Dealing With Difficult Toddler Behavior

Dealing with toddler behavior can be really stressful when you’re not sure how to handle it.

Every parent knows that so-called “bad behavior” starts with the “terrible twos” and often gets worse before it gets better. We’ll call them the “tortuous threes.”

Some important “toddler traits” include the following:
  1. Toddlers are mobile and expressive. They know how to move (fast!) and they know how to express themselves with words and actions. They know how to ask for things. They know how to scream at you when you say “no”. But they pretty much lack any capability to use adult logic.
  2. Toddlers want independence. Toddlers can tell you what they want to have, or what they want to do, they want to be allowed to have it (or do it). They want to push the boundaries and try new things. Yet too many moms and dads don’t realize this is how the youngster learns and gains confidence. If you keep your youngster boxed into a strict set of rules, you risk squashing their inner confidence and willingness to take chances.
  3. Toddlers have short fuses. Most toddlers behave as if everything is the end of their little world. And it annoys the heck out of moms and dads! We just want them to understand that not everything is a big deal, but we get screaming fits and tantrums instead. The parent’s view of the world is in complete misalignment with the youngster’s view.
  4. Toddlers have a short attention span. I think it’s fair to say that nearly all toddlers have short attention spans unless they are very engaged in some activity. When I say these kids have a short attention span I mean that they can be easily distracted from most oncoming tantrums that relate to things like, “Mommy I want that toy.”

Language is a great parenting tool. And since your toddler is now able to express himself much more clearly than a year ago, this is a great time to use language. The most important language tool is to do something I call “getting in their head.” If your youngster doesn’t feel like you understand him, or at least that you are trying to understand him, you’ll encounter a big wall of resistance. What happens next? Welcome to temper tantrum city.

You can enter your youngster’s head by simply telling your youngster what you know to be true about his situation. For example: “Michael, I know that you want to play over here with this toy.” Next you can build on this rapport with an amplification statement such as, “…and that sure does look like a really fun toy. I bet you really like the nice colors!”

Doing this is like magic. Please don’t overlook it as simplistic and childish. It’s supposed to be! You’re dealing with a toddler! You need to enter their world, and that’s how you do it. The moment you do, your youngster is calmer and open to distraction, suggestion, humor, or logical consequences (should you need them).

If you are butting heads with your toddler, always build rapport by getting in their head before you try to implement any kind of behavioral change tactic. Otherwise, I promise you that you’ll have a more stressful time and there will be more tears. You’re mission is to prevent that.

Say your toddler wants to get a glass out of the cupboard by himself. You can’t have him climbing up on the counter and risking a fall, or having a glass shatter in his face. So you say “no” and you do it for him. He doesn’t understand. He throws a fit. All of a sudden you’re sitting there wondering, “What’s wrong with his behavior?”

It all could have been prevented very easily. How? You first get in your youngster’s head with a comment like, “Michael, I’m really proud of you for wanting to get things for yourself. It’s important to learn new things.” I’d even go so far as to be very specific and say, “You want to get a cup down all by yourself. That’s great.”

Knowing that you can’t explain the logic behind the danger of broken glass, you need to shift his attention. I recommend offering a choice where both outcomes are what you want. Grab two plastic cups and put them in the cupboard. Say to him, “Which cup are you going to get down all by yourself? The blue one or the orange one?” Chances are good he’ll pick one. Then, lift him so he can open the cupboard door himself and take out the cup. Disaster averted.

Maybe he refuses the plastic cups. He insists that he must drink out of a glass cup just like you. After all, kids model their moms and dads. They want to do what we do. How do you handle this?

One example would be to use humor as a distraction. First, you’d establish that Michael wants to drink out of the glass cup and NOT the plastic cup. As long as you’re OK with him drinking out of a glass cup, you probably want to get it down for him.

You take down the cup without giving him a chance to object, but you immediately implement humor. Hold the glass over one eye, looking through the bottom. Start making pirate noises and pretending it’s a telescope. “Arggg … I see you down there and I’m coming to get you!” Said in a humorous way, this will almost always burst your youngster into giggles. Next thing you know, he’s completely forgotten about wanting to get the cup down for himself. You’d still want to tell him that you are proud of him for drinking so neatly all by himself.

The worst case scenario is that none of this will work, and you’ll have to fall back on basic training. You go back to offering him a choice. He can either have you take down the glass cup, or he can take down the plastic cup. You stay calm and unemotional. You make it clear that these are his choices and it’s up to him to decide. If he doesn’t decide, he doesn’t drink. And if he throws a tantrum, you may simply have to leave the room and let him know that you’ll come back after he calms down.

Just remember that if you yell right back at your youngster, you are NOT in his head. You’re on the outside. You are raising the stress levels and throwing away your opportunity to either enjoy your youngster in the moment, or train him to understand a basic household rule. You don’t want that.

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