For the last month or so my now 14-month-old son has found his personality. So far, it’s a mixture of independence, stubbornness, a big sense of humour, a desire to please and a very strong will. He has also, recently, found out that he, too, can say ‘no’ to me. And oh boy, what a ‘no’ it can be!
In short, we have arrived at the age the dreaded toddler tantrums start. Like any child his age, the boy is currently testing boundaries big style. It ranges from saying ‘no’ to kisses and cuddles (along with the cutest head shake and a big grin on his face) to full-on throwing-himself-on-the-floor-screaming-like-a-banshee scenarios over things like being given the wrong kind of porridge.
When, before, parenting a baby and saying ‘no’ was imperative at laying the ground rules, now is the time to keep applying them and really find out how they help shape a well-rounded member of our society over the months and years to come.
Toddler tantrums are the most testing of times. Your child is too young to understand much reasoning, but old enough to have an opinion. Too young to foresee consequences, but old enough to start dealing with emotions, however unreasonable they may seem to us.
In general, I believe we have adopted a gentle parenting approach. Not the kind of over-interpretation, by which the boy gets away with whatever he wants to do, but the kind where we have firm boundaries, within which he has the freedom to be himself. The nuance is important, as I know that there are people around us who think we’re draconian. We’re really not, it’s all about knowing where the boundaries lie. Here’s what really happens:
1. We’re patient – to a point.
Babies are generally helpless little creatures whose only weapon of choice is crying – they cry when they’re hungry, need attention, have a full nappy, are tired and for a myriad of other reasons. Babies fully rely on you to be able to interpret their cries and tend to their needs.
On the other hands, toddlers are starting to gain independence and are able to do things for themselves. They learn to climb stairs, feed themselves, dress and undress themselves, take items out of boxes and cupboards and communicate using sign language and simple sounds. Importantly, they don’t wake up one day and can do all of these things. Like any skill, learning takes place over time and will, at times, end in frustration. Cue the tantrum.
Again, it is important to know what is going on. Your toddler is trying to communicate with you, but cannot yet find the words to tell you what is happening. It is your job to see what is going on and help only where help is needed. Patience is key, not only to foster independence, but also to maximise success and limit moments where tantrums are necessary to move on from the point of frustration.
If your toddler has managed to climb a few stairs , but their legs get tired, you carry them only if time to get back their breath and try again doesn’t make a difference or they are putting themselves at risk. If they throw food in frustration at food falling off their spoon repeatedly, you guide their hand rather than feed them yourself. If they throw a tantrum for not being able to take their shoes off, you loosen them, but don’t do it for them.
You get the gist. Patience is key, as is picking the right moment to teach them new skills. 6.30am, 10min before you have to get out of the house in order to be at work on time, is NOT the right time to practise feeding or getting dressed.
2. We have clear rules.
They are simple and age-appropriate. They are geared towards keeping the boy and his surroundings safe. You sit when you eat. You sit when you brush your teeth. You wear shoes outside. Sleep time is not play time. You don’t hit.
Our rules are one-liners, easily repeated, general rules of how we expect our children to behave. They do not differ for our children, even though there is a 9-year age gap between them. That is important. Rules are there to be followed and while they must be kept age-appropriate in language and how they are applied, everyone in the family needs to follow the same rules. Otherwise, what is the point? How can we expect a toddler (who, by definition, has a very much black-and-white understanding of things) to behave in a certain way, if we constantly break our own rules?
The rules themselves don’t change, although their number does increase with age and understanding. At age 1, we don’t hit, we don’t run through the house with food in our hands, we don’t play at night. At age 3, we don’t shout at strangers in a supermarket or throw ourselves on the floor. At age 6, we use a toilet and hold the door for others. As a child’s world changes and begins to make more sense, as the focus shifts from the world being about themselves to one about society, we can introduce more and more behaviours we’d expect of others. The ground rules and the foundation of what is accepted, however, begins from birth (see also my post on saying ‘no’ early on. May I point out that the boy now doesn’t open our cupboards or touch the radiator anymore).
Tantrums can happen when toddlers are confused – the fewer boundaries there are, the less they will understand why, suddenly, they cannot touch the glassware at auntie Jo’s or run around in a restaurant where hot food is being served.
3. We are consistent.
This ties in directly with number 2. If you have rules and they are age-appropriate and general, they apply everywhere. If we want the boy to allow grandma and grandad to sleep in the night, we wouldn’t help them if we took him out of bed to play with him and appease him if he decides to be awake at 3am. If we don’t want him to smear custard all over our friends’ glass patio doors, we don’t allow him to run around with food in his hands anywhere and clean him up before he is allowed to leave the high chair – every time. If the rule is not to climb on auntie Jo’s furniture, the rule to stay seated or stand starts at home.
The downside is, you’ll never get praise for this. The girl didn’t suddenly become well-behaved. It took years of hard work and consistent rules for her to behave the way we expect. We still reinforce it now, but because our rules are consistent, often a look is enough to get her back in line. But all people see on the outside is a ‘naturally’ well-behaved, helpful girl who will do as she is told by a mere look. We’ve even had comments in that direction. No, it really doesn’t work like that.
4. We give choices – within limits.
So the boy has decided he doesn’t want to get dressed. There he is, lying on the floor, bum up in the air and looking at me reproachfully. It’s 6am and I have to be on my way to work in half an hour. He has two choices: the black shirt or the stripey one. He picks the stripey one. The tantrum is over and we can get on with the rest of our day.
Example 2: It’s 7.30pm and bed time. I’m knackered, he’s tired and in a mood. He doesn’t want to get in the bath. He has 2 choices: ‘Do you want to take the rubber duck or the stacking toys into the bath?’ He picks the rubber duck. Tantrum avoided.
More than half of all tantrums can be easily diffused like this. You present your toddler with two choices (never let them freely pick and never give more than two choices – it’s all about timely intervention and still them doing what needs to be done). BUT the choices, whilst connected to what needs to be done, are not about whether or not the event happens. It will always happen; their choice is merely how.
So, going back to our steadfast rules, when it’s bedtime, the boy can choose to climb up the stairs or be carried, but he will get into the bathroom by one means or another. He can choose to read a story (maybe even pick between two books) or not to read a story, but lights will go out at the same time. He can choose to eat his banana in his big boy armchair or in his high chair, but he will stay seated. He can choose to watch TV or read a book while I cut his hair, but he will have a hair cut. Again, knowing what your ground rules are is important here. If you don’t know what your rules are, draw some general house rules up and write them down if you need to. But stick to them and limit choices around how they will be adhered to. Never negotiate on whether they are adhered to.
5. We give freedom – within limits.
Our toddlers are little people with their own likes and dislikes. They have their own ideas of how the world works and, more importantly, how it should work. So let them be free – as long as they always stick to your ground rules.
Who gives a monkey’s backside whether they read a book whilst you get them dressed, if that is what they chose to do and it actually keeps them still and willing to cooperate? Who cares if they run around in Wellies rather than their new pair of trainers, as long as they adhere to the shoes-outside rule? If they insist on walking in a supermarket rather than go in the shopping trolley, let them, as long as they hold your hand and don’t touch.
Rules are important, but so is the freedom to actually explore the world and be themselves. At times, your toddler will go against what you want them to do, but still be within the boundaries of your rules. In those moments, it is important to let go. Your child is a person, not a little soft toy, there to do your bidding. If you force your will on them too often, at best you will get many more tantrums than necessary and build yourself up for a future with a rebellious teenager, at worst you will break their little personalities and never allow them to speak up for themselves. I know what I’m talking about – I’ve been in that position as a child.
It is important to occasionally accept a ‘no’ from them. At the moment, the boy says ‘no’ pretty much every time I try to give him a kiss. He finds it hilarious that I respect his ‘no’ and don’t kiss him. He will, a little while later, give me a kiss of his own free will. Accepting their wishes within the boundaries of your ground rules is incredibly important. It teaches them self-confidence and it teaches them that a ‘no’ must be accepted where reasonable – on both sides.
6. We praise the good and ignore the bad – within limits.
Some tantrums are thrown by children who seek attention, in any way possible. I know that; I frequently teach children who have learned all their lived that attention can be sought by misbehaving in more and more dramatic ways – usually negative ones. So ignoring the bad where possible and praising the good, however small, is a much-used strategy to deal with these children. At home, the words ‘good boy’ are used much more often than the word ‘no’.
Children intrinsically want to please. They may not always know how to do this in an acceptable way, but the basic desire is there. So when we returned from food shopping the other week and the boy dived into the bags while I was in the kitchen to put the shopping away, my first instinct was to tell him off. Then I realised what he was doing: he was taking the shopping out of the bags for me. His little idea of ‘help’ was to take the shopping out and hand it to me. Brilliant. I praised him to the moon and back. Every item he handed to me got him a ‘thank you’ or a ‘good boy’. I removed anything dangerous (mainly glass bottles and glass jars) and allowed him to carry on. Fast-forward to present and he is still helping me with the shopping every week. What could have easily become a tantrum and a negative experience through my own misunderstanding has turned into positive bonding time.
Likewise, negative incidences need to be ignored, provided your toddler does not put himself or others into danger. That includes your possessions. I have found that the boy is not much of a morning person (currently owing to him waking during the night as he is cutting his first molars), so his way of testing boundaries is, at the moment, to refuse to get dressed or eat. We could end up with a morning of stress and tantrums. Usually, we limit this quite well. While I get the boy dressed using the 2-choices technique (and occasionally allow him to read a book at the same time), food is something I cannot and will not force onto him. So if he refuses to go in his high chair and tantrums, so be it. I keep an eye on him (making sure that he is being kept safe) and do my hair/ make-up/ get dressed etc. It usually takes him 5min to realise that his tantrum won’t get him anywhere and that, actually, porridge is quite tasty. And as I don’t give in and feed him on the floor or without adequate coverage, he has to sit in his high chair and get his bib on.
Had I given in, I’d have taught him that he only needs to tantrum hard enough to get his way. Had I got cross and forced him into his high chair, I would only have prolonged the tantrum and added to it. There are very few incidences where forcing a child to do something is a must. You don’t get much compliance through force; it usually happens out of free will – same as with adults. Of course, I did not forget to praise him once he sat and fed himself.
Have a tantruming toddler? Try all of the above for a while and let me know how it works for you.