Most of us can remember a moment when we saw a major toddler meltdown in a café and wondered what all the fuss was about. Could it really be so hard to keep control of a pint-sized person without her rolling on the floor and yelling?
To work out how to deal with your toddler, it helps to imagine her life — she has new things to discover all around her, but she also faces endless restraints and you’re also policing everything that’s fun. Can she fiddle with the TV remote? Nope. What about that exciting marker pen? I don’t think so. And look, an old piece of cheese she’s found behind the sofa… Just as she’s about to sample a bite, it’s whipped away in a hurry.
Give her a sense of security
All through her day, she’s redirected, repositioned and strapped into seats with only boring biscuits for company. How frustrating is that? Also, at around age 2, she’ll realise she can actually have an impact on the world — for example, if she doesn’t eat her baked beans, she’s learning that something else might be offered. She’s wielding a little power for the first time, but without the ability to see life from anyone else’s perspective.
“At this age, a child hasn’t learned empathy,” explains Dr Mandy Bryon, consultant clinical psychologist at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in the UK. “She’s just out to get the world to do what she wants it to, because that’s all that matters. If you set solid boundaries, you’ll give her a sense of security, which will allow her personality to develop independently.
Set the boundaries
From the moment you start getting routine into your baby’s life — whether it’s at weeks or months — you begin creating boundaries. You’re showing her that there is consistency in her life: She wakes up, she gets changed, she is dressed, she gets fed. “These routines show a baby that you’re in charge and you’re meeting her needs,” says Dr Claire Halsey, author of Baby Development Everything You Need to know. “That builds trust between you.”
Then, as your child moves towards toddlerhood, you can start putting positive barriers in place. Experts agree that teaching your child to set limits on her behaviour is one of the most valuable things you can do for her.
Give her positive attention
The most powerful way you can motivate your toddler to behave well is by giving attention in return. “If you respond to her when she acts in a way you like, she’ll keep behaving that way,” Dr Bryon notes. This doesn’t mean you have to sit by her 24/7, patting her on the head. It’s just about taking the time to acknowledge what she’s doing. Tell her, “You’re colouring so nicely now.” Or “I think Teddy is enjoying this tea party.”
Equally, if your toddler is habitually aggressive with other children, pulling their hair or pushing them, remember to bestow lots of attention on the other child, while firmly saying “No” to your own. Show her clearly how to be gentle with people around her, too.
Pick your battles
Most parents will want to stick to their guns when it comes to issues like a bedtime routine or how your toddler behaves towards other children, but it’s probably worth letting her have her own way when it comes to wearing rain boots when it’s in the middle of a heat wave.
“If you have told her she can’t do something and she’s having a hissy fit, stay calm and consistent,” Dr Halsey says. “Don’t raise your voice, as this will only upset and confuse her. And don’t say, ‘That’s it, I’m taking your toy away.’ Try, ‘Please do what I’ve asked, or I’ll take your toy away for one minute.’ You’re giving her a consequence but, when you give her toy back at the end of the minute, you’re also giving her a chance to show she can behave. If she doesn’t, you can always take the toy away for another minute.”
Find out why she is upset
The truth is, toddlers get upset for the same reasons any child does. She’s tired. She’s hungry. She’s bored. She’s frustrated. Sometimes, her routine has changed and unsettled her. She’s reacting to stress around her. But one reason why it often reaches such intensity so quickly is because of her inability to see life from anyone else’s perspective.
So, when your toddler has a meltdown, she’s not doing it to wind you up. She’s simply communicating — in the best way she knows how — that she wants her needs met and she can’t understand why it’s not happening.
What looks like a small, screaming banshee is just a tiny child who feels something is wrong, doesn’t know how to put it right and wants you to do it for her. Which is worth bearing in mind the next time you scoop your red-faced, howling toddler off the supermarket floor.