When children gain upright mobility, their world and your world changes drastically. Toddlerhood is often dreaded by parents. Why? It’s a huge transitional phase lasting two to three years, where the child wants to do everything and touch everything but can’t, lacks accurate communication skills, and is in the process of gaining independence in some areas while still desperately needing the parental attachment in others. Every parent bangs their head against a wall in frustration many times during toddlerhood. Sometimes it’s a few times a day.
However, toddlerhood is a joyful time of watching your child go from doing not much more than eating to walking, talking, and taking care of business in the toilet rather than the diaper. Every aspect of their selves changes dramatically. You are literally watching their personality burst out in every way. It’s awesome and adorable. There is new fun to be had everyday.
So how do we embrace the joys of toddlerhood without going nuts from the stress? Yes, it is possible. It took me a few tries to figure it out but I’m jotting down some notes if you are or are about to be frustrated by parenting a toddler.
Get behind the eyes of your child and see the situation from where they are. For my first and second child I saw myself as the Guardian of Righteousness and the toddler as the battering ram against the boundaries of life. I saw every conflict as them challenging authority and my need to assert it as the main aspect as discipline. This made my life a living hell. I was frustrated out of my mind and I hated parenting in those moments. The reality is, to a toddler, challenging authority is so out of the range of their psychology it’s ridiculous. They can’t even understand it on those terms, much less see it and try to do it. In reality, here’s what actually is going on in a toddler’s mind:
Check it out! I can touch things! TOUCH ALL THE THINGS!!!! YAY!
What does this do? Ohhhh, wow, that was awesome! Will it do it again? Again? Will it continue to do it if I do it for a long time?
My voice sounds so awesome. HEY I CAN MAKE IT SOUND REALLY LOUD. EVEN LOUDER!!!! Wow! Hey, look at Mommy’s face. She knows I’m really loud. Oh, she can be loud too. LETS ALL BE SOOOOO LOUD!
I have so much energy. I can move in all these ways! Yay, exciting!
What does this taste like?
Owwww! I hurt! What on earth is going on! That thing hurt me! I need Mommy! But I don’t want to stop doing this fun thing, it’s so fun! Mommy don’t touch me! Wait, Mommy I hurt, hold me. I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WANT!
I bet I could climb that.
I want to play with my trucks forever. What on earth are you holding your keys and looking at me upset for? I’m having so much fun.
That’s a fun toy and I want to play with it. Somebody is holding it, so I’ll just grab it. Why are they upset?
I can see so much fun stuff from the top of the table! Wow! I’m as tall as Mommy and things are so much fun!
It’s hilarious to empty out the toybox. It makes such a fun noise and then the toys look so interesting falling all over the floor. I can do it with this toy box, and this toy box, and this one. I can change things, isn’t that awesome? Hey, that reminds me, it was really fun to empty out the canned food cupboard too…
Why can’t I touch the outlet? I really want to touch it! I’m so upset because it looks so interesting!!!! CRY!
I’m so tired. I’m so tired. But I don’t want to stop and sleep because everything is so interesting and you guys are still up.
I’m hungry but I can’t say I’m hungry, so instead I will throw a fit about something random and be really upset when you do anything.
It’s so noisy and there’s so many bright colors and movements in here, I don’t know how to handle it, so I just want you to hold me. What do you mean we need to buy groceries? I’m too upset. Hold me!
There’s a new person. I don’t know them at all or maybe it’s been a while since I’ve seen them. I don’t know what to think so I want you to hold me.
So, in a nutshell, toddlers are pretty simple folk. But they are at a crucial stage where they have a TON to learn. We are teaching them how to interact with their environment and people in healthy ways, but in order to do that, we must also direct them away from unhealthy ways of interaction. Thus, the road through toddlerhood is fraught with frustrations on behalf of the child and the adults around them.
For Part One, I simply want to address making a toddler-friendly environment for reduced frustrations. Toddlers want to touch, climb, pick up, and taste everything in sight. So, in order to make it less frustrating for everybody, we try to make a “Yes” environment. The bottom line is, what can we do to take the natural strengths and inclinations of the toddler and use them in positive ways?
Climbing-friendly world: Just take it for granted that toddlers need to climb. Look at your house and pretend you are going to be watching a rabid monkey and think, “How can I protect this environment from the monkey?” Have stuff they can climb on, couches, climbing cubes, slides, a dedicated toddler laundry basket. Encourage them to climb these things, make games out of it, cheer them on and make out like they won a medal for climbing the things you want them to climb. Make a toy a goal and tell them to get it and hide it places or put it out of reach so they have to work to get to it. Try to block access to things they can’t climb on. Toddler lock drawers so they can’t climb them and access counters. When they are able to climb the kitchen chairs, step one is to push them into the table all the way. When they learn to scoot the chairs, then lay them down on their sides so they can’t make it to the tabletop.
In general, if you don’t want them to have access to it, block access to it. Put it out of sight. You can’t do it to everything, but it’s well worth your while to try.
Give them lots of opportunity to burn up that incredible energy. Scooty-cars for them to ride inside, chase them around playing tickle monster, and give them trucks big enough for them to push around. Toddlers often have difficulty finding ways to play with siblings and others rather than just alongside them, but this is a perfect opportunity for them to play together-following each other all around the house and making vrooming noises. If they don’t have a sibling this is your chance to teach them how to play with others.
Talk about the environment and give everything words and descriptions. Everything you eat, touch, play with, look at during outings, everything. Talk a lot. Talk about what they are feeling and use specific words and phrases. “You are upset because you hurt your head.” “You like to ride your red truck!” “I am going to drink some water because I am thirsty.” Toddlers are absorbing constantly and when they do start talking, they will be able to use their words to ask for what they want. They will know what to call the things they want and the things they notice because you have told them exactly what it is. You will suddenly gain huge access to what is going on in their minds, and this is both fun and useful!
Keep a variety of simple, healthy foods on hand. Feed a small variety at snack and lunchtime. Toddlers are notorious for loving something one week and refusing to touch it the next. That’s why you only offer a small amount at a time, less food wasted. Keep easy to prepare foods on hand like string cheese, grapes, crackers, peanut butter, veggies and dip, bread, hummus, juice, bananas, apples, etc. They are more likely to try something if they see it on a plate next to a known and enjoyed food. They will also be more likely to eat it if they see other people eating it and enjoying it. Don’t make a huge deal out of them not eating everything or even sitting down for mealtimes. Food is not a battle. Save it for later or eat it yourself.
Toddlers need routines and order of operation when it comes to transition times, like waking up to breakfast, before naptime, getting ready to leave the house, getting ready to go to bed. After you do the routine for a while, they find a security in it and it helps them change from one environment to the next. When you change a routine or take it away, it can take a child weeks to adjust.
Structure your lifestyle so you can keep your kid within eyesight as much as possible. No childproofing can replace a parent who is there and paying attention. Many toddler predicaments have been well under way for a while before they reach crisis mode. For example, before the toddler dumped the toilet paper into the toilet, he first walked down the hallway, opened the bathroom door, touched the roll of paper, probably unrolled it some, took off the roll, opened the toilet lid, and dropped it in. When toddlers are involved in something fascinating like that, they are quiet. You will learn like many mothers before you that a quiet, out of sight child needs investigation. Also, simply being around your toddler is giving them further time to let them enjoy being with you and learning from you. Toddlers love their parents more than anyone else. When you teach them how to do something, you have their adoring, undivided attention. When you are having fun, they are having fun. They love learning to do simple tasks like put clothes from the dryer into the basket. They can be entertained in doctor offices by you ripping up a kleenex into itty bitty pieces and having them take each individual piece and go throw it into the garbage. They love seeing you draw things and guess the picture. Toddlers are delightfully easily entertained but unless you give them something to be entertained by, they will find the easiest way to make interesting change in their environment, and in so many places, that’s undesired behaviour.
Maintain behaviour at home that you want them to use in front of and with other people. If you don’t have siblings for the toddler to practice behaviours with, you are the practice. Don’t allow your toddler to treat you or their siblings ways that wouldn’t be ok with play groups. Take turns, use hands gently, say sorry when you hurt, etc. You need to purposely teach good behavior like sharing crayons, using manners with Mommy like please and thank you. If you suddenly spring new expectations on them in new environments and social situations, it will be confusing and frustrating. We make a game out of turns. “Please, my turn! Thank you” Hand it back, “Your turn!”
Don’t take toddlers to places where they have to be quiet and still for long periods of time. They just can’t do it. They have what I call the ya-yas. It’s just youthful exuberance and joy of movement and noise. So if you take a toddler out to eat, expect that at some point you will have to get up and walk around the restaurant with them. Don’t pick restaurants where this won’t be appreciated by other people. Don’t take them to movies. ballets, plays, graduations, weddings, etc. (It simply floored me that somebody brought a 15 month old to the Nutcracker.) If there is a place where you can leave the activity and walk your toddler around somewhere without you being missed or you being upset you are missing the show, then it’s worth a shot. Coloring books and cell phone apps can postpone the onset of the ya-yas, but it’s best to just assume that environments where respectful still silence is expected are not toddler compatible.
Expect the mess. If she can touch it, it will be on the floor. If you don’t want it touched, lock it away or put it way up high. The less toys at a time, the happier everybody is.
Music. Toddlers, like everybody else, love music.Music inspires dance parties. With music, everybody wins.
Upstage the problem: If there is a problem with the environment, (usually having to do with a toddler being fixated on something that they shouldn’t have) your best tactic is to upstage it-find something else YOU ARE SO EXCITED ABOUT that you want to show to them. The natural curiosity of the toddler can totally be used to your advantage here. If it’s something super interesting the toddler is dying to just check out closely but you don’t want to give them free reign on, you can teach them to just touch it with one finger and then upstage it.
If you have to do an activity the toddler does not want to do, you bundle it with something they are interested in. Example: first we are going to change your diaper and then we are going to play with your trucks! Or, first we are going to read a story and then we are going to take a nap. The toddler gets into “Yes” mode because they do want to play with the truck or read a story. Then as you read the story, you remind them that after this they are going to nap with their favorite stuffie. This helps them through the transition.
This also helps with interactions with people. Toddlers often want things that other people are playing with. You can distract them and totally engage them in something absorbing like doing a puzzle with you. If it is something they need to wait a turn with, you can teach them taking turns, by setting a timer for a short amount of time and then trading off after the timer goes off.
Answering frustrations with a simple “No” and no positive aspect to the denial is a great cause of toddler rage. So try to avoid that type of answer completely. State what you are going to do instead: We are going to clean up first and then play with that toy. We are going to pack up and go to the store now instead. That hurts your sister, we use our hands gently. Hands are not for hitting and we’re going to say sorry now (children who do not speak yet can give hugs for sorry). You are upset and you need a moment in your room. That belongs to Aunt Sally and we just look, not touch, let’s go climb the stairs instead. Let’s use our quiet voices and ask that again.
Upstaging in this matter avoids so much frustration, and most importantly, teaches the toddler what do do instead. Teaching a toddler what not to do is pointless because the problem will just keep happening. Team up with him and teach him what to do. Not only does that help him, because you are doing it with him and he’s learning better that way, but it helps you avoid the Mommy vs. toddler aspect.
That’s it for today. Turn in later for part two of Toddler Tactics!