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How to Manage Your Toddler's Behavior: Tame Your Dragon!

Never give a whining child what they want until they've calmed down.

Never give a whining child what they want until they've calmed down.

How to Deal With Toddler Tantrums

It's no secret that toddlerhood brings tantrums and entitlement. In fact, two words that toddlers learn very early on are "no" and "mine". It is important to be lovingly firm and consistent in discipline and consequences when toddlers are young so that, as they grow, they are a joy to be around and you actually want to do things with them.

It was very hard for us to raise our son (now going on four) to be a pleasant, nice, and (most of the time) obedient child. But we put in the hard work early, so now he is fun to do things with and other people comment on how good he is.

Children are born as little tyrants. Their worlds revolve around themselves, and they are unable to empathize or be fair many times. It is the parent's job to break the tyranny and help them become compassionate, kind, and obedient people. Here is how we raised a well-behaved little boy through toddlerhood and into early childhood.

1. Set Clear Goals

Some of the goals we set for little Lancho were being polite at the dinner table even if he wasn't eating, not being whiny, doing things when we told him ideally the first time (but definitely the second time), and sleeping through the night without screaming or coming up with a million reasons to delay bedtime. We used a variety of different methods to intervene in each of these situations, but in each one, we were a unified front with a clear goal. We even got his grandparents in on the action so they knew the run-down.

Without a goal, you may not have the clarity to come up with a process of treating the issue. Also, without a clear goal, you may become frustrated and say things like, "I just wish he would behave." That is too broad and there is too much to unpack.

A clear goal is, "I want Billy to pick up his toys after he plays," or "I want Sally to stop screaming when I tell her she can't have candy at the grocery store." Those target specific behaviors that need fixing. And yes, parent, your job is to guide your children to the most ideal behavior you can! Don't be afraid of the power. Harness it and use it!

2. Use Discipline and Be Consistent

In the example of wanting little Lancho to be polite at the dinner table even when not eating, I cannot tell you how many times we picked him up and took him to time out during dinner. I literally cannot count them. We were consistent with doing this every time he disrupted dinner by screaming, crying, or fit-throwing.

Pretty soon he realized that the fits and dinner disruptions were not okay and we were not going to back down. He learned that every time he started getting angry or disruptive at the table he was banished, and it made him even more upset. More importantly, he learned that Mommy and Daddy mean what they say, and that he can count on us and our word—for bad (punishments) and for good (promises and following through). He also learned that dinner with mom and dad was pretty fun if he would just chill, and he could pass on eating dinner if he wanted to, he just had to sit there nicely while we ate and caught up.

Too many parents are unwilling or even scared to discipline their children. Yet, children crave discipline. If you are firm and consistent, your children will love you even more.

My husband and I, both teachers, have also shared similar experiences where we have problem children in our classes (i.e. children whose parents do not care about them enough to guide them) and through lovingly punishing them or holding them accountable for their misbehavior, they have grown exceedingly in respect and want to be near us, even at times becoming clingy or trying to win our approval and love. This is because they crave someone to care about them enough to correct them, and when they get that attention, they thrive.

Obviously, I am not speaking of children with behavioral syndromes such as ODD or ADHD or other neurological issues that may adversely affect behavior in spite of how much a parent cares and tries with their child. Those cases should be handled by a medical professional.

Important: If you ever don't follow through with discipline, your children will not take you seriously and will know you are a pushover. You must be consistent every time after you make your behavior goal for your kid.

3. Use Rewards and Follow Through

My son has always had issues sleeping through the night. Now that he is older and completely able to do so, we decided to keep things positive and set up a rewards chart for him. I drew 21 boxes (7x3) on a piece of construction paper and taped it to his door. Each night he went to bed without excuses, without waking up crying, or without coming to our bed, he got to put a sticker on an empty box.

After 7 stickers, we would take him to Chick-fil-A. After 21, he could go to Target and pick out any toy he wanted. Wouldn't you know, he filled up all 21 boxes in a 2-month span? He is now laying down happy and waking up happy every night, and the chart is long gone. Sometimes all it takes is a little reward. While I do not feel that everything should be, "If you do this, I'll do this," sometimes they need something positive to earn.

Positive rewards and prizes are a good way to create good habits. For example, Billy from the example above should get one tally mark, sticker, or bead in a jar, for each time he cleans up his toys completely without complaining. When you reach X tallies, X stickers, or X beads, he should be able to eat whatever he wants for dinner. Then finally, when he hits the jackpot amount (whatever you set), he should be able to go to the zoo, or have a sleepover at grandma's, or go on a movie date with mom.

Important: Toddlers and all-aged children on the Autism spectrum may not understand token economies, so make sure that your system of rewards is not based on money amounts or buying items. If you give 3 year old Billy a quarter for every time he cleans up his toys till he reaches $5, that will make no sense to him. For billy $5 is the same as $5,000 and he may think he can go buy a brand new car with his quarters. In other words, the reward has no true value for him because he cannot understand it.

Important: Always follow through. If you don't give them a reward you promised, they will be completely heartbroken and learn that you are not to be trusted. When we gave little Lancho his gift when he met his 21 sticker goal, we were actually very tight on money, so we signed up for a special Target card that came with a one-time 50% off coupon. We used that to get his toy so we didn't break the bank, but there is no way we would ever back out or not follow through.

Kids are a joy to be around if disciplined correctly in the formative years.

Kids are a joy to be around if disciplined correctly in the formative years.

Toddler Behavior Management Don'ts

There are some things that I see happen all the time with toddlers that should be unacceptable and are very counterproductive to discipline.

1. Never Reward a Bratty Child

I have seen it so many times: a child screaming for something or whining for something and the parent gives in and hands them the thing they want. They have just rewarded a bratty child and thus reinforced the behavior. The toddler thinks, "if I whine for something I will get it." The parent thinks, "Whew, now she's acting calm and not embarrassing me anymore."

Actually, mom or dad, you just embarrassed yourself and set yourself up for years or bullying from your kid. Who is the parent, you or your child? You said no, so follow through.

Sally from earlier wanted candy at the store and the mom said no. In fact, this is a weekly struggle for Sally's mom. This is because her mom sometimes gets her something so she stops crying. When really, what would need to happen is the opposite. Sally's mom should say, "I don't care how hard you cry, you are not getting that candy because I already told you we have candy at home."

Sally may go completely Poltergeist on mom and everyone may look, but the mom can just confidently say, "we are learning how to say no and Sally doesn't like it, but it will be good for her in the long run." Most people who hear reasoning like that, say, "you're a good parent," not, "Why the heck aren't you giving her everything she wants because she's screaming?"

Another similar problem happens at home. Kids get bored and stir-crazy and get whiny. We made it a point to never give little Lancho anything when he whined for it. "Ugh, mommy, I'm really thirsty, I really need some orange juice," he might say with a sad-slash-disgusted look on his face and a whiny tone. My response would be, "Stop whining and ask like a big boy, and I'd be happy to get you some." He really may be thirsty and orange juice is a healthier option than Kool-Aid or soda, so why not? But never indulge a whiny child. When he calms down and says, "Mommy can I have some orange juice please?" then, and only then, do I oblige him.

Important: It is never fun to be around a complainer. So why raise one? Expect calm and courteous behavior from your toddler and don't let them control you with whiny demands.

2. Don't Give Your Toddler Too Many Chances

I have heard so many parents ask their children to stop doing things and slowly count to 1, 2, and 3. The expectation is that by the time the parent says 3, the child has stopped the undesired activity or behavior, or else. This comes from a good place, namely the desire to be a fair parent and be compassionate to their little toddler's difficulty with obedience by giving them a little more time to comply. However, I think this method is counterproductive because it delays obedience and teaches them they have a grace period before they actually have to listen to you.

That may sound like a good idea, but put yourself in these scenarios: Imagine you are a 1-2-3 parent, and your child is playing outside and a snake slithers up. You tell them to move and they don't budge because they're waiting for you to count to 3. Or, your older child kicks the ball too far and your toddler goes hurtling toward the road to get it without any concept of the dangers of passing cars. You yell, "Stop!" but your child knows they still have two more chances to obey.

See my point? The 1-2-3 method undermines your authority. Children, especially little children, should be taught to obey the first time you say something. Of course it is hard for them to do, that's why you must remind them and have consequences.

For example, if little Lancho did not do something I told him to the first time, I would immediately tell him again in a firmer voice. There were times I physically had to force my child to do things, such as picking up blocks. I had to firmly tell him to do it while grabbing his chubby little hand and literally picking up blocks with it and putting them away. I finished up these tough lessons by saying, "You will obey me, and you need to do what mommy says the first time."

On other occasions, if he was disobedient the first time, and I brought out my mommy voice the 2nd time, I would see myself having to pull him out of playtime for a time-out or time-in, and explain to him (away from the distractions of toys) that he absolutely had to do what mommy said before he could keep playing.

It may sound strict and harsh, but guess whose kid comes inside when mommy says, "There's a hornet out there, go inside please," or guess whose kid is never out of sight when mommy says, "Stay with me in the store." Life just becomes easier and more pleasant with a well-raised child.

Important: Toddlers are still so young. It is important to never be mean, petty, violent, or scary to them. Firmness should not be scary, but they do need to be shown by tone of voice and facial expressions who is the boss. They are born thinking they run the show. If your toddler refuses to listen, take them away from the distractions, calmly but firmly hold their upper arms and make them look you in the eye. Firmly and with a serious face tell them whatever you are expecting of them in that moment.

But never ever resort to scaring or hurting them to get your point across. Keep in mind also that toddlers may become melodramatic and oversensitive after a busy, fun day, a party, a social gathering, too much sugar or food-dye, or during illness. There are times that call for compassion and lenience--but those times are not every day. The rule should be immediate obedience. The exceptions to behavior expectations should be few and far between, and consistent brattiness during an "exception" day is usually resolved by a nap or earlier bedtime.

3. Stop Arguing With Your Child

I have heard so many parents arguing with their toddlers as if they were equals. You and your toddler are not equals. Your toddler is a budding person who you are responsible for guiding. A lot of times they may seem like dragons, but if you allow them too much leeway when responding to you, you will create a situation that you cannot control.

Children should be taught to respect others, and that starts with you. If your toddler is not trained to respect you, he or she will then move on to terrorize teachers and other authority figures everywhere they go for the rest of their lives. If you don't teach them respect, who will?

Always allow a child to express their feelings in a respectful way, but fighting back and forth needs to be stopped with consequences (time out or in), firm voice cutting off disrespect, and commitment to following through with discipline. Disrespect should always receive a negative response. You should not make a chart for how many times your child respects you to earn a toy, because then they may only respect you when prizes are on the line. Disrespect should be shut down immediately and consistently. When your child naturally respects you, then you can verbally affirm them by praising them for their kindness and respect.

Important: It is one thing to express discontent, "I don't really like tomatoes" and it's another thing completely to receive abusive language from a toddler, "I don't really like you because you're dumb and you gave me tomatoes!" Teach your child to reword their emotions so that they don't attack people, and if you find yourself arguing with your tot, shut it down by letting them know it will not be tolerated and consequences will follow.

4. Never Use Reverse Psychology on Your Toddler

I have seen and heard parents give their children instructions, such as “come over here,” only to be ignored. At which time the parent resorts to reverse psychology and says something like, “Okay Mary, you are not allowed to come over here. Don’t come here!“ The parent usually uses a fake scolding voice and the child gets a wily and mischievous smile on his or her face, then does exact the opposite of what the parent just said, inadvertently complying with the first command of, “come here.”

Now, some may say that the child picks up on the joke and is leveraging their orneriness, but I would say this method teaches all the wrong things. If what you want is your child to obey you, you need to go pick them up if they won’t come and firmly say, “I said, come here, and you will listen to daddy.” The notion of telling them to do the opposite so they disobey you and you still get your way is dangerous because you are making misbehavior a game. Also, the tot takes some kind of sadistic delight in hurting and defying you.

If they do not listen now, they won’t when they are older, either. Say the things you mean, and mean the things you say, and expect compliance. If you get mutiny, firmly but consistently handle the situation. You will be happier with your child and your child will not be confused or start to enjoy others’ misery. Never teach your child to disregard what you say, even in joking.

Toddlers Are Naturally Loving

Another good thing about toddlers is even if you mess up, they are naturally sweet, cuddly, and loving. They will not remember their hurt feelings the next day, and as their parent, they look up to you more than anyone in the world. Give yourself some grace and just try to do the best you can as you discipline and train up your child in the way he or she should go. Always be quick to verbally affirm your child and let them know you love them no matter if they are good or bad, but that it is very important that they be a good person so that they will be happy and successful in life.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Audrey Lancho


Audrey Lancho (author) from Spain on July 12, 2019:

Thank you, Liz! It was not easy and my son is not perfect, but he is a very good little boy. Many people comment on how good he is and ask me how to help with their children. Hopefully this article helps some millennial parents especially who find it hard to discipline after growing up with lenient parents and permissive authority.

Liz Westwood from UK on July 11, 2019:

Oh the joys (and challenges) of the terrible twos. You give good and much needed advice.