I think toddlers, twos, and threes are the easiest age. Do I have your attention now? Many people think it is one of the more difficult stages and it is usually associated with defiant and unruly behavior. Outbursts of anger and frustration, better known as tantrums, often rear their ugly heads when young children don’t get their own way. What once were sweet, compliant babies are now strong-willed, opinionated little people. There are four stages in a person’s life when they exert their independence – and this is the first one. And how we as parents handle these bursts of free will when they are toddlers, twos, and threes can set the stage for our relationship with them all the way into adulthood. With a few simple strategies we can handle most anything they throw at us and establish ourselves as the most loving, yet powerful people in their lives.
I have worked with young children and parents for over twelve years now, as a preschool teacher, parent educator, and parent coach. The majority of my most effective behavior techniques come from Love and Logic™. Below are some of the strategies that I have found work best with this age group. I’ve used these different approaches not only with my own children but with hundreds of toddlers in the classroom and have found great success with their techniques both at home and in the classroom.
Young children are basically tiny scientists. They are walking (or toddling) around the world gathering as much information as they can about their environment and the way things work. Our job as parents (or teachers) is to be research assistants and help them along the way. This is one of the ways they acquire their language skills, by listening to us narrate what they are doing and describe the objects and environment around them.
Not only do these tiny scientists like to gather information about their world, they also like to run different experiments. These experiments help them learn about cause and effect. Their experiments look like this: What happens when I throw my food across the table? What happens when I share my truck with my friend? What happens when I throw myself on the floor kicking and screaming? What happens when I say please? What happens when I hit my mom? What happens when I give my brother a hug? You get my point. Our job as a research assistant is to, in a loving and powerful way, let them know when they have run good experiments and when they have run bad experiments.
Well, how do we do this? Let’s start with the good experiments because these are often the ones that get overlooked, usually with little or no response. And yet, remembering to acknowledge these good experiments is what causes our children to continue to do them. Carrie Contey, a local Austin parenting coach, sums it up best when she says, “What we appreciate appreciates.” Those things that we notice and appreciate our children doing are the things they will do with greater and greater frequency. So saying, “Thank you for saying please when you asked for a snack,” or “I noticed you shared your truck with your friend – that made him smile,” or “Your brother loves your hugs,” will reinforce that those were good experiments and will increase the likelihood of seeing those again.
But what about the bad experiments? How do we let our children know in a loving and powerful way that their behavior was less than ideal and something we don’t want to see again? Well, it depends on the type of bad experiment. Sometimes our children exhibit bad behavior because we are seeking compliance from them and they don’t want to comply (hence the kicking and screaming as they throw themselves on the floor) or sometimes it’s the opposite, they want something from us and we have said no (hence the kicking and screaming as they throw themselves on the floor). Or sometimes they have just done something that is not acceptable to our family values (throwing food across the table or hitting mom). Our responses will be different depending on the category the experiment falls into.
If we are seeking compliance from our child and they are less than willing to give it, we use a Love and Logic Enforceable Statement. One thing Love and Logic teaches is that we can never control a child, we can only control ourselves. However, the great thing about toddlers, twos, and threes is that they rely on us for most of their needs and wants – and this provides us with leverage! We can use all of those things they want from us to get the compliance we want from them. What are the things they want from us? Snacks, treats, screen time, to go outside, to go to the park, to be played with, to be read to, etc. What are the things we want from them? To pick up the toys, get dressed, eat, brush teeth, take a bath, etc. An Enforceable Statement tells a child what we will do rather than telling them what to do. Young children, especially strong-willed ones, are much more likely to comply when we think about what the next thing they are going to want is and use that in our Enforceable Statement. Some examples are: “I’m happy to take you outside as soon as you put away the blocks.” “I’ll be glad to fix you breakfast after you get dressed.” “I will read stories to you after you have brushed your teeth.” And if your child does not immediately comply, all you have to do is use a Love and Logic One-Liner and repeat one phrase over and over, like a broken record. For the previous scenarios a great option is “What did I say?” With that, you are on the road to getting your child to comply. Use an Enforceable Statement, and follow it with a One-Liner if necessary.
What about when we have told a child no or done something that they didn’t like? It depends on if the matter is up for negotiation or not. For example, you have made your child a waffle for breakfast and served it to her whole. She throws a little tantrum because she wants it cut up. This is a negotiable matter because you could easily comply with her request to have her waffle cut up, you just don’t like the tantrum she threw to let you know she wanted it cut up. In this scenario, or any similar one, you would again use an Enforceable Statement, but it would sound something like, “I’m happy to cut up your waffle when you ask me nicely.” And if they continue to throw a fit, you can follow it up with the same One-Liner used in the previous example, “What did I say?” If the matter is not negotiable, for example, your child has asked to wear a specific shirt, you have just told him that it is in the washing machine, and he has proceeded to throw a tantrum, then the best response is no response or if you feel like you need to say something, a One-Liner like “I know,” repeated as many times as necessary.
What if your child has just done something that does not fit your family values, like thrown food across the table, or hit you? If there is an object involved, for example the food, then the answer is to remove the object, the food. You would say something like, “Uh-oh, how sad, looks like meal time is over,” and remove the food. No additional reasoning is necessary. And if there is not an object involved, for example the child hitting you, then you remove the child. You would say something like, “Uh-oh, how sad, looks like a little bedroom time,” and remove the child to their room for a little “time-out.” Again, no additional reasoning is needed.
Most of the challenging behavior toddlers, two, and threes exhibit can be put into one of the above categories. And if you use the above responses consistently and in a loving and powerful way, you will quickly find that these young years in your child’s life won’t be so terrible. Try an experiment of your own by using an Enforceable Statement or One-Liner the next time your child tries one of their experiments. My bet is that you’ll be pleased with your results.
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