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How to get your toddler to co-operate

Toddler tantrum

“Morgan, it’s bath time.” “Morgan, come and bath…” “Morgan, if you bath now, you can watch a TV show.” “Morgan, if you don’t come and bath there will be no play date tomorrow!” “Morgannnnn!! Come and bath IMMEDIATELY!”

Ever had one of those moments? Or many of those moments? Does it sometimes feel like the Holy Grail of parenting is getting your toddler to cooperate? Deep breath. There are strategies that you can try with your independent little one.

First, let’s think about it from your little one’s point of view: Imagine being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it ALL day. Is it any wonder that toddlers dig their sandy heels into the ground and shake their heads?

Erik Erikson, a psychologist who is well known for his theory of psychosocial development throughout the lifespan, describes the child between 18 months and 3 years as needing to assert their independence. You will notice that as your child becomes more mobile, they will be starting to experiment with increasing the distance between themselves and their caregivers. They will also want to make their own choices and do things by themselves. This is all a normal and expected part of their development. Making all the choices for our children and doing everything for them can leave them doubting their own abilities and squash their curiosity and will to try new things.

Often, it’s not that a toddler has to do it their way, but more that they want to know that you’ve heard them. They want to know that you take their needs or wants seriously. In the moment, it’s often very hard to parent the way that we want to. We place enormous pressure upon ourselves to react immediately, keep things moving, do things right. And we don’t allow ourselves much grace or space to think before we respond.

3 common parenting pitfalls that can make the situation more chaotic or quickly lose their power:

  1. Your reaction: Do you try to quiet or stop your child’s behaviour? “Shhh, don’t do that here.” “Stop. That. Right. Now.” Do you escalate the situation with your reaction? Perhaps you urge, demand and shout which ends up with your child being even more determined to take their time or do the opposite.
  2. Distraction: We’ve all used this with varying levels of success. Parent, “No, no cake now…heyyyy look at that big blue bus!” Toddler, “Bus! (Still) Want cake!!!” Some children are not easily distracted by diversion tactics, I should know, I have one of them!
  3. Bribes and threats: “But these work so well!” I hear you say. Except that your child isn’t learning to choose wise behaviour, only that they can earn desirable things or avoid adverse things through ‘good’ behaviour. This means that they don’t develop an internal locus of control, i.e. they don’t believe that they are in control of their own life or responsible for their own success. And as older children and adults they struggle to motivate themselves without a dangling carrot or a scary stick. Added to this, threats often lose their power, or rewards need to increase in value to have any effect.

Strategies to try:

  • Crouch down and make eye contact. Speak quietly, yet firmly.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings and/or desire (“You really want to play longer. It’s very hard to stop.” OR “You want that toy very much. Daddy said no and that made you cross.”)
  • Offer choices. Options must be acceptable to you, clear and limited. Two options is great for this age. (“We can pack the blocks first or the trains first. Which one do you choose?”)
  • Having a routine helps a child predict what will happen next and may lessen conflict. Note, a routine is not the same as a schedule which has specific times and less room for flexibility. If there is a major change to the routine (e.g. the parent who does bath time is working late this week), you can talk through it with your child before it happens. When the change takes place, you can remind your toddler of the chats you’d had about it.
  • Allow time, e.g. “In five minutes it will be time to say goodbye”. Small children don’t have a sense of time so a reminder that “This is the last push on the swing” or “Two more times on the slide and then we will walk to the gate” is more concrete and easier to understand.
  • Allow your child to try. Be available to help, but don’t rush to do it for him. I’m amazed how often my little one manages to do something just before I jump in.
  • Acknowledge their cooperation.
  • Consistency. I can’t stress enough how important this is for a little child. Ideally, there would be consistency across caregivers in terms of boundaries and behaviour management. Children function best and feel more secure in consistent environments.

Take note of when your little one is less likely to cooperate and/or you are less likely to have patience in dealing with him and work to avoid these situations. Common triggers are:

  • Your child is tired.
  • You are tired or stressed, and have less patience.
  • There is time pressure (you have to get somewhere by a certain time).
  • Your routine has fallen by the wayside (e.g. holidays).

Working with your child, rather than having many shouty, conflict-ridden moments is a work in progress. Slow down, be conscious of what you are both doing and only then respond.

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