So there you are, Saturday morning at the supermarket. What started as a mindless zigzag up the biscuit aisle has been interrupted by a human blockade. A sprawling mass of spittle and fury… It’s your child! Is she in pain? Why is she screaming? Why is everyone looking at you like that? And then it hits you. Oh my gosh! My baby is a tantrum-throwing toddler.
It doesn’t have to start only at two, of course; for many children, the stage starts as soon as they begin walking. It’s the first in a series of skills that sees children taking responsibility for themselves and they can’t get enough of it.
Child psychologist Dr Pat Spungin explains, “The second year of life between the ages of 1 and 2 is enormously busy, intellectually, emotionally and physically, as your child develops a sense of self, becomes more independent and gets to grips with life on her feet.”
This period of developing autonomy is also typified by toddlers learning to talk and make choices, both of which are important milestones. So, how can you survive tiny fists, sudden regressions and Olympic-standard stubbornness? Read on…
“Don’t want eat!”
The best way to stop a child turning her nose up is to introduce her to a variety of flavours and textures from the very start of weaning, but it’s never too late to retrain junior’s tastebuds.
“Offer small portions often,” Dr Spungin suggests. “Toddlers will usually refuse things the first time to prove that they can, but that doesn’t mean they won’t eat it next time.” You may have to offer certain foods several times before your child will eat it.
“Never say, ‘You don’t like such and such, do you?’. Instead, give it and say nothing,” Dr Spungin advises. “Toddlers will just believe you when you say they don’t like broccoli, for instance, rather than making up their own mind.”
Jo Douglas, a psychologist and author of Toddler Troubles (National Library Board call no.: 649.122 DOU), says, “Expose children to different foods by offering titbits from your plate and let them see you eat things.”
She advises parents to allow toddlers to feed themselves as much as possible as a way of channelling their need for independence at mealtimes.
“No! Nooooooo! NO!”
Saying “no” is your child’s way of taking control. “Being a toddler has similarities to being a teenager,” Dr Spungin says. “It’s a time when a child learns to assert herself — an important life stage. Parents must learn to channel this assertiveness and set boundaries.”
Rather than seeing constant “no”s as a sign of negativity, respect that she’s ready to make some choices for herself. Improve your toddler’s vocabulary, and therefore, ways to express her wants.
“Always talk to your child and reinforce the correct words when they say them. If they say ‘ca’, you say ‘cat’,” Douglas says.
“Nursery rhymes and singing are very helpful. Rhyming helps children get an ear for language, and hearing the musicality of speech helps children respond to the sound of whole words rather than phonetics. Toddlers have a natural ability to generate language and internalise the principles of grammar in language production.”
But what about older toddlers who are genuinely refusing rather than being assertive? “Give them a choice that’s not really a choice,” Dr Spungin says. “Offer two alternatives where the outcome doesn’t really matter to you, such as playing on the swings or in the sandpit. This way, they feel in control of their life, but it’s within your boundaries.”
“I want! I don’t want!”
If your tot sleeps well at night but is still grouchy during the day, perhaps she’s not getting enough sleep in the day. “Toddlers need their naps to recharge their batteries. By 18 months, most will move to just one longer nap lasting one to two hours, usually in the middle of the day,” says Dr Irshaad Ebrahim of The London Sleep Centre.
Having a familiar series of steps leading up to naptime helps. Set the same naptime every day and implement a routine. This will give your child a series of triggers that will help her feel secure and also encourage her to feel sleepy. Reading a story, bringing out a favourite blanket or closing the curtains can help.
Toddlerhood is a time of developing social skills such as taking turns and sharing, but these are skills kids pick up gradually, they’re not actually innate.
“From about 30 months, children will start to play together, rather than alongside each other. But parents will still need to act as mediators,” Douglas says. He advises that parents show how to share by example, so get down and play with your child and her friends, and show how it’s not the end of the world to let another person take a toy you’re playing with.
Join them in dressing up, role-playing, games and puzzles. It will increase your bond as well as help develop your toddler’s social skills and ability to focus on activities.
“I want Mummy — MUMMY!”
Parents provide a secure base from which to explore the world and from 18 months, your child begins to break away from you as the urge to be independent grows. “However, this can be quite frightening for toddlers,” Dr Spungin highlights.
“The security they felt as a baby came from being constantly cared for by the same person, but by this age, other people may start to look after them with different routines.” When you are changing a lot yourself, as toddlers are, this can be a step too far and can cause some children to become distressed when their parents go out of sight, even for a minute. This is known as separation anxiety.
Desensitise your child gradually by leaving her with a relative or friend for short periods. “Toddlers can react to change by suddenly returning to baby behaviour because it feels more reassuring,” Douglas adds.
Children this age need some things to remain consistent and predictable, such as the same story before bedtime. Underneath the pretend-grown-up games, crazy tantrums and puzzling logic, they’re still our babies.
5 steps for coping with tantrums
1. Make sure they’re safe
An angry tot will give no thought to stairs, busy roads or any other hazard. If your child could hurt herself, your first priority is to move her somewhere to let off steam safely.
2. Identify the trigger and solve it
Most tantrums are caused by frustration (have you really listened to your toddler’s request?), but tiredness and trying to get something they want can also trigger them. If you sense your child is starting to become upset or angry, try to find a compromise. Perhaps you can swap the toy they want you to buy for a chance to play with your keys or phone.
3. Don’t react
Telling a child off is a waste of time as it’s impossible to reason with a toddler. You’re also establishing a bad habit. “By shouting, you are still giving them attention, even if it’s negative,” Dr Spungin says. The best thing to do is to ignore bad behaviour. “Literally turn away from the child.”
4. Don’t be embarrassed
Embarrassment or guilt can lead many parents to give in or pacify a child with a candy, sending the wrong message that tantrums mean treats.
5. Establish good habits
By giving attention and rewards when your child behaves well.