Dr. Bill Sears provides his favorite strategies for understanding and shaping the behavior of developing children.
Toddlers often are unfairly labeled with the terrible twos during that stage of their lives. After surviving and thriving from parenting our own eight toddlers, and doctoring thousands more over my 42 years in pediatric practice, I’m still amazed by the antics of these awesome little people. Disciplining toddler behavior is toward the top of most parents question lists, so I’ve put together our favorite Sears family strategies:
1. Understand toddler behavior. Whats going on in those growing little minds? From 1 to 2 years of age, a toddler gets a lot of what she needs to be more independent: wheels to roll on (they run and jump themselves into trouble) and a horn to blow (their screaming can be ear-piercing). With these tools, your toddler is ready to explore her home. Climbing stairs, scaling kitchen counters and jumping off couches are normal, yet sometimes parent-startling, antics. Also, toddlers now have the hand tools to manipulate knobs, drawers, dangling cords and waste cans. Everything within walking and grabbing distance is fair game. To this inquisitive little adventurer, the whole house is her first school.
2. Connect before you direct. When giving your toddler directions, meet her at eye level and engage in eye-to-eye contact to help teach focus. Try to make your eye contact a connection rather than a feeling of authority. This plants in your toddlers absorbent little mind the social tools of eye-to-eye and face-to-face contact. Address your child by name: Amy, will you please
3. See things through your child’s eyes. This is the top toddler discipline tip we have learned in our family. One day Lauren, our 2-year-old, impulsively grabbed a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, dropped it on the floor and burst into howls. Martha, the master disciplinarian in our home, could’ve angrily scolded her about the mess. Instead, Martha got down to Laurens level, made eye contact and talked to her sensitively about what happened. Remember, discipline is not a technique or method; it begins naturally by getting out of yourself and behind the eyes of your child to understand her quirks.
4. Enjoy empathy. Empathy means planting in your child the ability to think through what they’re about to do. As your toddler learns to get behind the eyes of others, she can better imagine the effects of her behavior on another person before she acts. When the class bully shoves another child who then falls and starts crying, your empathetic child goes over and comforts her bullied friend. That’s because you planted into her growing brain patterns of association, sort of like a large video library stored in your toddler’s brain.
Suppose during a play squabble, a common toddler push-and-shove breaks out. Try playing show and tell. Make eye-to-eye contact and use the magic words, Jason, how would you feel if Bobby hit you? When one of our children got an owie, we would have our 2- and 3-year-olds play doctor or nurse to help put the bandage on their siblings sore. Raise kids who care.
5. Tame toddler talk. When our son Matthew was between 2 and 3 years of age, he was amazed at the power of his voice. His screeches could stop everyone in their tracks. We muted our little screamer by making the house rule: Matthew, only scream on the grass. When a scream was about to erupt, we would usher him outside. We taught him to use his nice voice or inside voice when around people.
6. Tame toddler touches. Because toddlers don’t often have enough language to express their emotions, they do so in actions. Suppose your child is going through one of those stages where she slaps hands or hits the pet. Again, play show and tell. Show her pet and be gentle with your hand: We pet doggy and We hug instead of hit. To accentuate your point, hits get a frown, while hugs merit a smile.
7. Go on safety patrol. Once you have an exploring toddler on the prowl, expect your little artist to leave her mark on previously immaculate walls. Just as there are yes touches and no touches for dangerous objects, give her a yes wall to draw on and lots of yes touches, such as her own drawer or cabinet in the kitchen and her own play shelves in the family room.
8. Help child switch moods. Toddlers are often so engrossed in a play activity that it’s a chore to get them to switch from their agenda to yours. When our strong-willed child was glued to her activity, we would help her sign off around five minutes before it was time to leave the party or go to bed and gradually ease her into our agenda.
9. Teach your child manners. Teach your child a valuable social skill addressing persons by name: Susan, I need you to And, of course, add a polite please. Expect your child to be polite. Children shouldn’t feel manners are optional. Speak to your children the way you want them to speak to others.
10. Tame toddler tantrums. Keep a tantrum diary detailing what ignites your child. Get used to picking up on the about-to-flare-up signals and quickly distract her into a more calming activity. If your toddler usually has an afternoon meltdown, go food shopping just after morning nap time. At a young age, children learn how to push your anger buttons and blow off steam to get what they want. Let them know early on that you don’t listen to tantrum-speak. Once toddlers realize that manipulative tantrums will get them nowhere, this behavior will self-destruct. As they get more verbal and can express their needs and frustrations more in words than in actions, the tantrum stage will pass. Discipline, in a nutshell, is giving your children the tools to succeed in life, and this begins by enjoying those terrific twos.
Bill Sears, M.D., is a father of eight and the author of 42 books on family health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood. A practicing pediatrician for over 40 years, he is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Dr. Sears is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a fellow of the Royal College of Pediatricians (RCP).