Toddlers are HARD work! They have just figured out that they can make their own decisions and suddenly they don’t want to do anything you ask them to. They are impossible to please and their feelings are ALL OVER the place!!!
These are my top 10 tips to help you navigate the toddler years while keeping your sanity and avoiding daily tantrums.
1. To avoid meltdowns and tantrums when you have to leave the park, finish playing a game or activity give your toddler a warning before having to stop the activity. One warning won’t be enough. Let your toddler know they have 5 minutes left, then 2 minutes, then 1 minute, 30 seconds and do a final 10 second countdown. If you are at the park you might say “You have five minutes left before we need to leave. What do you want to play on for your last five minutes?”. Continue to give the rest of the countdowns after that. Don’t expect a toddler to respond well if you tell them to stop something without any warning. If you do this you are likely to encounter some toddler rage!
2. Don’t ask your toddler questions!! Toddlers will answer most questions with “NO”. It’s their way of showing their independence and learning that they can make choices. This is developmentally appropriate behaviour but it can leave us feeling frustrated. Instead of asking your toddler questions like “do you want to get dressed?” offer choices between two different things. “Do you want to put your pants on first or your top?” or “Do you want to pack up the cars or Lego first?”. At all costs avoid asking your toddler if they want to do something because they will just reply “no” and then this can lead us to try and argue or negotiate with a toddler. As the saying goes “don’t negotiate with toddlers and terrorists”.
3. Use distraction and games to ease transitions or get your toddler to do something. Give them a task to do or make things into a game so they are less focused on the change in activity or the fact that you are asking for their help. This is a useful tool when they aren’t motivated by doing something (packing up or eating their dinner) or when you need them to stop an activity or leave a location. Put a timer on “can you pack up all the toys in under 2 minutes”. “How quickly can you get into the car?”. “Who can run to the park gate the fastest?”.
4. Routines are your best friend during the toddler years. Have a meal time routine, bedtime routine, leaving house routine, getting dressed routine. If you follow the same steps each time and your toddler knows all the steps it will make it easier and them more compliant. Create visual routines to help them learn the routine. Having a routine also includes saying things in the same way each time, like it’s a little script. For example at bed time when you leave the room if you say the same thing every time this helps your child remain calm and settled, as they can predict the sequence of events. You might say something like “good night, have a good sleep, see you in the morning, love you”. This is a great tool to add to your routines if you don’t do something like this already.
5. Tell stories to your child to help them understand things that have happened during the day or prepare them for events coming up. Before a sleep when they are relaxed in bed is a great time. Have them as the main character and then the story is whatever you want them to learn. “Once upon a time there was a little boy named X and he was about to start school. On his first day…”. Telling stories is a great way to prompt your child to ask questions and understanding events that have happened during the day that they didn’t quite understand at the time. It’s also really wonderful tool to explain new things that they will experience, like starting school. Telling them a story and creating a positive, fun and happy narrative will help your child have a more positive experience as they’ll already associate the new event with positive thoughts. It also prevents the new situation from appearing as overwhelming and scary to them.
6. Turn things into a song (this is a great distraction). If your toddler won’t eat their dinner make up a song and start signing it. With my son to get him to eat corn on the cob we used to sing “Not from the end, from the side. That’s how you do it, and then you chew it”. Now it works every time. If your child won’t hold your hand to cross the road you can make up a song about why it’s safe to do so. Singing can be used to teach but also it’s just a great distraction! Suddenly your child is fascinated with what you are signing so they aren’t focused on not wanting to hold your hand to cross the road. The great thing with toddlers is that their attention can be easily re-directed (most of the time anyway).
7. At meal times don’t force your toddler to eat. If they push the meal away respond “that’s ok you don’t have to eat it”. Then distract with reading a book or something else. Your toddler will likely start eating on their own term after a minute or two when they are hungry. Sometimes it just has to be on their terms so forcing them won’t help! If they don’t eat their dinner and are hungry later then this is a naturel consequence that they have learnt. I know it can feel really stressful and frustrating when your toddler doesn’t eat their meal but trying to force them usually won’t be successful. Just leave the plate of food there and hopefully they will eat some of it eventually. Toddlers love to get into battles with us and try to have power over us. Mealtime is a great one as we are so highly motivated by trying to get them to eat so we can give in and bend to their demands. This is hugely gratifying for toddlers so they’ll try it at every meal. Saying “that’s ok you don’t have to eat it” completely removes the power they have over the situation.
8. Don’t use time out. You can use consequences for behaviour but removing your attention from your child at this age helps to increase negative behaviour and big emotions. Check out my other tip sheets for how to manage behaviour in a kind and loving way. It’s much more successful. The research is clear that time out doesn’t work but a time in approach can be very successful in managing your child’s behaviour and preventing huge tantrums and meltdowns.
9. Building up your toddler’s emotional vocabulary is a key ingredient to managing their big emotions and tantrums. Teach them the names of feelings and help them to identify their own feelings. Co-regulations is the other aspect of managing big emotions and this involves you remaining calm, in control and helping your toddler understand what they are feeling in the moment. Your toddler needs to understand what they are feeling before they can start to control their own feelings. You need to remain calm and regulated to help model emotional regulation and also to prevent flaming their big emotions and making them even bigger!
10. When you have to ask your toddler to stop doing something (because it’s really dangerous) or you want to teach them an appropriate behaviour in the moment start with “You aren’t in trouble but you can’t do X because you could really hurt yourself”. If your toddler thinks they are in trouble they can yell and become really upset. Toddlers don’t want to get in trouble and they don’t want to be doing the wrong thing. Reassuring them at the start that they aren’t in trouble and didn’t do anything wrong (they just didn’t know they couldn’t do X) helps prevent big emotional responses when we are just trying to teach them something and look out for their safety.