Today’s topic is five ways to CORRECT your toddler. If you have not yet seen part one of this series, I’d recommend checking it out before moving on. It addresses how to build CONNECTION with our little ones, which gives us a lot more cred with them in the more difficult moments. You can find part one here.
When thinking about correcting certain toddler behaviors, it is important to remember two guiding principles:
1. Love is a stronger motivator than fear, so “connect before you correct.”
2. Our modeling of appropriate behaviors is much more effective than any other factor.
Regarding principle number one, a parent naturally takes on the role of an authority figure. There are a variety of ways we can approach this role, and using fear (of punishment, of being shamed, etc.) is one of them. And fear will indeed make a behavior stop in the short term. If we forget the guiding principles above, however, our effectiveness will likely end when our children are not in our presence.
Here’s a quick analogy that might help explain what I mean. I used to travel to another city each week in order to do some work there. About halfway through my journey I knew of a certain place where a police officer ran radar on the cars passing by. As the good citizen I am, I usually slowed down around that town because, you know, it was the right thing to do, right? No… honestly I slowed down because I didn’t want to get caught. And I always sped the rest of the way. I was motivated by fear and I only changed my behavior when I thought there was a reasonable chance that I would be in the officer’s presence.
This analogy is oversimplified, but I believe it is still able to convey an important point: My motivation for change was extrinsic (outside of me) versus intrinsic (inside of me). My decision to slow down was solely based on avoiding punishment, so my behavior only changed when I feared the authority figure was around and could punish me. Blunt honesty here: On the occasions when I have gotten caught speeding, I never internalized a desire to drive more safely or came to see that the officer was right. I took my punishment and tried harder not to get caught next time. And this is typical of an extrinsic motivation. (Don’t judge me… at least not in the comments section.)
Motivation by fear produces extrinsic behavior control, but motivation by love is an intrinsic measure of control. When a value becomes internalized, the child becomes their own authority figure. Modeling a loving firmness takes time, repetition, and patience of course, and it won’t always produce appropriate behaviors until the child is developmentally able to choose these behaviors for themselves. If we can stick with loving firmness, however, it is a much more effective approach in the long run. Showing our toddlers love and limits sets the stage for them to embrace internal measures of control when they reach the appropriate developmental stage to do so.
So with the two guiding principles in mind, here are five ways to correct your toddler (with a bonus for handling tantrums at the end):
1. SAY “YES” WHEN POSSIBLE SO THAT YOUR “NO” WEIGHS MORE. Sometimes we have to put on our authority figure hats and set limits because it’s what’s best for the child. Other times, we tend to say “no” because it’s what’s best for us. Let me explain.
My toddler likes to paint. Sometimes I don’t like saying “yes” to painting pictures because paint + toddler = mess. And sometimes he asks to go outside. Okay, he always asks to go outside. I love the outdoors, but sometimes I refuse because I need a break. Parents’ feelings count too, after all. I get it. I’ve said “no” to these things because it was better for me in that moment.
If we develop a pattern of consistently saying “no” to their reasonable requests, however, toddlers understandably ratchet up their protest anytime we use our “no’s.” And they don’t know the difference between a “no” for safety and a “no” because daddy isn’t feeling like it. If we can intentionally say “yes” more often (not all the time, but more often), our children will be less likely to develop that automatic floor-hugging tantrum anytime we use the word “no.”
2. MODEL COMPROMISE FOR THEM. In those moments when we simply must refuse their request, presenting them with alternative options can show them that we are still trying to at least say “yes” to something. For example, “We can’t go outside because it’s raining, but we can play chase inside.”
Try explaining your reasoning for saying “no,” even if you think they don’t understand. Remain open to other activities that might be acceptable alternatives for both of you.
3. REDIRECT THEM TOWARD A MORE APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR. For example, say a toddler is having problems with hitting others. Try to determine what his or her motivation might be for this behavior. Is it overexcitement? Then teach high-fives instead or show them how they can jump up and down to redirect their energy. Is it possessiveness with toys? Then introduce the concept of taking turns. Set a timer, or try to find another special activity they might enjoy while they wait. Maybe you could designate certain toys for sharing and other toys that do not have to be shared. Talk to them the whole time, explaining why you won’t allow certain behaviors, but that others are acceptable alternatives.
Misbehavior is usually a misguided way of trying to meet an unmet need. Try to read their motivation for the behavior and provide an alternate, more appropriate opportunity that meets whatever need they have. Redirection will naturally take some trial and error, but I encourage you to stick with it. If we stay engaged we should be able to find “teachable moments” all the time.
4. TEACH RESPECT BY GIVING RESPECT. Remember the second guiding principle–what we model for our kids will have the most influence on their behavior. Especially in toddlerhood, children are constantly watching what we do and soaking it in. Ask yourself,
What is my tone when I speak?
Is it how I want them to speak to me?
Do I consider their wants, even when they don’t line up with mine?
How do I show them that their feelings are important to me?
Do I ask their opinion or give them reasonable choices?
Showing children that we respect them as individuals will help them feel loved while modeling the very behaviors we want to promote. It builds their trust that we care about them and aren’t going to harm them. It also demonstrates for them how to behave and manage social situations.
5. KEEP CLEAR AND CONSISTENT BOUNDARIES. Toddlers are constantly testing boundaries. This is not because they are evil and want us to be miserable, it’s because their brains are growing and soaking up as much information as possible. They are little scientists, curious about their worlds and asking, “What happens when I do… this?” Toddlers also learn by repetition, so they tend to push the same boundary over and over again just to find out if there’s a pattern.
As their loving authority figures, it is important for us to abide by the two guiding principles outlined above while remaining steadfast when they push the same boundary for the bazillionth time. It is by our calm consistency that they will begin to understand the family rules and eventually live by them. If we are wishy-washy and set an inconsistent pattern, misbehavior sometimes gets rewarded. When that happens, the gambler genes in our toddlers will keep them trying because every so often it pays off! Human biology is actually wired to remain interested in a behavior if it gives us something we want after a semi-consistent number of tries. It’s called a “variable ratio schedule of reinforcement,” and it’s a real thing. It’s how casinos make money. It’s also how toddlers get toys from the checkout line at Walgreens.
BONUS: HANDLING TANTRUMS. We have all seen some of the epic toddler tantrums that can seemingly come out of nowhere. Though these can be embarrassing for adults, know that they are no fun for our little ones either. Because of their stage of development, toddlers have feelings as big as ours, but without a fully developed prefrontal cortex to help them make sense of how they are feeling or what to do next. As a result they are frequently overwhelmed by emotions that we adults have the brain structures to handle.
When these moments occur, we can help by bringing our calm to their storm. They physically can’t do it yet. When we are overwhelmed or angry, this will obviously add to their storm, so focus on keeping your own sanity first. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Calm yourself with positive self-talk. If possible, get away from external stimuli. Physically get down on their level and sit with them in their feelings. Tell them it’s okay to feel mad or sad. Speak soothing words to them, and know that you are actually shaping their brains by doing this for them. Try holding them if they will let you. If they refuse, respect it. Help them focus on calming their breathing and offer them a comforting object if they have one (stuffed animal, lovie, etc). Keep them safe as they ride it out. It WILL pass. Embrace this as a healing moment for you too, and know you are giving your toddler what they need most.
By Matt Thames, M.A., LPC