Can I let you in on a little secret?
I love dealing with challenging behavior.
I know, I’m crazy.
Maybe it’s the special education teacher in me, but there’s just something about a difficult, makes-you-think, keeps-you-on-your-toes behavior that thrills me. I love the challenge of figuring out how to handle it, and I love the rush of joy when I start to see some progress.
I deal with crazy behaviors on a daily basis at work, so it’s second nature to me to deal with a toddler tantrum or two when I get home in the evenings. Over my years of being a behavior specialist and teacher, I’ve learned a lot about how to handle these rough behaviors, so I’m spilling a few of my secrets for dealing with toddler behavior today!
DO: Provide choices. I let Jackson choose what he wants for breakfast, for a snack, what to wear in the mornings, etc. etc. etc. All of these choices give him control over his day and make things run so much more smoothly. If we have a transition coming up that I know he won’t like, I often preface it with a choice – “It’s nap time. Do you want to walk up the stairs or do you want me to carry you?” Adding in a choice to these non-preferred activities is like magic and suddenly there’s no complaining! I do this every single time I start to see an issue with something we have to do (like leaving the house, getting dressed, or stopping playing for lunch) and it works almost every time!
DO: Explain yourself. Most of the time, toddlers understand way more language than you might expect them to. I’ve found that the more regularly I try to explain to Jackson why I am telling him no, the fewer issues we have. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t have our “because I said so” moments, but generally speaking, it is very helpful to give your toddler a quick explanation of what’s going on to ease their anxiety.
DO: Use a timer. The timer trick is pure magic. Magic, I tell you! When we need to transition to a new activity, I tell Jackson, “When the timer beeps, we’re going to _______.” Then, I set a timer on my phone. And guess what? When the timer goes off, he willingly transitions to a new activity. Every time. It has never not worked. It may not work perfectly for everyone but for most kids, having some forewarning and knowing that a transition is coming is golden. It also helps to take some of their frustration away from you – you aren’t telling them they have to stop playing, the timer is. It’s subtle, but it works!
DO: Stick to what you said. I know counting works great for some parents but I absolutely refuse to pull out the “1, 2, 3” when Jackson’s behaving badly. He’s learning that he needs to respond the first time I tell him to do something, and if he doesn’t I’ll swoop in and help him. Kids very quickly learn whether or not you’re going to follow through when you tell them to do something or when you threaten a consequence, and if you don’t mean what you say, they’ll stop taking you seriously. When I tell Jackson something, he knows that I’m going to follow through every single time, which means that in the future he’s a lot more likely to obey what I ask him to do the first time around.
DO: Look for the function. Behavior is communication. All behavior has a function, or a simplified explanation of why it’s happening. And there are only four possible functions for behavior. FOUR! Once you have a firm understanding of this very simple concept, it becomes a million times easier to quickly analyze a behavior in the moment and decide what you need to do. If you want to read more on this, I did a pretty in-depth series on it on Hellobee!
DON’T: Take it personally. Toddlers can be cruel. So can kids…and teenagers…and adults, for that matter. So really, it’s not going anywhere. It’s important for your sanity to keep that in mind and realize that when your toddler screams for your partner instead of your or when they tell you they don’t like you, it isn’t personal and they don’t mean it (or really even understand what they’re doing). Toddlers have zero filter and a limited vocabulary, so they say the first thing that pops into their head – it doesn’t mean they actually feel that way, it just means they don’t have a more effective way to express their frustrations.
DON’T: React to every behavior. You know when your toddler does something they know they shouldn’t, looks at you, and cackles with glee? Yeah, they’re hoping you’ll freak out. It’s funny to make mom yell sometimes. Toddlers are all about the big reactions, and they’re drawn to attention like a moth to a flame. One night, I had to ignore Jackson dunking food in his water while he shouted “look at me, mama!” for about 20 minutes. It was so ridiculous Corey had to leave the room because he couldn’t handle it anymore. But guess what? He hasn’t dunked food in his water since that day. Because it didn’t work.
DON’T: Give in. Consistency is key. If you give in to a giant tantrum for candy (or television, or whatever) even one time, you’ve taught your kid that the tantrum is an effective way to get what they want. Don’t do that! It’s like a slot machine – you know you probably won’t win when you play…but you might! And if you win even one time, the likelihood of you putting another quarter in that slot increases exponentially because it happened once before and it could happen again. If you reinforce bad behavior even sporadically, it’s going to increase the chance of that same behavior happening over and over. Instead, keep things as consistent as you possibly can so that there’s no questioning if you’ll give in just this one time.
DON’T: Forget to reinforce good behavior! This is the most important tip you’ll read here. Seriously. Nothing else does you any good if you aren’t reinforcing the positive behavior that you see! It can be as simple as a smile and a high five or as complicated as a sticker chart or reward system. Bottom line is, your toddler needs to know that you notice when they’re doing something good, and they need some praise. This is particularly important in the areas where you struggle. For example, Jackson hates to hold my hand when we’re walking in a parking lot. He whines, he complains, he cries. He wants to be free! So, on the days where he willingly takes my hand and walks with me I make sure he knows it’s a Big. Deal. that he’s being such a big boy and holding my hand. I don’t worry as much about praising the things he’s already consistent about, but those areas of struggle need to be recognized and praised every single time!
DON’T: Expect too much. Remember that, in the end, your toddler is still a toddler. There will be tantrums. They will hit, kick, and bite you. They will scream. They will disobey. It’s gonna happen. And that’s okay. Sometimes I have to slow down and remind myself that Jackson’s worldview is very limited – me telling him that he has to clean up and go to bed may quite literally be the most disappointing thing he has ever experienced in his life. Toddlers need some room to be emotional, and they need you to understand that they’re still learning. Don’t we all want to throw ourselves on the ground and scream sometimes?
What are your best tips for dealing with toddler behavior? I hear it only gets more difficult as they get older (the “threenager” seems to have replaced the era of the “terrible twos”), so I’m sure I’ll have my work cut out for me over the next couple of years!