“I want to hurt your feelings….ALL OF THEM!”
I had to walk out of the room when James said that to me. Half of me wanted to break into peels of hysterical laughter, and the other half wanted to collapse in tears. THIS is his reaction to my insistence that he brush his teeth? I thought. WTF is he going to do when I try to enforce curfew someday?! While I knew difficult toddler behavior was par for the course, I still worried that I was raising a brat.
I walked back into that room a minute later and laid down the law. I calmly explained that this was not acceptable behavior, and that if he didn’t start brushing his teeth before I counted to three, he was going to lose his bedtime stories.
He still didn’t listen. Instead, he hit me.
So off to bed James went, tartar-crusted teeth and all. I went into our living room, closed the door, and turned on Real Housewives of Orange County, hoping that bickering blondes would drown out my screaming threenager.
Am I causing psychological damage? I wondered after he’d been screaming for 20 minutes. On the contrary, I reminded myself. If you give in, he’ll realize you’re full of empty threats. The tantrum went on for another half hour as I squirmed on the sofa wishing I wasn’t doing a Whole 30 so I could have a glass of wine.
When it was finally quiet, I tiptoed upstairs to make sure he was still alive. I peeked through his open door to find him cozily tucked into bed squeezing his favorite stuffed puppy, his tearstained cheek resting peacefully on his pillow.
Like most threenagers, James is still up and down. But I will say we’ve noticed a big decrease in difficult toddler behavior since I made such a big statement. Here are 10 Tips for dealing with Difficult Toddler Behavior from a mom who’s deep in the trenches:
- Wait a beat before you react. How many times have you been in an argument that left you wondering where things went so wrong? The same happens when you’re dealing with difficult toddler behavior. Situations can spiral quickly unless you take a breath and react strategically.
- Set expectations ahead of time. Communicate them clearly both with words and actions. For example, the night before school starts, you might explain, “On school days, we all put our clothes on before going downstairs. We don’t eat breakfast in our pajamas.” Then you show up fully dressed (yes, leggings count) when you enter his room the next morning and insist he follow suit.
- Reward/consequence is not the same as bribery. There’s a difference between “If you brush your teeth you can have an extra story” and “If you don’t brush your teeth, you will lose stories.” When you’ve communicated your expectation clearly, you shouldn’t have to offer any further incentive. However, it’s also important to recognize good behavior. So if he brushes his teeth without a fuss for a week, tell him you recognize how hard he’s been trying and how much he’s learned.
- Know when to say “no” versus offer an alternative. I don’t want James watching cartoons every day. However, I don’t mind if he watches Planet Earth while I clean up after dinner. So when he asks if he can watch Paw Patrol, I don’t say “no.” I simply suggest Planet Earth instead. Usually, this averts a tantrum and gives everyone what they want.
- Give them choices that both lead to the same outcome. Every morning, I ask James the same thing: “Would you like to put on your clothes, or would you like me to do it for you?” Not getting dressed is not an option. And if he asks to postpone it, I gently remind him that I didn’t offer that as a choice. Complete refusal to comply means he loses a toy or privilege. (Also it means we’re in for a VERY rough day.)
- Try counting. 1-2-3 Magic is amazing…if you use it properly. That means both parents need to be on board, and consequences need to be reasonable. Read the the whole book before you try it, otherwise it will mean nothing.
- Use a timer. The Apple employee who put a timer to the iPhone must’ve been a mom. It’s much easier for a toddler allow the fun to end if they know it’s about to happen. And for some reason, it’s so much easier for my threenager to heed my phone’s chime than it is the sound of my voice.
- Ask yourself “Is it me?” When James and I are having a rough day, I try to take a moment to check in with my own feelings. Am I stressed because I’m tight on time? Am I experiencing conflict with someone else? Often I’m dismayed to find that my own baggage is contributing to the problem. But by being self-aware, I can course correct and apologize, transforming a bad example into a good one.
- Ask questions instead of saying “Use your words.” When James is fully kicking and screaming on the floor, giving him one more thing to do only makes it worse. Instead, I ask him “Why are you crying?” or “Can you say that again? I can’t understand you because you’re crying.” Then I pull him in for a hug. This usually calms him down just enough to try to communicate, transforming a battle of wills into a conversation.
- Don’t make stupid rules. Difficult toddler behavior does not include getting clothes dirty, accidentally spilling juice, or screaming loudly while playing at the park. Those things are normal kid behavior. Inconvenient, yes, but punishing a child for being a child will only lead to a lack of confidence. If you’re not sure if your expectations are age appropriate, ask a mom of older kids, or even call your pediatrician.
Truthfully, it’s not all bad. There are days when I never want to put James to bed because they’re just so magical, and I love watching him learn and grow. But when the meltdowns happen, this is what works for us. What works for you?