Advice Column, Parenting, Toddler


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Parenting is one of the most important and challenging responsibilities we will ever encounter. Without a handbook or manual how do we know we are on the right track? How will we know that what we are teaching our children and the ways in which we are disciplining them will create- responsible and independent individuals? This all stems from the nurturance, attention, unconditional love and determination we as parents provide, in the hope of our children growing up to be the best they can be. But what if some of their behaviours are stemming from our own actions as parents?

Before I go any further, let me emphasize that this article is not meant to be a guilt trip for moms and dads. We have enough of that already. Instead, it reframes the issue as one of parent behaviour as much as toddler behaviour which can actually be really empowering—especially for control freak moms like me—because it means we can actually do something about it!

From the moment a child is born it observes and starts to learn to imitate its caregiver’s behaviours, being quite compliant at the start. But once it hits the toddler years, however, that power struggling personality starts to develop in order to create their own individuality. We all know that toddlers are prone to misbehave. Screaming, whining, not listening, as well as throwing that hour long tantrum in the grocery store, are all par for the course when you’re dealing with a tot. Some of it is downright unavoidable. Toddlers are toddlers.

So why do toddlers really misbehave? To answer that question, we must first understand the root cause of those annoying, frustrating, maddening behaviours.

Children, teens and adults, for that matter, have a need for belonging and significance. It’s just the way we’re wired. Belonging refers to the emotional connection and positive attention we need with one another. Significance refers to one’s sense of autonomy, capability, and need to make contributions in meaningful ways. Think of “significance” as a form of possessing personal power. Without both of these innate needs being met, children will misbehave. In some cases where the need is identified parents want to be proactive and implement strategies that will positively and proactively fill that need. However, without knowledge of WHY the children are misbehaving and WHAT strategies to use to address and correct the misbehaviours, parents naturally rely on their instincts and some of the “popular” parenting techniques they’ve read or heard about. This can lead to an escalation of the misbehaviours and seldom corrects them permanently.

Clash of personalities

Parents unknowingly encourage and escalate misbehaviour in two ways — their personality and their choice of discipline strategies. For example, a parent with a “controlling” personality typically communicates with children by doing a lot of ordering, correcting and directing — “get your shoes on, brush your teeth, turn off the TV now — it’s time for school.” No one likes to be told what to do, when or how to do it — including children! The more we order, correct and direct, the more likely our kids will “dig in their heels” and engage us in power struggles. It’s their way of saying, “you’re not the boss of me.”

A parent with a “pleasing” personality style may invite helplessness from children because as soon as the child says “NO” to the request, the pleasing parent avoids conflict and does the task for the child. The good news, however, is that once parents understand their personality style and how it impacts behaviour, they can choose more effective ways to communicate and to correct behaviour.

Here are some ways parents can trigger their toddler’s less-than-angelic side, plus tips on how to fix it.

‘I need more of your time and attention’

When a child doesn’t feel a strong sense of belonging, she will act out in ways that she (mistakenly) believes will give her the emotional connection and positive attention she craves. For example, a toddler who isn’t getting enough positive attention from mom and dad will act out with attention-seeking behaviours like whining, clinging or acting helpless. So as to avoid a scene many parents give in to these behaviours, thus giving their toddlers the response that they need and achieving their end goal.

Fix It: Make sure you’re giving your toddler plenty of undivided attention when she’s behaving well. I’ve found that focusing solely on my almost-two-year-old for just fifteen to twenty minutes makes her more content to play independently when I need to get something done.

You modelling bad behaviour

For better or worse, imitation is one of the key ways children learn how to behave. So if your three-year-old hears you use a swear word or sees you yelling at your spouse, it should come as no surprise when he follows suit.

Fix It: Develop a constant awareness that your tot’s eyes are on you, absorbing everything you say and do.

That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect; when you do mess up and model bad behaviour, use it as a learning opportunity to explain to your child what you did wrong and how you’re going to correct it (instead of just crossing your fingers and hoping you weren’t heard or seen!)

‘I need some power of my own’

A young child feels stripped of his significance when mom and dad do things for him, that he is capable of doing himself. Or, perhaps they call all the shots and make all the decisions — robbing him of having some personal control over his life. These parent behaviours (which are natural and extremely common) then strip the child of his sense of significance or personal power.

If his hard-wired need to feel capable, important and to have some say over his own life isn’t met, he will fight back with power-seeking behaviours like tantrums, talking back, not listening, and other power struggles occasionally leading to defiance in tweens and teens. The child really wants positive power, but the negative power-seeking behaviours are the toddlers’ or tweens’ way of saying, “you aren’t the boss of me! I need some power of my own!

Fix it: provide more space for the learner to do things independently. If they request your help you are welcome to assist, but in most cases encourage that independence and provide a lot of praise when he starts to do things for himself.

Your expectations are too high. 

If your toddler is constantly breaking a particular rule, consider the possibility that there’s a problem with the rule itself. For example, expecting your two-year-old to remain perfectly tidy at dinnertime is setting her up for failure—toddlers are, by nature, messy eaters because their fine motor skills are still developing.And let’s not forget that children actually learn faster when they’re getting messy! 

Fix It: Make sure your expectations for your child are fair and developmentally-appropriate. For me, this means not expecting my son to sit still throughout the entire church service or remain quiet during dinner with friends. (That’s not to say I don’t hold him to a certain standard, it’s just a standard that fits his age and abilities.) It’s kept both of us from getting frustrated over and over again!

Why a ‘time out’ is a waste of time…

Time Out is one of the most widely used strategies for disciplining children. It is defined as sending a child to his room or to a designated Time Out spot for a period of time so the child can “think about his behaviour” or “learn a lesson for next time.” Sadly, these two goals are not accomplished with Time Out.

Beyond the age of three (or younger), children understand that they are “independent beings” and using “Time Out” only intensifies the power struggle. When we attempt to “control a child” by forcing him to stay in Time Out, he will instinctively fight back by refusing to stay in Time Out or throwing a tantrum to prove that “you’re not the boss of me!”

Children who are less headstrong may do as they are told and remain in “Time Out” for the prescribed time, but it begs the question … what are they learning from this punishment? Are they sitting in “Time Out” thinking about their misbehaviour and about how they’ll make a better choice next time? Probably not! Most likely they are brooding over how unfair Mom or Dad are for sending them to “Time Out”! Perhaps they are planning their revenge on the sibling that got them in trouble! Most often, Time Out becomes a battle of wills between parent and child. But more importantly, it doesn’t teach the child to make a better choice in the future, which is what we are ultimately after in the first place.

What can we do instead?

One of the strategies we recommend is the use of EFFECTIVE consequences. An effective consequence is one in which the child learns to make a better choice for the future AND the parent isn’t the bad guy!

For consequences to do their job — to teach our kids and parents from being seen as the bad guy, they should include the 5 R’s:

  • Respect — our goal is not to make the child suffer — but to have him learn to make a better choice in the future. When parents inflict blame, shame or pain as part of a “punishment”, the child is focused on “self-protection,” not learning for the future. An effective consequence is respectful to the child.
  • Related to the Misbehaviour — for children to learn for the future, the consequence has to “make sense” to the child and should be related to the misbehaviour. For example, the consequence for throwing blocks around the room is to lose the privilege of playing with the blocks for the day. The consequence for not turning off the video game when asked is to lose video/gaming privileges for the day/week.
  • Remain Reasonable in duration based on the child’s age. 
  • Revealed in Advance: The consequence must be revealed to the child in advance, so he can make a choice between the appropriate behaviour and the consequence. Unless he knows ahead of time what the consequence will be, the parent will always be the “bad guy.” Make sure to also make eye contact and bend down to the child’s height level to instil better understanding and focus from your child.
  • Repeated Back to You: To ensure that the child is perfectly clear on what is expected and the consequence for not following your rule, ask him to repeat it back to you. For example, “Just so we’re on the same page, can you repeat back to me our rule for turning off the video game when asked and the consequence if you choose not to do that?” Once the child repeats it back to you — you have a verbal agreement! (For younger children — use very simple language, but as long as they are verbal — they can repeat back to you.) 

Put the monkey where it belongs!

Now the onus is on your child. He knows the rule; he knows the consequence for not following the rule. It’s up to him now to make the right choice or live with the consequences.

If you follow the process of the 5 R’s, your child will most likely make the appropriate choice. If not, that’s fine too — it will be a learning experience for him. Continue to remain calm AND don’t give in! Instead, very calmly say, “I see you choose to lose your video/gaming privileges for the day. You’ll have a chance to try again tomorrow.”

Experiencing consequences is then a wonderful way for kids to learn to make better choices in the future, and everyone can then feel more positive about the disciplining process.

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  • Robyn Paul November 24, 2023 at 6:48 am

    Absolutely loved this article and am saving it. More parents need this information. I’ve never been a fan of time out so I’ll definitely use the 5 R’s method.

  • Allaine Marais November 24, 2023 at 11:39 am

    I feel like this article and its entirety should be taught in parent classes across the world so that we can really take time to invest and understand our childrens behavior. Because truth is, sometimes WE REALLY ARE THE PROBLEM


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