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  • April

Handling the Terrible Twos: Dealing with Difficult Toddlers


angry asian baby on picnic blanket sitting outside

Dealing with difficult toddlers can be a challenging task for any parent or caregiver, and especially challenging for working moms. Toddlers are known for their unpredictable behavior and mood swings. They can be stubborn, defiant, and prone to tantrums, which can be frustrating for adults who are trying to manage their behavior. My eldest was particularly challenging, which inspired me to take a few courses on the subject to help figure out how to better handle his tantrums and outbursts.


It's important to remember that toddlers are still developing emotionally and socially, and their behavior is often a reflection of their need for attention, independence, and control. As a caregiver, try to approach difficult behavior with patience, empathy, and understanding. Empowering your toddler to make choices and decisions within limits can help them feel more in control and less likely to act out. Effective communication strategies, such as active listening, positive reinforcement, and clear expectations, can also help to reduce conflict and promote cooperation. Additionally, transition and time management techniques, such as providing warnings and routines, can help toddlers feel more secure and less overwhelmed. Let's take a look at my top tips to handle difficult toddlers.

Empowerment: Dealing with Difficult Toddlers

black girl toddler standing in parking lot with her arms outstretched above her smiling

Empowering your toddler is an important aspect of dealing with difficult behavior. It helps them develop a sense of independence, self-esteem, and confidence. Here are some tips that have really worked for me:

1. Encourage decision-making Allow your toddler to make simple decisions such as choosing what clothes to wear, what toy to play with, or what snack to eat. This helps them feel in control and increases their confidence in decision-making.


2. Offer choices Instead of giving orders, offer choices. For example, instead of saying "Put on your shoes," say "Do you want to wear your red shoes or your blue shoes?" This gives your toddler a sense of control and helps them feel empowered. Offer two choices only, and ones that you're ok with them choosing. If they go for a third or reject your options, choose for them and don't give in to their crying. It may be painful the first time, but over time they'll adapt to this two-choice method and it will minimize outbursts in the long-run.


3. Parent-child 1:1 Play

Play with your child one-on-one for at least 5 to 10 minutes a day and give them your full attention. Even such a short time each day will minimize outbursts and attention-seeking behavior. Let them lead the play and be in control. Don't ask questions or direct; instead, offer praise on what they are making or doing.


4. Have them help you

Giving them little tasks, like grabbing a diaper for the baby or rolling crescent dough helps them feel important and needed. Give them immediate praise on anything good they do - "catch them being good."

5. Praise effort, not just results When your toddler tries to do something, praise their effort, even if they don't succeed. For example, if they try to put on their shoes but put them on the wrong feet, say "Great job trying to put on your shoes! Let's try again and see if we can get them on the right feet this time." This helps your toddler feel proud of their efforts and encourages them to keep trying. Keep the praise simple and clear.

6. Let them do things on their own Encourage your toddler to do things on their own, even if it takes longer or is messier. For example, let them try to pour their own milk or put on their own socks. This helps them develop a sense of independence and confidence in their abilities.

7. Listen to their ideas When your toddler has an idea, listen to them and take it seriously. Even if their idea is not practical or feasible, it shows them that their thoughts and opinions are valued and encourages them to continue to speak up and share their ideas.

By empowering your toddler, you can help them develop important life skills and increase their confidence in themselves.


Effective Communication Strategies

child drawing in coloring book

This isn't just about getting through the day, it's about laying the foundation for a lifetime of strong, positive interactions, and communication is the key to transforming those terrible twos into truly rewarding years.


1. Give 5-10 minute prompts

Explain what's going to happen next, but not beyond the next 5-10 minutes, depending on how old your child is. This helps give them visibility into what's coming next with enough time to mentally process it. Also helps with transitioning, more on that below.


4. First-Then

This goes hand in hand with the point on prompts above, used as follows: "First finish your chicken, then you can have dessert." It helps them understand in simple language the thing really want to do must come after the thing they may not like that much. Also helps to set expectations on what is coming. You can even make a visual board with velcro pictures for going places, e.g. first we go get a haircut, then we play at the playground.


3. Don't negotiate with toddlers

Toddlers lack the cognitive and emotional maturity to understand the nuances of negotiation, as much as they may seem to have already mastered it. It's crucial to set non-negotiable boundaries to foster respect for authority and avoid power struggles. Consistency is key for toddlers, and negotiation can disrupt this, leading to confusion. Moreover, not negotiating teaches the important lesson of delayed gratification, a vital component of emotional self-regulation. I am personally very much still working on this one myself :)


4. Avoid saying "no" and "don't"

Instead, say what you want them to do, e.g. instead of "don't throw food on the floor", say "we keep our food on our plates". It takes a minute to get used to, but makes the world of a difference, since all they hear is "floor" in the first example, so they may keep throwing food on the floor!


Time Management Techniques and Transitioning

child playing on the ground with a xylophone toy

Structured routines and smooth transitions are crucial in your toddler's life. Mastering these strategies is not just about making your day run more smoothly, it's about providing your child with a sense of security and predictability, key elements in successfully navigating the challenging terrain of toddlers.


1. Natural endings to activities

Give them ample warning about how much time is left before moving on to the next activity, using your hands to signal if possible. For instance:

  • First, we'll play for 10 minutes, and then it's time for dinner (see my use of First-Then there??)

  • 5 more minutes of playing and then trains bye bye and time for dinner

  • 2 more minutes of playing and then trains bye bye and time for dinner

  • Playing is all done, now it's time for dinner

2. Visual schedules

There tons of Toddler Visual Schedule Boards online with movable card pictures you can rearrange for time of day routines, or using First-Then. There are even visual boards for feelings. Visual schedules really help - my son can put the velcroed pieces into an "All Done" box so he feels in control. Then praise them for completing tasks to positively reinforce good behavior!


3. Validate and redirect

To improve transitions, validate their feelings and then redirect them. For example, "I know it's tough to clean up and stop playing. We need to go eat dinner now though. First we eat dinner, then we can come back and play" Make them feel understood. Then catch them being good when they do listen to you - "thanks for listening!". Ignore problem behaviors if they while or fuss. In general, I've found that ignoring negative behaviors (unless they are hitting or harming others/themselves) and praising positive behaviors really does the trick. Works with adults too :)


4. Mr. Timer

We call my iPhone timer "Mr. Timer", and he tells us when it's time to move on to our next activity. It's great because it means mommy is no longer the bad guy, it's Mr. Timer who's an impartial third party who magically knows when it's time to move on! Our kids love it, this trick really transformed transitions for us.


Summing it Up

It's crazy how these things are now second nature for me and how by our second child, I had them down pat so things just went so much smoother all around once he hit two. But these aren't things you just know before having kids - it takes research, talking to other parents, and PRACTICE. And it won't go perfectly right away, but stick with it, and I promise it'll make the Terrible Two's just a bit less terrible :)

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