Approaching Toddlers and Discipline
Jamasa Tello, shopping with her 2-year-old daughter, Maria, and her mother, found her enjoyable afternoon taking a turn for the worse when Maria began throwing a tantrum. Following the advice of experts, Tello ignored her daughter's screaming fit. Tello's mother, however, wasn't as serene.
"I explained to my mother that Maria was just very tired, and we should have been more sensitive to her schedule," says Tello. "We also needed to be more flexible so that if she's tired, we can postpone our trip. And if she does throw a tantrum, we need to be able to leave the store."
Tantrums are nothing new for Tello to handle. The Eugene, Ore., mother recently returned to work, leaving Maria with a babysitter. Plus, the two of them moved in with Tello's parents. The transitions were upsetting to Maria, and she became an increasingly demanding, defiant toddler.
Initially Tello tried reasoning with Maria or putting her in her room. A couple of times, she recalls guiltily, she even gave her a little swat. Nothing seemed to work. Then one day, she took a deep breath, decided enough was enough and took a more consistent approach.
Not Little Adults
Brenda Nixon, author of Parenting Power in the Early Years (WinePress, 2001), says Tello made the right decision when she vowed to be more consistent in handling Maria's outbursts. The mistake she made in the first place was simply trying to treat Maria as a reasoning human being, which she was not and would not be for several years.
"From a toddler's point of view, the child has an agenda and the world revolves around his or her agenda," says Nixon. "When a big adult interferes with that agenda, the toddler is not defying the parent by not obeying, the child simply doesn't have that kind of reasoning power. Rather, he is trying to further his agenda. If the adult resists, sometimes the frustration results in a temper tantrum. This is merely a way to express frustration since toddlers lack the language to express themselves. They use their bodies instead."
Nixon says it's absolutely normal for a child to throw a temper tantrum. What is usually not normal is an adult's reaction to a temper tantrum. As adults, we should be willing to understand that this small child needs a little latitude. Instead, we respond with anger or embarrassment or try to placate the child to get him to stop.
"People will look at you very judgmentally when your child is writhing around on the floor screaming, but the fact is that the only person who cares about what those strangers think is you," Nixon says. "The child doesn't care. The only person that child cares about is Mom or Dad and what their reaction will be."
The Right Reaction
When a child throws a tantrum, the first step is to ignore the tantrum behavior. This sends a message to the child that this is not the way to get satisfaction from the parent. Since it's the parent's opinion the toddler cares about, he will eventually get the message that this is not the way to get what he wants. Then, as soon as the child begins to calm down, the parent can give the child some verbal and body attention, perhaps saying something like, "I'm glad you decided to be calm so we could talk," or helping the child to wipe her eyes. This sends a message to the child that she gets attention from the most important person in her world when she's calm.
It's hard for parents to do this, Nixon acknowledges, because as adults we are conscious of the criticism of our peers. However, it's important for parents not to allow peer pressure to modify effectiveness when responding to their child, because kids pick up on this so quickly. If the child's negative behavior is reinforced by increased attention, it may become a difficult habit to break.
Nixon believes parents need to understand the "no reaction" method may not work the first time a parent does it – or even the second or third time. But by staying calm and consistent, the child will begin to learn what is acceptable and what is not.
"Toddlers need things repeated before they can internalize the lessons – just as when we walk them upstairs we tell them over and over to hold the railing and take one step at a time," says Nixon. "It's reinforced behavior. With tantrums, it's a tense and emotional moment and you feel like you need to do something, but the best thing is just to ignore it. The worst thing a parent can do is stand over a screaming kid and ask them, 'Why are you acting like this? You're embarrassing me.'" This merely gives that child attention and that's all the child wants – even if it's negative."
Choose Your Battles
Fortunately, tantrums are (hopefully) not an everyday occurrence. What parents should focus on daily is teaching life skills.
Toddlers love to be helpers. Encourage this built-in behavior by asking them to help pick up toys, rather than telling them. For Tello, whose daughter refused to do as she was asked, a simple request to be a helper made all the difference.
"I thought she was being sassy, but when I changed my strategy to 'you help me do it,' Maria was much more receptive to the idea," says Tello.
It's always a good strategy to take a different approach to your toddler if the way you are interacting isn't working. Toddlers want to explore the limits of their worlds.
To ensure your child responds to limits that are vital, such as not running into the street or not standing in the grocery cart, it's best not to have too many rules and regulations.
Instead of saying "no" over and over to things that are off limits in the child's house, put them up until she understands those limits. If she pesters you while you're trying to talk on the phone, have a special box of toys ready for her to play with only when you're on the phone.
In other words, choose your battles wisely. Just think of it as practice for 10 years down the road. After all, as Nixon points out, toddlerhood is just a glimpse of what it's going to be like to deal with teenagers.