Many parents of toddlers face the same behavioral issues day in and day out. From mealtime meltdowns to bedtime battles to toileting troubles, it seems as if there’s no end in sight for the dreaded T word: tantrums.
“The reality is when anyone acquires a new skill or a new routine, it’s always going to be a bumpy road,” said Dr. Geoffrey Putt, pediatric psychologist and director of outpatient therapy services at Akron Children’s Hospital. “When a child is learning to stay seated at the table or to fall asleep on her own, there’s going to be resistance until it becomes the new normal.”
Parents tend to get frustrated easily, but if you think about it, rarely do people just pick up a new skill and do it. Instead, it’s stressful, time-consuming and a hassle. It’s the same thing with kids. It’s going to take some time to learn it and have it become part of their normal routine.
Planning ahead and understanding it’s a process can lessen a parent’s frustration. Dr. Putt likens it to a birth plan. It’s good to have one, but if you think that it’s always going to go exactly as you planned, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Also, don’t expect your kids to learn the same way. What may have worked for your first child, likely won’t for your second. You can start with your successes, but understand there are going to be differences in how your children learn.
“These common issues are your child’s first opportunities to really have power,” said Dr. Putt. “Don’t get stuck in power struggles. You can’t make your child eat, poop or fall asleep. But, you can create ideal conditions and enough repetition and structure that eventually your child will do all of these things without a second thought.”
In the meantime, he offers strategies to conquer these top 3 toddler tantrum triggers.
Mealtimes are hectic enough, let alone fighting with your toddler to stay seated, eat her vegetables and stop throwing food. To help avoid conflict:
- Model the behavior you want to see. Toddlers love to imitate their parents, so the more you can model good behavior, the easier it’ll be on you. If you tell your child no screen time during dinner, don’t keep the baseball game on or check the score on your phone during dinner.
- Choose your battles. Maybe kneeling on her chair is fine, but throwing food will absolutely not be tolerated. Set clear expectations for unacceptable behavior, and be consistent with consequences.
- Make mealtimes a positive experience by involving your child in the planning. Dr. Putt suggests allowing your child to pick out the fruit for dinner at the grocery store, or asking her to put the napkins and condiments on the table. “There’s less enforcement going on because she helped make the choice for the meal,” he said. “The more engagement your toddler has in the process, the more likely she is to eat the dinner.”
Just one more book, one more hug or a glass of water. Toddlers will give any excuse to delay going to bed. Follow these steps:
- Make sure your child’s bedtime and routine are consistent every night. “Research shows routine helps kids sleep better,” said Dr. Putt. “It doesn’t matter what that routine is as long as it’s consistent every night.”
- As bedtime approaches, help your child wind down by changing your tone and the way you interact with her. Slow your speech patterns and choose quiet-time activities, such as puzzles and building blocks.
- Give her a warning ahead of time. If your child’s bedtime is 8 o’clock, make sure she knows what that means. Dr. Putt suggests setting a visual timer where the numbers are white, but then turn red for the last few minutes before it goes off.
- Provide your child the evening’s play-by-play ahead of time so she knows what to expect. Toddlers thrive on predictability. For example, you could say, after dinner we’ll take a bath and then we’ll read a story, sing a song and then it’s bedtime.
“If you say it’s time for bed all of a sudden, your child is likely to throw a tantrum,” said Dr. Putt. “But, if your child knows what the plan is, she may get upset, but it’s less likely to turn into a full-blown battle.”
Getting your toddler to use the bathroom is one of the biggest power struggles parents will face at this age. While we can’t force them to go on the potty, we can set them up for success:
- Look for readiness. Does your child watch you use the toilet? Does she run off behind the couch to poop? Knowing the right time to potty train your child is half the battle. Starting before your child is ready can drag out the process even more.
- Watch for patterns in your child’s bowel-movement schedule. Maybe she goes every day within an hour after waking up from her nap or after dinnertime.
- Give her a warning before it’s time to go to the bathroom so she knows what to expect ahead of time.
But inevitably, the power struggle at mealtime, bedtime or potty time will take a turn for the worse and your child will throw a fit. When this happens, Dr. Putt suggests planned ignoring is the best tactic for getting through it.
Don’t make eye contact with your child, and don’t engage her. You don’t want to reinforce the negative behavior. If she’s behaving appropriately, be engaged with her and make it fun. If she’s behaving badly, such as talking with her mouth full, ignore it.
“If you don’t react and she’s not getting your attention, she’ll eventually give up,” he said. “But, if you’re yelling or scolding her, any attention promotes that behavior.”