When your two year old empties your handbag on the floor (again), how do you discipline him without quashing his character?
Becoming a toddler is clearly not easy – not for your baby, and definitely not for you. What’s even harder is working out how to go about promoting good behaviour while getting a handle on the bad stuff, all without crushing his emerging independence.
To work out how to deal with your toddler, it helps to imagine his life. Can he fiddle with the TV remote? Nope. What about that exciting marker pen? I don’t think so. And look, an old mini Cheddar scavenged from behind the sofa… Just as he’s about to sample a bite, it’s whipped away. All through his day, he’s redirected, repositioned and strapped into seats with only a rice cake for company. How frustrating is that?
Then there’s the fact that, at around two, he’ll realise he can have an impact on the world – if he doesn’t eat his baked beans, he’s learning something else might be offered. He’s wielding power for the first time, but without the ability to see life from anyone else’s perspective.
‘At this age, a child hasn’t learned empathy,’ says Dr Mandy Bryon, consultant clinical psychologist. ‘He’s just out to get the world to do what he wants it to, because that’s all that matters.’ When you look at it like this, it seems weird we’re surprised when our thwarted tot loses the plot. Wouldn’t you?
But, while limiting your toddler may seem like the opposite of letting him find independence, in fact, it’s important to do so. If you set solid boundaries, you’ll give him a sense of security, which will allow his personality to develop independently.
Limit it, baby
From the moment you start getting routine into your baby’s life, you begin creating boundaries. ‘These routines show a baby that you’re in charge and you’re meeting his needs,’ says Dr Claire Halsey, author of Baby Development (£12.99, Dorling Kindersley). ‘That builds trust between you.’
He’s wielding a little power for the first time, but without the ability to see life from anyone else’s perspective.
Then, as your child moves towards toddlerhood, you can start putting positive barriers in place. Experts agree that teaching your child to set limits on his behaviour is one of the most valuable things you can do for him.
As well as helping him to develop self-control, it’s also the foundation he needs to go on to build fulfilling relationships with other people. So say things like, ‘Play nicely’ or ‘Touch gently’.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t still clomp his baby brother over the head now and again but, if you model what you mean and you’re consistent in what you ask, you’ll start to see results. When you do, reward that positive behaviour by giving him approval.
You are the best reward
The most powerful way you can motivate your toddler to behave well is by giving attention in return. ‘If you respond to him when he acts in a way you like, he’ll keep behaving that way,’ says Mandy. It’s about taking the time to acknowledge what he’s doing. Tell him, ‘You’re colouring so nicely now.’ Or ‘I think Teddy is enjoying this tea party.’
Equally, if your toddler is aggressive with other children, bestow lots of attention on the other child, while firmly saying ‘No’ to your own. Show him how to be gentle, too. There’s no point going down the naughty step or disciplining route with a child who’s under three years old, as it’s too sophisticated for him to understand . Plus, the whole idea is unproductive because you don’t want to brand your toddler as ‘naughty’ at this stage.
Tame the tantrums
The truth is, toddlers get upset for the same reasons any child does. He’s tired. He’s hungry. He’s bored. He’s frustrated. Sometimes his routine has changed and unsettled him. He’s reacting to stress around him. But one reason why it often reaches such intensity so quickly is because of his inability to see life from anyone else’s perspective.
So, when your toddler has a meltdown, he’s not doing it to wind you up. He’s simply communicating – in the best way he knows how – that he wants his needs met and he can’t understand why it’s not happening.
What looks like a small, screaming banshee is just a tiny child who feels something is wrong, doesn’t know how to put it right and wants you to do it for him. Which is worth bearing in mind the next time
you scoop your red-faced, howling toddler off the supermarket floor.