Taming Your Toddler
Story by Aniela Whah-Wills
You are living in a land where you can understand the language, but you can’t speak it properly. Whether it’s trying to tell someone you need to use the restroom or asking for a glass of water, you’re having trouble getting your point across. It’s frustrating. It’s the life of a toddler.
It’s no wonder toddlers get such a bad rap. Behavioral outbursts are par for the course, partly because of their inability to communicate. The experts we talked to have given us some ideas on how to help.
Tackling the Temper
They call it the “Terrible Twos” but temper tantrums usually run rampant between 18 months and 4 ½ years. “It’s their only form of control and expression,” notes Julia Jackson, director of Family Services at Thread, Alaska. It’s a way for the child to test boundaries and limits. She says the best way to handle a temper tantrum – assuming it’s happening in a safe environment – is to ignore it. Dr. Jeff Brand of LaTouche Pediatrics agrees. “They can’t tell you what they want; they have to show you. Once they are in a full-blown screaming fit, you really can’t do anything about it. Just let it pass.” Eric Unruh, a licensed clinical social worker in Eagle River, says parents should talk to their toddler about what they are feeling and how best to deal with it. If the tantrum continues, don’t give in. “You will only reinforce the behavior to happen again,” he says. “The toddler will think, ‘Wow, that worked well.’ ”
Aggressive Behaviors: Biting, Hitting and Kicking – Oh My!
Aggressive behaviors are a normal part of growing up. “This frustration is usually related to the toddler not getting what they want,” says Unruh. Whether it’s biting, hitting or kicking, the experts agree that you have to be firm, tell them they can’t bite and pull them away from the activity. Dr. Brand reminds parents: “You can’t be wishy washy. You’ve got to let them know you mean business.” Jackson takes that a step further: “When you have to say no, you also have to say yes. ‘No, don’t bite on skin, but yes, bite on this.’ ” She suggests putting a rag in the freezer for young children to chew on, as biting can often be a sensory issue, or a need to release anxiety orally.
Quieting the Screaming Banshee
To stop another toddler behavior, whining and screaming, Unruh says parents should “verbally validate” what the child is feeling. “For example, if he is yelling that somebody took his toy, you can intervene first by saying: ‘You must be angry she took your toy.’ ” He says that once they can tell you their emotions, they can handle frustration more appropriately.
Jackson suggests a behavior chart with a frown face for whining and a smiley face for positive behaviors. She also says picture books with different facial expressions can help toddlers understand the difference between emotions.
The Time Out
When toddlers aren’t ready to listen, it’s time for a time out. The standard is one minute per year, not to exceed two minutes for a toddler. Unruh and Dr. Brand agree that once the child gets the point, let them out, even if that means they’ve only been in time out for 10 seconds. Unruh says first warn the toddler, then if they don’t stop, give the time out. He says the exception is “a severe behavior, like hitting. A time out should be given right away without the warning.”
If the child becomes destructive or hurts themselves, an option to time out is “time in,” says Jackson. Some children may need to sit right beside their parent until they can calm down and regain self-control.
After the time out, welcome your child back to the activity or group and drop the subject. If your child needs several time outs in a row, think about changing the activity.
Bedtime Battles: The Long Goodnight
Getting a toddler off to bed can be a monumental feat. Routine is often the best solution: Bath, book and bed. Toddlers need to learn to self-sooth, says Jackson. “Every time they come out, use soft tones, limit conversations and lead them back to bed.” She says parents should think of that time as an investment. Ultimately, it will become habit. Unruh says an hour before bed, begin quieting down and reducing light – an important thing to remember in the land of the midnight sun. He says a reward system works well. “Each time the toddler stays in bed, give a reward like a token or ticket that can be used for prizes or privileges. If the toddler comes out of bed, you can use a three strikes rule where the toddler would lose a privilege the next day if they come out of bed.”
Singing Their Praises and Sticking With It
Adjusting your toddler’s attitude may be as simple as adjusting your own. Catch your child doing something right, and praise them for it. The experts advise: Be consistent, follow through and set limits. Regardless of the method, parents need to teach their toddler the reasons for discipline. And remember, this is “just a phase,” and will fade as your toddler’s vocabulary improves.