Updated: Apr 19, 2020
My guess is that your toddlers are like mine were–lots of energy and curiosity, loving the fact that they can feed themselves, use the potty, and run really fast. They’ve figured out how easy it is for them to get into things while you’re busy doing something else, or run away from you, often in public places. They completely understand the power of the tantrum and use it often, also in public places! And they aren’t afraid of conflict.
I used to think all conflict was bad, and did everything I could to avoid it, including using threats (Do you want a spanking?), making deals (If you eat this, you can have that!), and trying to explain (We don’t hit! That’s not nice!). But that was before I understood the right kind of conflict!
Here’s what usually happened, pick any scenario: meal time, the child refuses to eat; I call her to come, she runs away; I tell her to not touch, she grabs (and often breaks) something; we’re at the store, she throws a fit and screams because she can’t have something. In every situation, I become irritated and flustered. I say “No!” followed by a threat, deal, or explanation designed to get her to do what I want her to do–eat, come here, put it down, stand up and stop crying, whatever. She continues to refuse and resist, so the threats, etc. increase along with the pitch and volume of my voice. You’ve been here before, so I don’t have to explain in detail what happens–it ends, but it’s not pretty.
I honestly expected that after one messy incident like that, my child would understand that I didn’t like this behavior, and never do it again. I mean, who in their right mind would willingly do something she knew was going to result in such conflict, including angry words, and tears? Oh right–a toddler!
Here is what I learned to do.
First, decide ahead of time what I will and will not allow. Just a few, basic rules–eat what I give her, stay beside me, keep her hands to herself, etc.
Make my expectations clear ahead of time. “This is what’s for dinner, sweetheart! You don’t have to like it, you just have to eat it!” At the park, “You can play anywhere within this boundary, kiddo!” etc.
Be ready with consequences. Don’t fight if she refuses to eat what you serve–smile and say “That’s ok!” If she comes back hungry offer her the same thing, and don’t give in with any alternatives or snacks. If he bolts at the park, don’t run after him and don’t yell–keep an eye on him, and head for the car. When he sees you’re going to leave he’ll come closer, and you can grab him. Calmly put him in the car (screaming and crying) and leave, explaining (again, calmly) that he broke the rule so you have to leave.
Adjust my expectations. Because toddlers have no impulse control on their own, I learned to expect that at any moment my child could become unhinged. I learned not to be surprised at her refusals and outbursts.
Be absolutely unflappable. Since I was now expecting whatever she might dish up, I learned not to register anger or frustration, but to simply keep calm and implement the consequence.
Be ready for more. Toddlers aren’t rational. They don’t think about what they’re doing, they just act on impulse. For this reason, I learned to expect several repeat performances.
Be a brick wall. Toddlers gain security from knowing where the boundaries are. Don’t move them! If it’s not okay to refuse food today, it has to be not okay to refuse food tomorrow. If tantrums are not allowed today, they must not be allowed tomorrow. What you will or will not allow has to be the same day after day, regardless of where you are, and your response to your child’s behavior has to be the same day after day, regardless of where you are!
“What you will or will not allow has to be the same day after day, regardless of where you are, and your response to your child’s behavior has to be the same day after day, regardless of where you are.”
Understanding these things, and changing the way I approached dealing with my toddlers changed these episodes from being power struggles where everyone ended up bloody, to a simple test: Mom, are you still in charge? As long as I stayed calm and immovable, my toddlers learned that I was in charge, and that they could count on me to mean what I said. Conflict? Yes. But your toddler’s security and your own sanity depend on it!