Toddlers are strong-willed, prone to tantrums and don’t have a great sense of danger. How can we support their development while effectively parenting them? Find out what science says are the most powerful tips for parenting toddlers here.
About three months shy of his second birthday, I noticed a change in my youngest. Though still happy and enthusiastic, he started hitting, throwing toys, and going boneless.
Case and point was just the other day.
I was simultaneously making breakfast and lunches for school. My little guy was underfoot. As I brought pancakes over to the kitchen table, I looked at him as he stood “reorganizing” the Tupperware drawer.
“You’re handsome,” I said smiling.
It was as if I had smacked the pleasant look off of his face.
In that instant, he collapsed into a pile of tears.
Between sobs, I was able to hear what made him so sad.
“Me no handsome. Me big boy.”
Sure, he was, in part, crying because he was ready for breakfast. But, I had made the most egregious error in his mind. Not knowing what handsome meant, he figured my compliment was a slight against his newfound independence.
What happened to my sweet baby?
Before becoming a toddler, an infant’s needs are basic. During this time, it is important the caregiver respond to the child’s cries for:
- physical contact,
- and sleep.
Through his research on child development, psychologist Erik Erikson described infancy as a stage of basic trust versus mistrust. A parent who responds to a baby’s cries helps her emerge from this stage with basic trust.
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Toddlers needs are much more complex.
By the time a child starts toddling, he has discovered something incredible. He can be independent. Not only can he move on his own, but he can also test ideas, try new things, and even run away from Mom!
Erikson termed this stage, Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt.
During this time, a toddler still has very similar needs to an infant.
He needs comfort, closeness, responsiveness, and custodial care. However, he also needs regular opportunities to:
- test out and master new skills,
- demonstrate preferences,
- play on his own, and
- feel a sense of control.
But the struggle is real. For one, toddlers don’t always know what they need. They lack the language to communicate what they’re thinking. And, they are unable to stay safe.
On top of that, toddlers’ brains are highly emotional.
In their book, The Whole Brain Child, Dr Daniel Siegel and Dr Tina Bryerson explain that the more primitive parts of toddlers’ brains are well developed. However, the ‘upstairs brain’ which is responsible for impulse control and the regulation of emotions doesn’t fully develop until early adulthood.
And so, what we have is a little person who is strong-willed and wants to:
- try everything by herself,
- doesn’t know how to do everything by herself, and
- is prone to meltdowns when things don’t go her way.
This begs the question, how do we handle this period of tantrums, willfulness and newfound independence and parent effectively?
The best way to approach strong-willed toddlers is to reframe how we view their behaviour.
Erikson’s research demonstrated that the main goal of toddlerhood is to develop autonomy.
Instead of seeing them as terrible or troublesome, we are able to understand toddler willfulness as necessary for their development. During those strong-willed toddler moments, everything in the child is screaming, “I want to do this by myself.”
These headstrong little people are constantly being corrected, guided, and scooped up regardless of what they have their minds set on. The frustration they feel can be all-consuming and can happen often.
And that’s when meltdowns happen.
Based on this, what are the best parenting tips for toddlers to feel independent?
- Explain what’s happening and why. Even if a child doesn’t have elaborate expressive language, he understands a lot. For example, “I know you’re having fun playing. We need to leave now to pick up the kids from school. You can play when we get back.”
- Give opportunities to test new skills. For example, doing puzzles, colouring, block building, helping put away toys, stair climbing, putting on rubber boots herself, buckling the top seat belt buckle or sliding down the slide at the park are all great opportunities for a toddler to feel accomplished.
- Allow him to show his preferences. For example, ask if he would like to wear his red shirt or blue shirt. Prompt him to choose between flavours of yoghurt at snack time.
- Give two options with the same outcome. This is great because both the parent and child have a sense of control. For example, “Do you want to leave now or in five minutes?” or “Do you want to get dressed or have your teeth brushed first?”
- Redirect behaviour. A child won’t feel her independence is thwarted if you tell her what she can do in the place of the behaviour she shouldn’t be doing. For example, take her hand when she hits the dog and show her how to pet him gently. If he throws his cars, join in his play and roll them back and forth across the floor.
- Give warnings. For example, “We are leaving the park in two minutes.” Set the timer and wait.
One of the other best parenting tips for toddlers is to appeal to the logical left brain
Based on Siegel and Bryson’s research on neurobiology, when a child is in the midst of a tantrum, his right brain is overactive and the logical left brain is essentially submissive. These tips help get the left brain working more, especially in the midst of a tantrum.
- Name it to tame it. We can appeal to the left brain by naming the emotion. For example, “Oh you’re crying because you don’t want to go in the car?” Or, “You’re sad because we need to leave the park?” are both phrases that work well. When the child has a label for how he feels, his emotions diffuse and his self-control starts to take over again.
- Use social stories. Social stories are created by the caregiver in the moment to explain what happened to the child, how she feels and perhaps how she will calm down.
- Wait it out. Every emotion will pass. Sometimes the only course of action is to wait for a tantrum to pass.
- Take a time-in. Take the child into his room to cuddle, connect, or read to calm down.
- Get outside. Engaging in gross motor play, such as riding a tricycle, kicking a ball, or playing a game of tag will help a toddler feeling better again.
Related reading: Why you shouldn’t punish tantrums and what you can do instead
Tips for parenting toddlers – A final note
Parenting toddlers is challenging. Toddlers are willful and have a fierce desire for autonomy. That said, it is such a gift to celebrate their newfound independence. The best parenting tips for toddlers is to 1. reframe their behaviour to better understand their willfulness and, 2. help their logical left brain take over when they are emotionally charged. These two approaches make the entire process so much more enjoyable for both parent and child.
Tips for parenting toddlers – additional reading
The Whole Brain Child by Dr Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson