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understanding toddler behaviour annabel karmel

Toddlerhood has become somewhat defined by the phrase ‘terrible twos’, which is a bit unfair when you acknowledge that this age is all about a growing sense of independence, separating the ‘me’ from the parental ‘we’. Learning how best to parent an increasingly assertive mini-vidual is challenging, and action rather than reaction can help to keep things from bubbling over. Here are a few pointers to help you keep your cool:

The world is still a big overwhelming jumble of a jungle to your toddler, so a framework of day-to-day consistency enables things to be processed and understood in bite-size chunks. This doesn’t mean you have to run your home with military precision but a semblance of schedule can keep you on the right track. Meal times and bed times serve as anchors throughout the day but be sure to factor in free time for your toddler to express themselves, otherwise that framework might feel more like a cage!

Consistency is important with regards to discipline too; if you say ‘no’ to an action that is unacceptable (hitting or biting for example) then you need to say ‘no’ each and every time that behavior is displayed. Toddler training can feel a bit like puppy training from time to time – but it’s worth it.

You know your toddler better than anyone, and if a missed nap leads to a cranky afternoon then perhaps do your top-up shop post sleep to avoid a superstore strop.

Being hungry can be another trigger for undesirable behavior so pause to re-fuel before you head out on a new adventure. Fill up on healthy snacks and meals to avoid a sugar surge and cranky crash.

Toddlers may do a good job of being faux mini adults sometimes but don’t be fooled; they can’t yet process information in the same way. See things from their perspective and keep them appropriately posted on plans and predicaments. By including them in conversations about the day’s events, and letting them know if things need to change, you are keeping their expectations in check, which can prevent your tot from morphing into a disappointed diva.

Explaining the concept of ‘in a minute’ can be futile, as can the sentence ‘we agreed five more minutes and now we need to go’. Take the mystery out of time with a stop watch programmed to beep when action stations need to change. Your forthright toddler is less likely to grumble with a gadget than they are you!

Some parents feel that sending a child out of the fold to reflect in isolation is counter productive to being raised in an inclusive family unit. Others find it an effective way to prompt reflection. If you opt for time out keep to a couple of minutes or less for children under three.

A quiet zone with no distractions, like an armchair, can be a useful de-compression zone when your toddler needs to hit the re-set button. Be wary of using bedrooms as ‘naughty zones’ as you risk making them less appealing if they have unhappy connotations, and that may cause problems at the end of the day.

Toddlers can push your buttons and it’s perfectly ok for you to visit the quiet zone from time to time when you feel close to blowing your own top. Venting your anger and frustration will escalate a situation and often leave you feeling guilty. Just as your child can de-compress in a few moments sometimes that is all it takes for you to feel more in control and better able to cope.

On days where all you seem to be saying is ‘no’, try to pause and re-tune, acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings to stop the frustration building on both sides of the parental line. Your answer might not switch to ‘yes’ but it is important to show your child that you listen to them. If you never demonstrate this skill it will be harder for them to understand that you expect to be listened to in return. This tactic may result in you saying things like ‘I know you don’t want to leave the park now but we need to go home so I can make dinner’.

Your toddler’s short attention span can be mighty frustrating but there are times when it works to your advantage. If you sense that you are being led down a control cul-de-sac, try introducing an element of choice, to help impart feelings of empowerment. This tack saves you from repeatedly asserting the same rules, be it ‘stop fighting’ or ‘share’ or ‘eat your dinner’. If you need peace with your peas, for example, try asking if your objectionable eater wants to eat them with a fork or a spoon. If a sibling has run off with the ball bowl in with a couple of books and swiftly move on to story time. By doing so you keep the mood buoyant and conducive to good behaviour.

It is easy to get caught in the ‘no-zone’ with toddlers but think of them like sunflowers that naturally turn to the sunny side of the parenting street. Easier said than done on some days but try being a little less of a grumpy grey cloud and see what a difference that makes to their mischief motivation!

Some things are obviously non-negotiable; eating, sleeping, safety and hygiene being the biggies. Other things, like which outfits are deemed acceptable, might be worth flexing on. In an ideal world your toddler probably wouldn’t wear his dressing gown and superhero costume to the dentist, but you know what, it might make strangers smile and you are likely to feel less frazzled mid morning if you let that one slide.

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