Toddlers get a bad rap, but let's face it—they can be terrors! Understanding and empathizing with this challenging child development phase is the key to navigating it. Here are three common toddler challenges and tips for fixing them.
During the toddler years, your child will grow by leaps and bounds, learning new skills like talking, putting on and taking off his clothes, and the biggie—toilet training! Toddlers struggle to master problem-solving skills. They're also eager to do things independently without help from Mom and Dad. Combine all that, and you've got a challenging period in child development for any parent to navigate!
The article, Toddlers and Challenging Behavior: Why They Do It and How to Respond, sums it up realistically: "Toddlers do not understand logic and still have a hard time with waiting and self-control. In a nutshell: Two-year-old's want what they want when they want it."
Keeping your toddler's developmental stage in mind makes it easier to see things from her point of view. She wants to break away and do things herself. She needs opportunities to explore, express, and grow into her own little person. But that doesn't mean she won't need your guidance!
Here are three examples of everyday toddler challenges and the fix on how to turn them around so your toddler can still come into his own while learning to follow rules.
Challenge #1: Hitting another child
After five years of infertility, one of the experiences I longed for after I finally became a mom was to hang out with mommy pals and enjoy the quintessential playdate. During those long years of waiting to get pregnant, I daydreamed of hosting a weekly gathering where I'd serve creamy flavored coffees and homemade muffins while our little darlings would play nicely with age-appropriate developmental toys. My pipe dream was perfect until our first playdate finally happened, only to have my new mom friends decline my fattening muffins as we watched my two-year-old punch one of our guests because she wouldn't share her dollhouse.
Our first playdate finally happened, and my new mom friends and I watched my two-year-old punch one of our guests because she wouldn't share her dollhouse.
My husband and I were soft-spoken, gentle beings (mostly) who tried to be thoughtful role models. When we saw our daughter haul off and hit innocent playdates for no apparent reason, we were mortified and concerned. Thankfully, we learned this was a common occurrence in the world of toddlerhood.
In Teaching Toddlers Not to Hit, Catricia Tilford, MD, a board-certified pediatrician, explained that toddlers don't have much control over their emotional impulses and are still developing language skills. "Also, toddlers are egocentric," she said. "They treat their peers like objects and have little empathy." She went on to say that toddlers are capable of learning that hitting is unacceptable well before they truly understand that it's hurtful.
The Fix: Apply the TEACH tool
At this point in their development, toddlers don't have coping skills to deal with a feeling such as frustration when they see a peer playing with a toy they want to have. They lash out with physical reactions like hitting to defend their territory.
Years ago, I stumbled upon an excellent acronym for dealing with toddler defiance, mainly hitting. Instead of scolding your toddler for hitting, TEACH him why it's wrong and how he can make a kinder choice.
- Take a minute to breathe and observe the situation. You want to enter the scene in a positive, calm state, not an angry one. Don't use shame or guilt to make your child feel bad about what she's just done. Gather yourself for a few seconds so you can model a calm reaction to your child's action of hitting.
- Engage and empathize with his feelings. Get down on his level while making eye contact with him. Be non-confrontational. Say something like, "You must be mad you can't play with the same toy your friend was playing with." This is to help him appropriately express his feelings and words. When you model a question about why he just clobbered his playmate, you're teaching him a new tool—to figure out his emotions (anger, jealousy, annoyance) and focus on those, rather than the action of impulsively hitting.
- Acknowledge and validate his feelings. This step is essential. Most parents want to go straight to punishing, but this doesn't address the underlying reason your child hit in the first place. Find out what his need is. Was sharing difficult? Were you holding your new baby while he was trying to get your attention? Even at this early age, he needs to know how to handle his uncomfortable feelings.
- Connect, and Problem Solve. Use kind words and physical actions like a hug. Ask your child to consider how their actions affected others. "Our friend is looking a bit sad; how can we help?" Don't use a threatening tone. Make it a learning moment.
- How can we help foster a positive outcome next time? Maybe he was stressed or had to navigate a new situation, which led to hitting. Talk to your toddler about this. Say something like, "Next time you're feeling upset, maybe you can ask your friend to trade cars with you. Or maybe I can help you find something else to do while you wait." Let him know it's okay that he made a mistake this time, and it will get more comfortable next time, but that hitting isn't the way to solve the problem, and you're there to help him.
Challenge #2: Throwing toys or objects
Spending a leisurely afternoon with your toddler in the yard blowing bubbles, playing tag, or throwing a bouncy ball back and forth is a blast. Sitting in your family room while your child hurls a toy at your head is a different story.
No parent wants to have to dodge a wooden block their toddler just chucked at them, but you can take some comfort in knowing this is normal toddler behavior. Your sweetie pie is learning the lesson of cause and effect and is eager to see what the result will be. That's also why she just flung her fork through space ... with a meatball attached.
- Set boundaries with toy time-outs
- Show her what toys can be thrown (balls, beanbags, frisbees) and where this can happen
- Remind her about which toys are not meant to be airborne
Designate a toy time-out box for toys and items your child throws inappropriately. Have him help you put the toy in the box and put those away for the rest of the day.
This step will only be useful if you're consistent. Each time your toddler throws a toy, calmly assert the toy timeout rule so your child sees that you mean what you say. If you bend the rule, your toddler will keep testing you!
Remember the TEACH tool. Figure out why your child threw a toy and help her understand that her emotions are important and valid but her actions have consequences.
Challenge #3: Saying "No" all day long
Your child's first words are like music to your ears—"Mama," "Dada," "bye-bye." Communication is a marvelous milestone and cause for celebration. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, those sweet expressions can turn from cute to daunting when a new favorite word enters his vocabulary—"No!"
"Put your coat on; it's time for school."
"Please finish your milk so we can get ready to go shopping."
Out in public, those "no's" get louder and more frequent.
"You need to sit down in the carriage."
Good news—like the other toddler behaviors I've mentioned, this is a normal and healthy part of growing. Dr. Rene Spitz has done extensive research on child language and development and says that when a toddler expresses himself with the word "no" it's an important part of his growth and development. In Why toddlers say "no!" so much – and why it can be a very GOOD thing, he shares:
'No' shows that a child is starting to see the world more clearly with concepts like yes, no, or I am, or I am not. They recognize that they can be independent of their parent or caregiver.
Saying "no" is your toddler's way of letting you know she has her own needs and ideas. That doesn't mean you have to be bulldozed by dozens of his "no's" all day long.
- Offer choices, but not too many. Two options are more manageable for your tot to process. If bedtime is a hassle and he won't put on his PJs after a bath, ask him if he wants to wear the green jammies or the blue ones? Now he has some control over the situation. If he persists with "no," let him know that you'll help him decide.
- Look for opportunities to say "yes" to your child whenever possible so he feels you're paying attention to her needs and wants. Maybe your son wants to play carwash with his matchbox cars. (Better than throwing it at you!) Your instinct is to say, "No, that's too messy." Instead, why not let him sit in the tub with a bowl of water and a washcloth. He'll have fun, and the mess will be contained in the tub.
- Catch them doing good. My long-time favorite strategy is to focus on your child's good choices and behaviors. Let them know when they've done something you're proud of! If your daughter doesn't hassle you when it's time to get her shoes on for school, praise her efforts. "Wow, you were so speedy this morning putting on your shoes. I love that you were ready before mommy!"