like a banana or a pear?'(this way, there is no room for him to request junk food). And, when you are out and he is getting feisty, ask, ‘Would you like to ride in the stroller or hold my hand?’
It is better to prevent trouble than react angrily later. For instance, put folded washing out of sight if you don’t want it thrown out of the basket or tracked around the house, and prevent precious things being broken by banning ball-throwing inside and keeping the balls outside.
Try to see things from your child’s perspective. If your little one is engrossed in an activity, perhaps give her a bit longer to complete her game or give her a few minutes’ notice before you zip her off to go shopping, call her inside for dinner or scoop her up for a bath, for instance.
Think of ‘mistakes’ as opportunities to teach your child to make amends.
Instead of yelling or muttering under heavy breath as you clean up an accidental mess, try to problem-solve by saying, ‘The book is torn, how can we fix it?’ or ‘Oops, the milk spilt. If I get the sponge, can you help me wipe it up, please?’ This way, instead of seeing himself as a klutz or naughty or thinking that Mummy or Daddy will fix things when he mucks up, you are teaching your child to take responsibility for his mistakes.
Practise what you preach.
If you expect good manners, use them yourself. If you expect children to pick up their toys, put your own things away. Children learn best by imitation – the good and the bad!
Create a safe, child-friendly environment.
It is much easier and less stressful to care for a toddler in a childproof home and backyard that caters to his needs for exploration and play. Remember, little explorers move very quickly, have limited impulse control and absolutely no sense of danger. So, if you don’t want the cat covered in Vicks VapoRub, the car painted or a trip to the hospital, please store everything you don’t want explored safely out of reach (from precious breakables to medicines, cleaning products and garden tools).