Looking After a Toddler or Young Child - Free Self-Help
Instalment Two: More About Coping With Awkward Toddler Behaviour

By Diana Holbourn

Article Summary

This instalment of the article talks about things such as trying to teach toddlers not to be aggressive and badly-behaved, how a lot of naughtiness is really attention-seeking, how understanding can be increased in the home if parents try to think of things from a toddler's point of view, child-proofing the home - making toddlers safe around the home and the home safe from toddlers, and how some things that seem big problems don't have to be. It also gives advice on the importance of both parents agreeing on how to discipline their child and suggests a way they can go about coming to some agreement on the matter.

There are some stories about the difficulties other parents had with their toddlers and how some of them solved the problems.

Skip past the following quotes if you'd like to get straight down to reading the article contents and self-help article.

Things People Have Said About Children

A three year old child is a being who gets almost as much fun out of a fifty-six dollar set of swings as it does out of finding a small green worm.
--Bill Vaughan

Boy, n.:  a noise with dirt on it.
--Not Your Average Dictionary

Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing up is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.
--Phyllis Diller

Children are contemptuous, haughty, irritable, envious, sneaky, selfish, lazy, flighty, timid, liars and hypocrites, quick to laugh and cry, extreme in expressing joy and sorrow, especially about trifles, they'll do anything to avoid pain but they enjoy inflicting it:  little men already.
--Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères, 1688

You are worried about seeing him spend his early years in doing nothing.  What!  Is it nothing to be happy?  Nothing to skip, play, and run around all day long?  Never in his life will he be so busy again.
--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1762

Children are unpredictable.  You never know what inconsistency they're going to catch you in next.
--Franklin P. Jones

A rose can say "I love you",
orchids can enthrall,
but a weed bouquet in a chubby fist,
yes, that says it all.
--Author Unknown

The Main Contents

  1. Trying to Judge What's Best for Toddlers Without Letting Feelings Get in the Way
  2. Teaching a Little Child Right From Wrong
  3. Toddlers Can Behave Badly to Get Attention
  4. Try to See the Good in Your Child Along With the Bad, Even When It's Difficult
  5. Trying to Think of Things From a Toddler's Point of View
  6. When Things That Don't Need to be Problems Become Problems
  7. Practical Ways of Improving Things
  8. Making Sure Parents are United About How to Discipline the Children for Bad Behaviour, and Encouraging Children to Behave Well

Part One
Trying to Judge What's Best for Toddlers Without Letting Feelings Get in the Way

All Toddlers Behave Awkwardly, so Try Not to Let Embarrassment About Yours Interfere With Good Judgment About How to Discipline Them

Child screaming

Try not to take it personally when your toddler has a tantrum and screams, even in public. To some extent, that's just normal toddler behaviour; it's just their method of communication and their primitive method for trying to get their way or tell you they're not happy with something. Feelings of shame or anger or embarrassment can cloud a person's judgment and make them want to get the scene over with as quickly as possible rather than thinking of what tactics will be most likely to cure tantrums in the long-term. So parents can go for the quick fix, for instance buying their child a chocolate bar when they demand one in a shop and have a tantrum to get it. The trouble is that while that will stop that tantrum quickly, the child will learn that tantrums get them what they want, so they're likely to have more.

So it's best to give them a firm definite no and try and distract them with something at first, perhaps something you've brought with you in preparation for the time when you knew they'd be likely to be working themselves into a temper. If that doesn't work, try ignoring them if they throw a tantrum so they know it isn't achieving anything. If that doesn't work, take them outside the shop and tell them in as friendly a way as you can muster to calm down, perhaps saying in as inviting a voice as you can that when they do, you can both go and look around the shops again, if you think they'd like that. If they calm down quickly, compliment them on how well they calmed themselves down.

If your toddler behaves much better with another adult than with you, ask yourself what the other adult's doing differently. Or ask them how they handle bad behaviour. They might, for instance, always say no when the toddler demands things they can't have, so the toddler knows they won't be in luck if they have a tantrum to try to get them. Or they might have a skilful way of distracting them when they're working up to a tantrum so they get interested in something else and forget the idea of having one. There could be several reasons. If you find out what they do differently, you can try doing that yourself to see if your toddler's behaviour improves.

Or it could be that the toddler doesn't really behave differently, but the person looking after them puts their behaviour down to just what's expected of a toddler, while you think it's bad behaviour. So when they say your child behaved well after they've been baby-sitting, they mean as well as can be expected for a child of that age, rather than perfectly.

All Children Need to be Taught Good Behaviour, so be Willing to Teach Yours Publicly When They Misbehave in Public, Rather Than Feeling Bad About it

Screaming toddler

Some parents apparently make excuses for their child's bad behaviour when it happens in public to try and brush it off, because they're embarrassed and ashamed and think it makes both them and their child look bad, so they want to give some kind of acceptable explanation for it and hope it'll be forgotten. It's better to try to work out what's really going on though, because then it's more possible to change things. Sometimes, things might be aggravating your child that you don't know about, and watching them will help you find out what they are. Or sometimes, what they'll need is to be taught proper behaviour from you, so making excuses for their behaviour and letting them get away with it wouldn't help them.

If your child has slapped, bitten, shoved or kicked another child or taken a toy from them, you have to intervene straightaway. But also show them how to behave differently.

The author of the book The Baby Whisperer says a mother put a message on her website asking for help dealing with her sixteen month old son who was beginning to be very possessive about his toys and had started shoving other children and grabbing their toys at play group. Another mother said her son of about the same age was the same, and explained how she was teaching him to behave differently:

She said she found she needed to stay right next to her son for the time being when he was playing with others, because he was still learning about sharing and playing nicely and she had to be there to teach him how. She said she'd show him what to do. If he started to get aggressive, she would hold his hand and help him touch nicely, explaining that he needed to be gentle with his friends. If he tried to steal a toy, she would hold his hand and explain to him, "No, someone's using that toy right now. You have the truck; he has the ball. You have to wait for the ball." Her son would hate waiting, and would often try to get the toy again. But she held his hand again and said the same thing. If he tried to grab it again, she would pick him up and move him away. She wouldn't do that as a punishment or cooling off period, but just to distract him and make sure he didn't get away with the bad behaviour.

She said teaching toddlers not to misbehave and trying to prevent bad behaviour is something mothers just have to do for some time, because toddlers will all go through the phase of having to learn how to play with others and behave well, and they need a lot of reminding and patience. It takes a while for them to learn to control their impulses, but a lot of help while they're still little can make things easier later on.

A Method for Helping Aggressive Children Calm Down

The book The Baby Whisperer says it's been proven to help aggressive children become calmer if your behaviour is the opposite to theirs when they get aggressive. So, for instance, instead of shouting at them angrily or punishing them in the heat of the moment, which is an instinctive response, talking to them afterwards, and just as importantly listening to them, can help defuse their tension. When the children talk about what caused their anger and learn to express their feelings in words, they can have fewer tantrums afterwards.

A study where that technique was used on children found that they also became less impulsive and did better in school than aggressive children whose parents hadn't tried that but got angry in response.

Children's behaviour can mirror that of their parents; when the parents shout angrily a lot, their children can be aggressive; and when they calm down and become more thoughtful, so can their children.

The author of the book Toddler Taming says that though sometimes for some reason parents give birth to a child who has completely the opposite temperament as them, often their temperaments aren't that different, and the fact that children imitate their parents makes that seem more the case.

He says once a mother brought her three-year-old twins to him, complaining they wouldn't sit still but kept rocking and head-banging. He could see them rocking constantly, slightly out-of-time with each other. But then their father burst into the office as dramatically as if it was a police raid. It seemed he must have been a highly active athlete from birth, always wanting to be up and doing things. The more he complained about his children's over-activity, the more he rocked, swayed, kicked his feet and moved his hands, seeming to have a problem much worse than his children, who were in fact fairly ordinary.

Perhaps they behaved the way they did partly because they'd picked it up from him, and partly because they were like him from birth because they'd inherited his temperament through his genes.

The Importance of Gathering Evidence to Find Out Why Your Child's Misbehaving


When a child gets upset or misbehaves, the reason why can become clearer if you try to find out a bit more about what's going on before reacting. For instance, if you see your child's being aggressive with another one, instead of jumping to a conclusion about who started it based on the reputations of the two children, look for a few seconds to see what's going on before reacting. Try not to let your embarrassment or shame at the situation make you more angry than need be or to try to excuse your child.

It won't be easy, but do your best to think of every moment, especially when they misbehave, as an opportunity for teaching this new little person correct behaviour till they get the hang of it. They need to be shown what good behaviour is at that age, since they're only learning. Do your best to keep as calm as a driving instructor is supposed to.

Gathering evidence also involves looking for patterns in the child's behaviour, so you can work out just what it is that often triggers off tantrums and fits of crying if you're not sure. Then you can try closely observing what happens to work out why they might have tantrums or crying fits then. Sometimes there are more serious issues than them just wanting something they can't have or not wanting to do what you say or getting over-excited.

The mother of a two-year-old child phoned the author of the book The Baby Whisperer to say the little girl had started having nightmares a few weeks earlier and refusing to go to a gymnastics class that her mother was sure she loved. She'd always been a good and happy baby before. From the time she was four weeks old, she'd slept well, and even still did while she was teething. But recently she'd started waking in the night, crying her heart out.

The author immediately asked her what was new in the child's social life. The mother didn't know. The little girl had loved her gym class from the very first time she went. But recently she'd started getting very upset when her mother dropped her off. She'd never caused a fuss before when she'd been dropped off at activities. But now she obviously didn't want her mother to leave. Her mother wondered if it could be a phase of separation anxiety; but the author said the girl was too old for that. She said that instead, something might be going on in the daughter's active imagination. She advised the mother to be as observant as she could, especially when the girl was playing in her room alone.

A few days later, the mother phoned back excitedly. She'd found a bit of good evidence about what was going on when she'd overheard her daughter talking to her favourite doll. She'd said, "Don't worry Tiffany, I won't let Matthew take you from me. I promise."

The mother recognised the name Matthew as one of the boys in her daughter's gym class. She spoke with the teacher, who told her Matthew was "a bit of a bully" who had picked on her daughter several times. The teacher had told Matthew off and comforted the little girl, but she thought what happened must have upset her more than she'd realised.

Another of the girl's new behaviours suddenly made sense to her mother: In the past few weeks, she'd been packing a special little backpack for herself that she wanted with her all the time when she went out. It contained her favourite doll, a stuffed toy she'd loved since she was a baby, and a few other little things. She got upset if she didn't have it with her. Once they'd left the house without it and the little girl had got upset when she realised, so they'd had to go back for it. The author of the book said her deciding to put that together was a good sign, because it meant she was resourceful enough to prepare things she'd be able to turn to for comfort that would make her feel more secure.

Then they worked out a plan: Since the little girl was already comfortable having play conversations with her best doll, her mum could join the discussion and find out more about what was worrying her.

She sat down with her daughter and said, "Let's play gymnastics class with Tiffany." Her daughter got right into the game.

The mother asked the doll, "What do you do in class, Tiffany?" She knew her daughter would answer for her.

After they discussed the routine in class for a little while, the mother asked the doll, "But what about that boy Matthew?"

The daughter answered as herself: "We don't like him, Mummy. He hits me, and he tries to take Tiffany away. One day he ran with her and threw her at the wall. We don't want to go back there anymore."

Her mother promised that she would go to the gym class with her daughter, and that she'd speak to Matthew's mum and to the teacher. He wouldn't be allowed to hit her or take her doll any more.

You Can Prevent Problems by Planning Ahead

If you know your toddler has tantrums or gets upset in some way in certain situations, you can plan ahead and think about what you can do to stop that happening. It's best if stressful scenes can be prevented before they happen where possible; that's easier than calming them down once they do.

So, for instance, if you're going to playgroup, it can be best to first think about what might go wrong, what situations tend to make your child upset, or how they misbehave and when they're most likely to, and what you can try to do to prevent those situations, or to stop them getting out of control when they begin to happen. It's easier to deal with a situation if you've thought through what to do first than it is to make a wise snap decision about what to do on the spur of the moment when things are going wrong all around you.

Not Being Scared to Refuse to Give Toddlers What They Want and to Let Them Know Some Behaviours are Unacceptable

Biting nails

The author of the book The Baby Whisperer says some parents are scared that if they refuse to give in to toddlers or be firm with them about not tolerating certain behaviours, they'll stop loving them. In reality, children can come to respect their parents more and feel more secure when they can be sure what they will and won't be able to get away with. Thinking it's so easy to manipulate the person who's supposed to know best into following your will instead of theirs isn't a reassuring thought. They'll test and test the limits parents put on them by behaving badly for a while. If a parent often refuses to give in to them at first but then does, life can turn into a frustrating power struggle for both parents and toddler. The toddler won't be happy at having to fight to get what they want, even if it means they get it in the end. Tantrums aren't happy things. If they know they're simply not going to get what their parents have told them they can't have, they can more easily resign themselves to it and get on with life and find something else to do that they enjoy, especially if the parent helps them along. So parents and child can actually become closer when the parents are stricter, as long as the parents are consistent. Giving in some times but not other times will turn life into a power struggle again because the toddler will think they might get what they want if they just try hard enough; and if they don't get it when they did before, they might think it's more to do with the parent being unfair rather than the parent knowing best.

A lot of young children will say things they don't really mean or don't even know the meaning of to try to get things or show they're annoyed. For instance, they might say, "I hate you Mummy!" If that makes you give in to them, they'll think it works so they'll try it again. You don't have to worry they mean it seriously. Giving them the firm message that they can't change your mind like that will be better for their long-term behaviour, though you can do it in a kind way, for instance saying something like, "I'm sorry you feel like that. I can see how angry you're getting, but the answer's still no."

Parents' Behaviour and Feelings Can Influence the Way Their Child Behaves

Parent having a tantrum

There are lots of reasons toddlers might behave badly; but parents can accidentally make their behaviour worse by the way they respond.

Often mistakes like that happen when parents' feelings come into things. They're angry so they shout, and the child gets more angry and shouts in return. If the parent shouts back, the child's likely to get even more agitated and things can end up in a big yelling match. If that happens often, there won't be much peace in the home.

Even the parents who started out with the best of intentions, having researched the best ways of bringing up children, can slip into compromises and bad habits when sleep deprivation and stress are wearing them down. It's natural to want a quick fix to a tantrum, giving a child what they want to stop the noise. Unfortunately, it means the child will try the noisy way of getting what they want more often, since they'll know it works.


Or parents' feelings of embarrassment and shame at their child's behaviour can make it worse, even while the parents are trying to make it better. That means, for instance, that a child might have a tantrum in public, and the parents' first thoughts are about how ashamed or embarrassed or stressed they are by it, rather than about what caused it and how best to deal with it. That might mean that a parent does things that pacify the child quickly to stop passers-by paying attention to what's going on, but unbeknownst to them, they will make the child have more tantrums.

For instance, to stop a tantrum, they might give a child a soft toy they passed in the shop they said the child couldn't have at first. The child will get the message that tantrums work. When the child picks up the idea that tantrums make parents give in, they'll have more in future when they want things their parents refuse to give them.

There are other ways parents' feelings can stop them doing what's best:

Parents might ignore some types of bad behaviour, such as if their child hits another one in a play group, thinking that if they deal with the child, it'll be drawing attention to what they did so more people will realise it happened and they'd be ashamed. But not dealing with it means the child will assume it's acceptable behaviour and likely do it more often.

Or parents can unwittingly have a double standard, laughing at a behaviour when it happens at home or for the first few times, but being ashamed or angry when it happens after that or in public. That'll just confuse a toddler. For instance, the first time a toddler throws food or answers back or swears or has a tantrum, the parents might laugh delightedly, thinking it's funny or grown-up for their age or shows spirit. When they stop finding it funny, the toddler won't understand why. They'll keep doing it for a while in the hope of getting that laugh again.


Another problem is when parents disagree with each other over what is unacceptable behaviour and how to discipline their toddler. If the toddler's confused about what good and bad behaviour is, they can't be expected to behave well. Arguments between parents about it should at least take place in private. It's even worse if one parent openly encourages the toddler to break the other's rules, such as if one parent has a 'No eating in the living room' rule, and as soon as they're out of the house, the other one starts munching on something there, and confidentially tells the toddler that it's nice to be able to get away with that now the other parent isn't there.

Being Careful Not to Accidentally Encourage Bad Behaviour

In the book The Baby Whisperer, the author says a woman once phoned her up saying she needed help with her nineteen-month-old son, who "couldn't get it together" when they were at the house of friends. She seemed to be blaming the toddler for jumping on the friend's couch, grabbing things from the other child, and "running around like a new puppy".

The author asked the mother several questions to try to get some idea about why he might be behaving like that, and discovered that at home, he was allowed to jump on the couch, that the mother thought it was "cute" when he grabbed things from her bag, and that they often played "chase" in the living room. The toddler had simply assumed that kind of behaviour would be acceptable in other people's houses too. There was no reason why he shouldn't assume that, since no one had ever taught him any different. He was still learning about the world and about the rules adults have.

He needed to be patiently taught that he needed to behave differently in other people's houses, and sometimes at home. The author of the book explained that to the mother and the mother said she would try.

That very afternoon, her son grabbed her mirror from her bag. Instead of ignoring him like she would have before, she took it from him, showed him she understood he wanted it, but was still firm about him not having it: "I see you want my mirror; but that's Mummy's mirror, and Mummy doesn't want it to break."

She was taking control of the situation again. But not only that, she did something important in giving him an alternative idea for what to do. She said, "So let's go and find something of yours you can play with."

She didn't try to reason with the boy beyond a brief explanation; that would have just encouraged him to argue back and he probably wouldn't have understood everything she said anyway. Giving him another idea for what to play with was probably the best idea for keeping him happy while stopping him doing what she didn't want him to do.

Making the Relationship Between You and Your Child Respectful

Naturally you need to teach your child to respect you. You can do that by acting in a way that gives them the clear message that certain behaviours are unacceptable, and that you can't be persuaded otherwise by tantrums, defiance or any other bad behaviour. It's also reasonable to ask that they say things like please and thank you once they know how.

But being respectful towards your child is also a way to encourage them to respect you, and is fairest to them. Also bear in mind they learn their behaviour from you. Respecting them would mean things like:

Protecting Your Child From Aggressive Children

If your child often gets hit or hurt in some other way by another child at a playgroup, finding a different playgroup might well be the best option. Not only might the child be hurt or pick up bad habits and start being more aggressive themselves if nothing happens, but if you don't protect them, they're learning that they can't rely on you for support but have to deal with things themselves, and that the world isn't a safe place. That's a frightening thing to start thinking at that age. It could also lead to them becoming more aggressive as a defence mechanism, or it could make them less confident.

So if you're there when another child's aggressive to yours, don't be afraid to discipline the aggressive child even though they don't belong to you.

Part Two
Teaching a Little Child Right From Wrong

Letting Toddlers Know It's Not Allright to Lie and Steal or Cause Harm, and Showing Them There Will Be Consequences for Them if They Do

The book The Baby Whisperer says some parents don't like to say anything when they catch their little children stealing, lying and so on, because they think they're not old enough to know any better. But they need to be taught it's wrong. Otherwise they'll carry on. And they need to be taught that if they steal something, they can't just keep it with no consequences. Even at a young age, children will be able to tell that their parents disapprove of certain behaviours and decide it would be better to say things that aren't true rather than risk the anger of their parents by telling the truth. On the other hand, sometimes they can be making things up because they've forgotten what really happened, rather than deliberately lying.

Showing Children They Have to Make Amends When They Cause Harm

Even toddlers aren't too young to be taught they can hurt people and do damage and it's only fair to make some kind of reparations when they do. The author of the book The Baby Whisperer says they should learn more than just to say sorry. Some toddlers will whack or shove other kids and say sorry each time and then just carry on the same way, as if they think saying sorry is like a magic charm that makes things all better instantly and gives them immunity from getting into trouble. They're learning concern for others when they learn to make amends.

It says one mother was firm about not letting her little boy have a toy gun. One day, she found four under his bed. She knew he must have stolen them; but when she asked him, he said another boy had put them there. She knew he was lying. But she thought that since he was only three, it wouldn't be fair to call him a liar, since he was too young to even know what stealing was. But the author of the book said the boy wouldn't learn lying and stealing are wrong if she didn't teach him, and she had to name the behaviour to do that. Then she would have to explain why it was wrong for him to do what he did and tell him a way he could do something to make up for it.

The author suggested the mother made the boy return each gun he stole and apologise to the children.

If a child deliberately breaks another child's toy, it's fair that he be made to give up one of his own.

Children old enough can also be encouraged to dictate apologies for a parent to write down and send as part of their effort to make it up to the person.

A little boy of three and a half was playing "fetch" with a neighbour's dog, using a tennis ball. The neighbour told him not to throw the ball over the hill because it would be dangerous for the dog to go into the brambles to get it. But as soon as the adults were engrossed in conversation, he flung the ball over the hill. The neighbour told the dog to "Stay", and then looked sternly in the boy's direction and asked, "Did you understand what I told you about not throwing the ball?" The boy sheepishly said he did. The neighbour said, "Well then, I guess you owe the dog a tennis ball."

A few days later, she found two tennis balls clumsily wrapped on her doorstep, with a note the boy had dictated to his mother that said he was sorry and he wouldn't do it again.

His mother had done a good job of showing him there were consequences to his actions, since the neighbour didn't want him to play with her dog afterwards; and she guided him through making amends.

Increasing Stricter Discipline Gradually as the Child Gets Older


Bear in mind that when the world's all new to a growing baby, they won't understand why they can't play with things, even if you try to tell them. For instance, if at the age of eight or nine months, they start playing with the knobs on the television, it won't be naughtiness; they'll likely be enjoying their newfound freedom of movement and wanting to experiment with it, and fascinated by the sounds and lights. Yelling at them won't be fair, and they won't understand what you're saying anyway. They'll have no way of knowing it isn't a toy to be played with like their other toys. Gently taking them away and finding them something else to do is better. But they soon begin to learn that even if they don't understand why, there are certain things you don't want them to do, and they soon begin to be capable of obeying, though at first their memories are short so they can soon forget you said no. It's still worth saying it though, since naturally if they've never heard it, they'll have no reason not to carry on doing what you'd rather they didn't.

When they first hit another child and the child squeals, it can seem like a game to them at first - "Hey, they make a noise when I hit them, just as my toy bear squeaks when I squeeze it." At first they don't know any better; you have to teach them hitting's not nice, by saying things like, "No, don't hit. Hitting's not nice; it hurts people. Be gentle." Even if they don't quite understand at first, they'll probably understand enough to help them start learning.

Before they can talk, before they're two years old, they can still understand what you say and test you to see if you really mean what you say or whether they'll be able to get away with what they want to do anyway, ignoring you when you say no. Showing them you'll be firm early on can help them learn you're not a push-over before their behaviour gets to be too much of a bad habit.

But a lot of bad behaviour in a child who can't yet talk is nothing to do with trying to see what you'll put up with, but caused by frustration at not yet having the skills to explain what they want and make themselves understood.

Don't try to reason with them at that age; they'll just enjoy the attention and want to prolong the debate to have more, while not really understanding what you say. So don't feel bad about showing you're in charge, by, for instance, saying, "No, you can't play with that; it's not a toy", and without further ado, taking it away; though saying in an excited tone, "Why not have this instead?" might help to prevent a loud protest.

Distraction can work well at stopping toddlers arguing or getting into things you'd rather they didn't. Taking some of their toys to friends' houses to occupy them if there are lots of things there the friend won't like them touching can help stop them getting into awkward situations.

Teaching a Toddler to Think of Others Besides Themselves


Toddlers are particularly selfish; but most do grow out of it; even months can make a big difference. Still, a bit of help doesn't go amiss.

Toddlers are good at embarrassing their parents by doing anti-social things like taking other children's toys, fighting, refusing to share and taking food that isn't theirs. They just seem to imagine that everything belongs to them and they have a right to do whatever they want. It takes a bit of time for them to realise they need to think of others as well. A bit of calm but strict discipline won't go amiss, as part of their learning.

For instance, if you're at a playgroup with them and a plate of biscuits is handed round and your toddler takes more than one, don't worry about what the other mothers will think of your parenting abilities; all the toddlers will behave badly in some ways. Focus on what to do to teach yours they need to take one like the others. For instance, you could say, "I know you want two; they're nice aren't they! But everyone's only having one so there'll be enough to go round. So put the second one back please."

If the toddler refuses to put them back but wants them both, you could take one from them. If they start a tantrum, after explaining again very briefly that it's important to share, take them away for a while to calm down, explaining to them that you both need to work harder on helping them control their temper.

Tantrums can increase a lot when they're past their second birthday. That's partly because there's more they want to do that they can't so they're more frustrated. And it's partly the way they communicate annoyance before they can talk properly. Tantrums can be reduced to some extent if you try to calm things down for them if you know they're feeling a bit grumpy, and try not to let them be over-stimulated; for instance try not to plan outings when it's their nap time if they'll miss it, and try not to plan too many activities in one day where they'll be using lots of energy. Try and avoid situations they get particularly agitated by if possible.

Talking With Your Child About Their Bad Behaviour Before Difficult Situations Happen

If your toddler tends to get aggressive in playgroup, you could try talking to them about it before the other kids get there or before you both do. You could role-play situations they find difficult with them; little children tend to love to use their imaginations.

So, for instance, you could say, "Pretend I'm Sam and I'm playing with your car. What will you do?" You could suggest a few alternative strategies to them, for instance, "How about if we put a timer on, and he can play with it for two minutes and then you can play with it?" "How about you let him play with it while you play with the train?"

Tell them how important it is that they say what they're thinking in words rather than starting a fight or screaming.

Encouraging a Toddler to Interact With Others

Be careful how much television your toddler watches; some content can scare young children, and other things can rev them up, or depress them if they spend too long in front of the television rather than talking to others and using their energy. Outdoor play can be healthy and fun. Active indoor play can also be good and help them develop their imaginations, for instance pretending they're running a toy shop and pretending to sell you things, and all kinds of other things.

Also, you could encourage them to help with safe tasks around the house. Be patient if they're slow to pick up the best ways of doing things. If you make them feel appreciated, they'll enjoy helping.

Remembering to Quickly Praise a Child Who Does Something You're Pleased About

When a child starts to master tasks you're pleased they're learning and begins to learn to behave better, they can be encouraged to continue by praise, especially praise that points out exactly what they've done that you're pleased with, for instance: "It's good that you shared your things!" "Wow, you made that all by yourself!" "Thanks for helping." and so on.

Part Three
Toddlers Can Behave Badly to Get Attention

It's not just shouting and the like that sparks off the kind of difficult behaviour in a child that started because of something their parents did. Sometimes parents' attempts to be nice can spark off bad behaviour in their children. For instance, if a child sees an ice-cream van and wants an ice-cream, but the parents don't want them to have one since it's just before dinner, the child might sulk and look sad and cry a bit. If the parents try to explain nicely that it's just before dinner and that's why they don't want the child to have an ice-cream, the child might cry more. The parent might think the child's genuinely upset and might not like to see it. So they try to make the child feel better by offering to give the child an ice-cream after dinner. If the child still sulks and whines, they might give in and want to cheer the child up so they let the child have an ice-cream there and then. The trouble is that then the child's learned that sulking and whining gets them what they want, and they'll enjoy all the concerned attention it gets them, so they'll do it some more. Even if they don't get what they want, at least they'll have got all the nice attention. Sometimes, parents have to be firm, even if the child seems upset. When the child learns that crying and sulking doesn't get them what they want, they probably won't do it so much anymore.

Toddlers Wanting Attention While Their Parents are Talking

The author of the book Toddler Taming says that several years ago, a TV network in Australia filmed a segment in their '60 minutes' programme called 'The Terrible Twos'. For some weeks before, they asked parents to volunteer their toddler as the worst behaved one in Sydney. The worst one would be the one to go on the show.

The winning one was a little boy trying hard to get his mother's attention. He was playing outside, and she and the boy's grandmother were sitting on the patio chatting. He kept coming up to them and trying to talk to them. But they were enjoying their chat so much they kept ignoring him. He was obviously frustrated by that.

Eventually, he got a big broom from the edge of the garden and started walking across to the two women with it, holding it above his head. When the programme went on air, the film slowed down and the music from the film Jaws started playing as he walked towards them.

Then he whacked the grandmother over the head with the broom!

Then the film stopped and the author of the book was asked how he'd deal with such delinquent behaviour.

He said the answer was simple. The little boy was trying to say to them, "Hey you two, talk to me. I belong in this family as well, you know! Don't you recognise me?"

He says if you ignore toddlers, they'll often simply do something more dramatic to get your attention. It's not bad behaviour. It's just their unsophisticated way of communicating and their need to be noticed and to be part of the action.

He says toddlers will be bound to try to demand your attention even when you're having the most serious type of conversation. They simply won't understand that it's a serious conversation and you'd rather they didn't interfere. They won't have ever had a conversation that serious themselves in their lives, so it's no wonder they won't appreciate the gravity of the situation. He says even when someone's pouring out their soul to you, it's best to break off the conversation every so often to give your toddler attention when they demand it, or you may have to deal with much worse disruption from a child frustrated at being ignored and not understanding why.


He says that for example, a friend might come to visit you upset because her marriage is falling apart, and you might want to counsel and comfort her, but a conversation might have to go something like,

"So you think your husband's going to leave you for her? ...
Oh that's a nice drawing Sam, well done!
Do you think he's got definite plans? ...
Yes, he is a nice teddy, isn't he Sam!"

And so on.

He says it's either that, or try to have your serious conversations when the toddler isn't there.

Children Can Be Disruptive to Get Attention Especially if They're Not Getting Much Nice Attention


He advises that when your child's doing something particularly naughty, you ask yourself, "What could they be trying to achieve by doing this? If I was them and I was doing this, what would be in it for me?" What you come up with might help you solve the problem. Often, what they want to do is to get your attention.

The most satisfying kind of attention for a toddler will be being played with, talked with, being read entertaining children's books and cuddled. It's nice if parents can do as much of that with young children as they can. If a toddler isn't getting that kind of attention, they can make a bid for their parents' attention by asking lots of questions, not being particularly interested in the answers, but glad that at least it means their parents are talking to them. If that doesn't work, they'll begin to try more dramatic means of getting attention, arguing, and saying things they know will stir their parents up, such as, "You don't love me!", which they won't mean seriously, but are just saying in frustration at not being given the attention they think they need and deserve. If they find that saying things like that gets them a lot of attention from worried parents not wanting them to feel bad, they might say things like that more and more, so they'll get lots more nice attention.

If they still don't get attention that way, they might say no to everything they're asked to do, knowing that will get them attention, even if the attention's not the kind they prefer. If they still aren't given much attention then, they can do more dramatic things still, such as attacking their baby brother or sister, turning the television off in the middle of a parent's favourite programme, having a tantrum, and the like. Of course, the type of attention they get for doing those things won't be nearly as good as being played with and cuddled; it'll be unpleasant attention. But for them, it'll be at least better than being ignored completely. It'll at least make them feel part of the action, rather than someone who isn't significant enough to be taken notice of. A toddler won't know how to entice their parents to change their behaviour and give them more of a nicer kind of attention. So strangely enough, when a parent spends most of their time nagging and shouting at their toddler, the toddler will do more things that make the parent want to nag and shout, not less. If they're simply ignored when they're behaving well, perhaps because the parents think peace and quiet means all's well so they can give their attention to other things they want or need to do, the toddler will become dissatisfied at not getting any kind of attention for good behaviour, and can become frustrated and feel like getting involved in a bit of drama.

Some high-quality attention every day is very important in keeping a toddler happy and emotionally healthy. It's well worth making the effort, because it certainly won't be any more tiring for you than having to make time to deal with tantrums and other bad behaviour, and it could be a lot more pleasurable.

Naturally, a toddler will likely always want more attention than you have time to give. The author of the book Toddler Taming comments that toddlers are like mini pop stars, wanting to be the centre of attention all the time. That's just how toddlers are.

It's Best Not to Just Ignore a Child When They Want Attention

Child screaming

But toddlers don't understand that there are other things that just need to be done, and people who their parents will want to speak to right then and there. It's not really fair to completely ignore a toddler who interrupts a conversation, even if they haven't got anything important to say. They won't understand why they're being ignored, so it's understandable if they become more and more disruptive to get their parent's attention, thinking the parent simply isn't being very nice to them. And it doesn't take long at all to cut off a conversation you're having with another adult to say something to them like, "In a minute darling; don't interrupt me at the moment, I'm talking." Some toddlers will be satisfied with that and wait. If yours is, you may have saved yourself from having to deal with a much whinier toddler or more serious disruption. Naturally if they're not happy to wait, it's appropriate to be firmer with them.

Certainly a toddler's frequent interruptions can be a real nuisance and really get on a parent's nerves. But if you simply ignore them when they try to get your attention, you may sometimes find you have to deal with a bigger and harder-to-manage disturbance later, after they've called "Mum" louder and louder and then, still being ignored, started crying or being disruptive in frustration at being ignored. They won't understand why you're ignoring them; they'll just get annoyed or upset by it.


In the worst cases, ignoring a child who calls you can lead to disaster.

Someone once told me she was in church one Sunday, a Catholic church. She was talking to a friend while her little girl was looking at the candles. She was in the middle of her conversation when her little girl called "Mum." She just ignored her and carried on the conversation. She was in the habit of doing that. But then her little girl screamed, "Mum!!" She looked round and saw she was holding a candle that had flared up and was beginning to catch other things on fire. She rushed over to her. Thankfully another woman was there who smothered the flames and put the fire out. But her little girl ended up with a permanent scar from a little burn she'd got on her hand. Her mother felt guilty about what happened for a while.

Distracting a Child Can Stop Them Wanting Your Attention

When you're busy doing something and your child's trying to get your attention when it really isn't convenient, but all they want to do is play or something, Distracting them by giving them something to do that you know they'll enjoy doing can stop some hassling you. For instance, pointing out a pretty display on a wall they can look at can be a temporary solution if you just want to finish a conversation.

I was talking on the phone to my younger sister the other day. She's got a baby who's about 18 months old. The baby didn't like her talking on the phone, wanting all her attention, and getting restless because she couldn't have it. She loves playing with phones anyway. So she wanted it herself, if she couldn't have my sister's full attention. She's got a toy phone though, and after a while my sister encouraged her to play with that. Once she started, she was a lot happier and didn't care about not having my sister's attention any more.

Having a few quiet toys specially by the phone for when it rings and your child's bound to want your attention could be worth trying, to help distract them while you're talking.

Part Four
Try to See the Good in Your Child Along With the Bad, Even When It's Difficult

If you think your child's all bad, or always has some bad motive when they behave badly, you'll likely behave towards them in an aggressive way that'll make them angry. Then the way they behave in their anger might confirm you in your belief that they're bad, when really they're just getting hyped up by the shouting you're doing. Giving them the benefit of the doubt sometimes, or looking out for when they behave well and trying to encourage them to do more of that, can help.

The Problem of Thinking of One of Your Children as the Bad Child

The book Little Angels gives three examples of how parents accidentally made things worse by assuming their children were behaving badly automatically, rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt till they were sure.

One family had a very badly-behaved three-year-old, who would have long tantrums, kick, bite and hit her parents and two-year-old sister, and wouldn't sleep through the night, but would keep calling out, waking her sister. But because her parents had come to think of her as the bad one and her little sister as their little angel, their behaviour towards her often triggered off the fits of anger that made them label her as the bad one. They realised that when they watched the recordings of what was happening in their house.

In one clip, the parents had been watching television for ten minutes while the three-year-old was playing quietly by herself with some cushions. Then, the two-year-old tried to muscle in on the game and grab the cushions from her. She tried to pull her younger sister away, at which point her parents looked up, and immediately assumed she'd started the trouble and was just trying to hurt her sister for no good reason. They both immediately started shouting at her and threw a cushion at her. She rolled away, crying, and was threatened with being sent to her room. Her younger sister who'd in reality started the trouble was spoken to and comforted in a very different tone of voice.

Because the parents assumed their three-year-old daughter was difficult, they would automatically assume she was the one at fault whenever there was a problem, so they were always blaming her. That was bound to make her frustrated and angry, so she would behave badly.

But another reason their attitude towards her made her behave badly was that partly because they thought she was a bad child, they didn't feel like giving her a lot of affection and playing with her or praising her for good behaviour which would have encouraged her to behave well more often. So when she was behaving well, she tended to be ignored. But she knew she would get attention when she behaved badly, which was better than no attention at all.

So her parents were accidentally turning her into a difficult child by believing she was one and acting accordingly.

It was similar with the parents of a five-year-old boy. His parents had become convinced he was a difficult boy, so they were always on the look-out for his bad behaviour, so they could try to stop it as soon as they could. One problem with doing that kind of thing is that it's easy to interpret things as bad behaviour when they're not really if you're sure they will be; so they were scolding him for things he didn't deserve to be scolded for, just as other parents can. For instance, if a child accidentally smashes something of yours and you feel sure they must have done it deliberately, not only might you shout at them when actually the thing smashing might have scared them, but then every time they go near something precious you might start yelling, "No! No! No!", thinking they might be about to smash it on purpose, when really they just wanted to admire it. Parents aren't to blame for that kind of behaviour; it can be driven by parents' anxiety about what their child might do. They won't realise they're doing something wrong.

The mother of the five-year-old boy who she was convinced was difficult was so sure he was in danger of being out of control that whenever she went out with him, she was always yelling at him to stay by her side. When they sat down for a snack, she asked him not to play up and he tried to hug her; she ignored the hug and put him back on his seat, still insisting he behave. At dinnertime he was entertaining his sister by singing to her and he got shouted at. He was learning that he just didn't get appreciated when he behaved well.

Because his parents were so convinced he was bad, he also got the blame for things that weren't his fault. One scene on the recording showed his father asking him to open a door for his younger sister. He bounced against the door over-exuberantly, and accidentally knocked his sister down. His father assumed he'd done it on purpose and threatened to kick him back.

The parents had accidentally set up a vicious cycle; because they had interpreted their boy's behaviour as meaning he was a bad child and had come to expect everything he did to be bad, their behaviour towards him was usually angry and unfairly critical. They rarely praised him when he behaved well, but were always finding fault with him no matter what, ignoring the good behaviour they actually wanted when it did happen and being bad-tempered with him a lot of the time. Those things were bound to make the boy feel angry, so he'd behave worse, even while they were trying to make him behave better by angrily yelling at him. So they were accidentally causing more of the behaviour they were trying to stop.

In another family, a woman was convinced her six-year-old son had severe behavioural problems. She said he was defiant and difficult to manage. She had two younger children she got on better with. She was convinced her oldest child was the "bad child". Because she was so convinced he was bad, she was always on the look-out for his bad behaviour. That meant that any behaviour that looked a bit worrying to her got labelled bad and deserving of punishment. For instance, play-fighting with his little brother was perceived as bullying, and confirmed her all the more in her opinion he was a bad child. She said he had lots of "attitude" and was disrespectful. But naturally if he felt he was being shouted at or punished unfairly, he would behave like that.

She often didn't feel she could cope with punishing him herself, so she left it till hours later when her husband got home, and asked him to do it. But calling on him for help made her feel more helpless as a parent. And her husband wasn't at all sure that punishing him was a good idea.

The Little Angels team found that the boy didn't have any behaviour problems at all; he was just a normal child, and in fact given his mother's history of depression and the fact his family had moved house ten times since he was born, they thought he was remarkably stable.

The problem was the mother's beliefs about what kind of child the boy was - a bad boy, which made her interpret every little thing he did in that light, rather than asking herself why he was behaving that way. Her husband often disagreed with her about how to handle him, and it led to more tension in the family.

And another thing making the problems worse was that the mother was so scared her son would misbehave that she felt she could never relax and have fun with him. That meant that even though there was a park just a couple of minutes from their home, they'd never been there together. In fact, she was scared that if she did ask him to play with her, he'd reject her. So she never dared try to play with him.

But when she tried to get on better with him, she realised he wasn't the hard-to-control nuisance she'd thought he was, but that she actually enjoyed his company, as if she was getting to know him for the first time, even though she'd lived with him for six years. They went to the park, and a psychologist gave her a few simple instructions; she was to watch the boy play on his own, and praise and hug him for all the nice fun things she saw him doing.

She wasn't used to doing any such thing, and the boy was surprised. But it was the beginning of a new phase in their relationship where they got on much better. The mother realised she could like her son after all. Watching out for the good things he did and behaving towards him as if she liked him and approved of him, focusing her mind on the nice things he did rather than what annoyed her about him, made her realise there were far more things to like about him than she'd realised. Behaving towards him in a friendly way more often made them closer.

The son was popular and liked to spend time with friends. But the parents were both shy and didn't have many, because they'd moved home so much. The mother was afraid of introducing herself to others because she wasn't confident about making friends. The Little Angels team encouraged her to start a conversation with another mother in the park. She was worried about doing that, but found it easier than she'd expected.

When the parents realised it was there own negative beliefs about their son that had been causing the problem, not really his bad behaviour, they realised there was nothing wrong with him after all. But once they weren't focusing on his supposed problems all the time, they realised they'd helped them avoid thinking about the problems in their own marriage. Once they realised their marriage problems were what really needed sorting out, they went for marriage counselling.

How Beliefs About Why a Child's Behaving Badly Can Keep the Bad Behaviour Going


One example is hostile beliefs. If you feel sure your children are misbehaving towards you for a malicious reason, perhaps feeling sure they want to get one up on you and that they won't stop till they do, you'll actually behave in a way that makes the behaviour you're trying to stop worse. That's because if you think it's a bit like a competition where they're trying to dominate you, you'll keep trying to put them down. Every time you do that, you're likely to make your child feel angry and perhaps defiant. That'll make them behave in the exact way that makes you sure they're trying to get one up on you. If you try to put them down some more because you want them to know you're the boss and you won't take their power games, you'll likely upset them. They might feel even more angry and defiant, and behave in a way that makes you feel sure they're trying to get one up on you some more! If you behave in exactly the same way again, angrily ordering them around and shouting at them, to put them down to make sure you're the one that wins, you'll be triggering them to behave in exactly the same way again, not because they really are trying to get one up on you, but because they feel angry at the way you're treating them and refuse to put up with being treated like that.

So your belief about what's happening can keep the behaviour you don't like happening; and when it does, it can confirm you in your wrong belief, because you interpret what's happening as meaning one thing, and behave in a way you think the child deserves for trying to do what you think they're trying to do, when actually they're behaving the way they are for a completely different reason, one you yourself are accidentally causing to continue.

Also, when you get angry, be aware that you might be getting angry because of what you think their motivations are, rather than what they really are. If you assume they're maliciously trying to dominate you, you're going to get far more angry with exactly the same behaviour than if you think it only means they're trying to get your attention because it's the only attention they feel you'll give them.

Another thing is that their behaviour might make you angry because it reminds you of someone else's behaviour that made you angry. For instance, if the child's father used to shout and swear and mean something nasty by it, it might well have made you angry. When your toddler starts shouting and swearing in the same way, it'll trigger off all the bad memories in you of how his father shouts and swears, and they might automatically make you angry before you've had time to think about it. So you might start shouting at the toddler. But really, the toddler might not mean anything nasty by their behaviour at all; they might only be shouting and swearing because they're imitating what they've heard their father do, not understanding it's wrong.

It's similar when parents get so used to a child behaving in a certain way that they give them a label, like "The whiner", or "the bad child", for example. It'll set them up to behave as you expect them to behave, because you'll interpret their behaviour in a bad way far more than they deserve, and that'll make them angry, so they will behave worse.

For instance, a parent who thinks their child is a whiner might assume they're going to whine every time their voice sounds as if they might, and say something in frustration like, "There you go again; whine whine whine!" That's likely to make the child upset or angry, so they start whining when they might not have done before.

Part Five
Trying to Think of Things From a Toddler's Point of View

Expecting a Toddler to Have a Higher Level of Understanding Than Toddlers Do


Some people get flustered with toddlers for doing foolish things or not doing what they're told, when really, they're expecting too much of them; they expect them to be able to understand things as an adult would. But that's impossible.

For instance, a toddler might fiddle with the knobs on the television, and their parent might say sternly, "Don't do that! That television's really expensive, and if it goes out of tune it'll be a real pain to tune again!"

The toddler probably won't have a clue what they're talking about. They won't understand the world of money and finding it hard to afford things. And they won't have a clue what it means to retune a television. To them, the knobs will simply be fun things to play with. So they won't see why they shouldn't carry on. Also, by the time the explanation as to why they shouldn't's finished, chances are they'll be puzzling it over and completely forget about the first bit of the sentence where they were told not to play with it. They might have grown curious about what could go wrong if they do play with it and want to experiment to find out. If they're shouted at and smacked as soon as they start fiddling with it again, they won't understand why they're being shouted at and smacked, so they'll probably start crying. They won't be crying because they're remorseful about disobeying you; they'll be crying because they think you're being cruel to them and they're scared of what seem to be your unpredictable angry outbursts over nothing.

Or they might climb on a table and get dangerously near the edge. You might not understand how they could do such a stupid thing and shout "No!" and scold them impatiently for being so silly. But understand that if they've had no experience of falling from a height, or have but they're unlikely to remember it, they simply won't be aware that that hurts and can do major damage. They won't have enough understanding of language or of the human anatomy and how it copes under stress to have understood what people are talking about if any of them have explained in their hearing just what can happen if someone falls from a height. They're not being silly. They're just exploring and testing out their abilities, having fun, unaware of the dangers. Shouting at them and getting impatient with them will only make them feel tense and edgy and not understand why you're in such a bad mood with them. It's only fair to be patient with them instead, understanding that you've had years and years more time to get to understand things than they have, so you're bound to know much more than they are about the way the world works.

Similarly, if you leave pills where a toddler can reach or find them, they might look like interesting little sweets to a toddler. They simply won't have the life experience or knowledge of the way the world works to have discovered they're pills to make people better from one health condition or another, and that they can be dangerous if the wrong people take them, especially if they overdose. If a toddler thinks they're interesting sweets, they might have several. They simply don't understand why they shouldn't.

Or if they find bleach or some other dangerous chemical that's used around the house, it might look to them like an interesting drink or an interesting thing to play with.

And a sharp knife might look to a toddler like a fun thing to play with. Again, they won't have the life experience or the knowledge of the way the world works to realise it could be dangerous. Even if they've seen the knife cut other things, they won't have enough understanding to realise they could easily get hurt if they play with it. That would require a level of logical thinking that young toddlers won't have developed yet. They're not being naughty by playing with things like that, so scolding them impatiently isn't fair. They're simply unaware of the dangers.

So toddlers need to be patiently protected from harm, not punished when they do something unwise.

Toddlers Haven't Developed the Ability to See Things From Another's Point of View Yet

Some little children are better at it than others. But toddlers in general will behave selfishly. They'll want their parents' attention whatever they're doing, and will be no good at sharing. And if another child has a toy they want, many will just take it from them, even if it means knocking them down in the process.

Toddlers aren't being deliberately naughty or abusive when they do things like that. They just haven't learned that the world doesn't revolve around them. They haven't learned to try and understand things from others' points of view, and work out how it might feel to have your toy snatched from you, for instance.

Toddlers need gentle correction and encouragement to be nice to each other. Angry yelling isn't appropriate, because they're not being malicious; they just haven't learned to think of anyone else but themselves. Usually they'll get much better at it quickly as they grow older, so even the most badly-behaved toddlers can be very different when some years have gone by. Even months can make a big difference, just by themselves.

Adult Behaviour Can Be Confusing to Toddlers, and Toddlers Can Do Things Adults Get Angry Over Without the Toddler Understanding Why


Parents sometimes do things that a toddler simply can't understand. For instance, if a little child unexpectedly comes out with a swear word, his parents might be surprised and laugh. The little child will think it's nice to make his parents laugh, so he might swear again and again over the next few days, expecting them to laugh again. After all, if they thought it was funny the first time, why wouldn't they think it's just as funny when he does it again? He might get a shock when instead of laughing, he starts being shouted at for it. He won't understand, and simply won't think it's fair that he's being shouted at angrily when he thought he was doing something that would make his parents laugh. It'll be even worse if he gets smacked for it.

Or if a toddler clumsily breaks an old plate his mother didn't like the look of anyway, she might not mind. But then the next day he might play roughly with and break an expensive toy his grandmother got him for Christmas, and his mother might yell at the top of her voice, make him go in his room and smack him. The toddler just won't understand why it was allright to break something one day but a terrible offence the next. Children that young just won't understand about plates that don't look nice and how much more valuable toys that cost a lot of money are. They won't understand the value of money. They might not have even broken the toy on purpose. Before they have experience of how easily some things break and get to understand that some things are more breakable than others, there's no reason why they should. They'll have no way of knowing why a ball just bounces if they throw it, but a glass will shatter. There's no reason they shouldn't assume a glass will bounce like a ball.

Or if a parent leaves an open box of chocolates on a coffee table, the toddler might well eat the lot. They're not being naughty. They simply won't understand why they shouldn't, especially a young toddler. They don't understand adult rules about how things should be shared equally among the family and how people should only have one or two chocolates at once. If they like the look and the taste of the chocolates, they'll simply want more and more. If they're fiercely yelled at for it, they won't have a clue why it's so important to their parents. And if they're treated as if they've been very naughty when in reality they simply didn't realise they were doing anything wrong, they'll just think their parents can have scary moods and treat them unfairly.


A toddler might take money from a parent's purse, and the parent might think they've done something terribly wrong and yell at them in a rage. But the toddler won't be trying to do something malicious or steal the money. Toddlers are nosy and want to find out more about the world and what's around them. If they look in a parent's purse, it'll probably be just curiosity motivating them to do that. They might think the money looks like a fun thing to play with. They won't have any understanding about how certain things are precious, and how some things belong to one person and no one else, and how the mother will have wanted that money to buy important things. So again, if they're shouted at as if they've done something really naughty, they simply won't understand, and may well just think the one shouting at them is behaving in a scary way and not treating them fairly.

It's best to prevent as many problems like those happening as you can, by putting breakable or precious things out of a toddler's reach or locking them away, and trying to make sure all toys bought for the toddler aren't easily broken.

Young children also just won't understand why adults do things in certain ways or don't like certain behaviours. And they won't understand when adults are tired or feeling a bit unwell and just want some peace and quiet. They'll be as noisy and boisterous as ever. They won't understand when dad comes in tired from work and just wants to relax. They won't have seen him all day and will be eager for him to play with them.

They won't understand why they have to wait for anything. They won't understand the concept of queues or waiting their turn, or waiting for mum to finish a bit of housework. If they want something, they just won't understand why they can't have it right now. Getting impatient with them will just upset them because they won't understand why they're being scolded.

They won't understand why parents have mealtimes at certain times of day rather than just eating when their stomach says they're hungry. Nor will they understand why it's considered rude to spit things out or make their feelings known if they don't like some food, even if it's been cooked by grandma for a special occasion. They won't understand why they have to say please and thank you; these things will seem like funny things adults insist they do but they're not sure why.

So when toddlers are slow to conform to all the ways of adults, they need gentle guidance and patience; they shouldn't be treated as if they're being naughty and punished harshly.

Part Six
When Things That Don't Need to be Problems Become Problems

There are things that on the face of it should be easily solvable, but when parents are sleep-deprived, and stressed from having their ears blasted from deafening yelling all day, and absorbed in dealing with tantrums and other difficult behaviour, common sense things that could make a big improvement might not come so quickly to mind. So having them written down could be a help.

Trying Not to Nit-Pick


Tension in the family can make everyone unhappy or irritable. One way of reducing it is trying to have a laid-back attitude to little things. If a child is constantly being criticised, it can increase the number of arguments in the home, or damage their confidence. And the parents can make themselves miserable with their constant focus on little imperfections, and having to deal with bad behaviour from little children who are fed up of it.

The author of the book Toddler Taming says he sees nit-picking going on a lot in his office with parents constantly criticising their children, with a string of commands like, "Look at the doctor when you talk to him. ... Sit up straight. ... Say please. ... Don't touch that toy!"

He says there can be no peace between family members where criticism is constant; so it can be better to shrug off trivial things, and just criticise where it really matters. After all, constant nagging can lead to worse behaviour from irritable toddlers, not perfect behaviour.

Parents can simply not realise how much they're nagging and focusing on the negative. Some can be upset at the way they sound if they record themselves and listen back to themselves.

Naturally it's good to want to teach a child good manners. But constantly nagging them can just demoralise them. So it can be good to think about how much what you want to nag them about really matters.

Relations between husbands and wives can improve a lot when they try not to nag each other about trivialities as well.

Not Making a Fuss About Nothing


Parents can accidentally make themselves and their kids miserable in other ways. One is insisting they be obeyed in everything no matter how small. Everything can turn into a power struggle. Anyone who nit-picks to begin with can find themselves living in constant tension.

For instance, if a child drops a crumb on the floor and a parent tells them to pick it up but they won't, the parent's voice can become louder and more insistent as they repeat the command and the child still refuses. "Pick it up Now! ... Now, this instant! ... I'm warning you, if you don't pick it up right now, you're going to be in trouble!"

Soon a much bigger battle's going on than a little crumb was worth. The parent's so committed to trying to get the child to do what they're told that it doesn't occur to them that a crumb on the carpet isn't worth the extra high blood pressure they're giving themselves and all the tension; and the child's failure to obey their order isn't worth the amount of punishment they're getting by all the shouting and threatening the parent's doing.

Once Bad Behaviour's Been Dealt With, Forget It

Young children have short memories for little things; but parents often don't. If children do something they find offensive early in the day, some parents punish the child, but then keep bringing the subject up and criticising them for it again and again all through the day. They can simply not realise that it's making life miserable and tense for parents and children alike. Children are likely to become aggravated by it, rather than learning to behave better, or they can become demoralised.

So it's best to give them an appropriate telling-off or consequence at the time of their offence, and then forget the whole thing and treat them as if it had never happened, and as if they're just as deserving of affection as they ever were.

If you Want to Calm Your Toddler Down, Try Making the Environment Calmer and Quieter

An environment where there's aggression going on will tend to make everyone in it feel more aggressive. A lot of loud noise can make people excitable or irritable. So if there are big arguments in the home or a lot of loud music or television that people have to shout over the top of, toddlers are likely to become more excitable or aggressive, so they'll be harder to discipline.

Trying to make the atmosphere peaceful and calm can help calm them down.

Don't Expect Children to be Able to Quickly Switch From Lively Activity to Calm Peaceful Behaviour


A lot of toddlers love rough or lively play, running around excitedly and playing active games. And when they're around others doing that kind of thing, they'll likely get excited and boisterous and want to join in. Afterwards they'll need a while to wind down.

Naturally that means that if they've been playing a lively game just before bedtime, their parents might have a lot more difficulty putting them to bed than they would if the toddler had been calmly sitting still being read to or something. They'll be pumped up with adrenaline so they'll want to carry on being lively. Having a time of calm before bedtime can help them make the switch from lively to calm.

Likewise, if they've been playing excitedly just before dinner, they're unlikely to be a model of good manners over the dinner table; they're likely to still be excitable. It might be easier to persuade them to sit down if there are a few minutes of some kind of calm activity before dinner, if getting them to behave at the table has been difficult.

Try Not to Brood on Things

Toddlers are just bound to misbehave, throw tantrums, throw their food, wake up a lot when they're ill and so on. Try not to take it personally or to brood with resentment or anxiety about why they have to be like that. All you'll do is make life worse for yourself. For instance, you might be angry after they've woken you up for the third time that night; but they won't be deliberately trying to make you angry, and if you have resentful thoughts fuming through your brain, you'll get even less sleep than you would have done.

Agree Not to Disagree About Parental Discipline in Front of the Children


It's quite common for parents to disagree about how strict or soft to be with the children and what they should and shouldn't be allowed to get away with and that kind of thing; but it's best to discuss it out of earshot of the children and try to come to some kind of compromise you both stick to. Otherwise it'll be more difficult for both of you to get the children to do what they're told, because if one parent lets them get away with something the other parent shouts at them for, or if one parent lets them get away with something pretty naughty and later the other one punishes them for something they know is not nearly so naughty, they won't understand what's going on and will likely get confused and agitated and worried and not really know how they're supposed to behave, thinking things are unfair and unpredictable. Their agitation will likely show up in more disturbed behaviour. Or they'll learn that if one parent doesn't let them get away with something the other does, they just have to go and ask the other one's permission to do it after the first parent's refused it.

Toddlers are likely to feel even more anxious if there are arguments between parents right in front of them about discipline, for instance if one parent tells them to do something and the other one straightaway undermines their authority by telling the toddler they don't have to. Toddlers will only feel secure if they feel confident that the people looking after them know best and are in charge and know what they're talking about. A toddler who gets confusing messages about what's right and wrong will likely be fearful, or decide they'll do their own thing and disrespect a parent who gets angry about it because it appears there might not be a good reason for their anger.

Not Worrying if People Outside the Family Treat the Toddler Differently

It's an old tradition for grandmas to spoil kids and let them get away with more at their house; and other people they're left with might have other standards of discipline to you. Toddlers will be able to cope with the different systems of discipline and accept that others have different standards. As long as the discipline is consistent and good in your house, yours is the method that's likely to have most influence over them, because they'll be with you most often.

Doing Your Best Not to Argue With Toddlers


Even if you win fierce arguments with toddlers it could be said you've really lost, because they'll soon forget what happened, whereas you could still be fuming about it over an hour later. Your stress and tension will just be making you miserable.

A lot of parents are convinced their children start all the fights. But a fight can only happen and get nasty if both people are fighting. The child might think their parent starts all the fights, while the parent thinks all they're doing is telling the child off for things. The reality will probably be that they both trigger each other to behave more irritably by doing things the other doesn't like. But if one can do their best to keep calm, the fight the other one might be spoiling for simply can't take place. Obviously the one mature enough to try to keep calm will be the adult.

Try to work out what causes arguments and battles of will most, and think about how those things could be handled differently. Chances are it's mainly the same kinds of things that cause the arguments over and over again.

For instance, every day there could be battles over the toddler not wanting to get dressed, not wanting to eat their vegetables, not wanting to go to bed, and not being able to pass a shop with a display of chocolate bars near the window without insisting you buy them one.

What can start off as a minor dispute can turn into something much bigger if both parent and child are loud and insistent they're going to get their way and start saying abusive things to each other. But that can stop happening so much if parents try to work out in advance how to deal with their toddler's bad behaviour in those situations next time it happens; for instance, if they've got two little children, they could turn getting dressed into a competition between them to see who can get dressed faster. Competition can make something that's otherwise dreary exciting.

Parents could perhaps persuade children to eat their vegetables by making them look and taste more appealing, for instance chopping them up small and mixing them in a sauce. When going past a shop with a chocolate display near the window, just giving a firm "No!" when the toddler starts making a fuss and marching them straight past it can save minutes and minutes of misery for both parent and child that might otherwise be caused by a heated argument raging on about whether the child can have some and whether it's fair and so on.

Trying to Bring to Mind Good, or Nearly Good Behaviour in a Toddler to Lift the Spirits


Looking after toddlers can be draining and discouraging if they always seem to be misbehaving. One thing that can help give parents the strength to carry on is if they take a bit of time each day to think as hard as they can of any good things their toddler has done that makes looking after them worthwhile. Parents might have to resort to thinking about nearly good behaviour at first. But especially if they've come to think of their toddler as something akin to a little monster, it might help persuade them there are some good things about them, so they'll be less discouraged.

So, for instance, parents could watch out for any talent or skill the child seems to be developing, and any good qualities they do seem to have about their personalities. They may only be little things at first, and it might take a lot of thinking before they can be remembered.

But one thing that can help toddlers develop their skills and good qualities is if they're encouraged to carry on by being praised every time you notice them. They'll enjoy being complimented so it'll encourage them to do more of what you're complimenting them for and feel good about doing things you like.

If it seems difficult to find things to feel positive about, at least being less negative can help a little. For instance, instead of saying "No!" and "Don't!" all the time, try to suggest alternatives, saying things like, "Don't do that; how about doing this instead?" If they get engrossed in doing other things, they'll be less likely to carry on doing what you didn't want them to do.

Not Expecting Model Behaviour From Toddlers


Some people think their toddlers are behaving badly when what they're doing is just normal toddler behaviour. All toddlers will be clumsy, spilling drinks, dropping food and so on. They won't understand why there's anything wrong with trailing mud from outside indoors and all over the carpet. Toys that are easily breakable will probably be broken. They won't realise how delicate trinkets made of things like china are so they might well break ornaments and things by accident. Toddlers are naturally accident-prone, and don't understand or think about the consequences of what they're doing before they happen.

So to save a lot of anger and shouts of "No!", it's best to keep breakable things out of a toddler's reach, and not to get them toys that could break easily no matter how good they are. Toddlers tend to have great imaginations, and simple cardboard boxes make great playthings they can have hours of fun with. For instance, if the box is big enough, they could pretend they're an animal and the box is a cage; or they could pretend it's somewhere to hide when they're being chased in a fun game. Some young toddlers love carrying boxes or baskets around with them and filling them up with little things they carry around the house. And so on.

A Tired Parent Returning From Work Does Well to Expect Ten Minutes of Non-Relaxation Before Resting

Toddlers naturally won't be able to sense how tired a parent is when they come in after a long day's work, and won't know what they've been doing so won't have any understanding of why they'd be tired. If they haven't seen them for hours they'll likely be eager to see them and eager to play with them. It can sometimes be best if a parent returning home just builds the expectation of not being able to relax for a few minutes after they walk in the door into their routine. It can prevent fits of whining and the like from unhappy toddlers disappointed by parents who just want to be spoil sports, as they might see it.

Part Seven
Practical Ways of Improving Things

Toddler-Proofing the Home

Smashing a computer

It can save a lot of worry, and nagging that can be wearing on parents and child alike, if breakable things are put out of the toddler's way, even if they're valued because they make the home pretty. They can be put back gradually over time as the toddler gets to understand how easily some things break, and loses interest in climbing the furniture and so on.

Till then, they could perhaps be put very high up in a cupboard or something.

Also, putting locks on drawers or cupboards of things you'd rather the toddler didn't play with can be a good thing, though it means inconvenience. It's naturally especially important to do that if they contain sharp knives, of course, or bleach, plughole unblocker and the like.

Or some cupboards and drawers could perhaps be taped up with a length of wide tape to stop the toddler opening them. Adults will be able to open them easily enough. When the tape stops being sticky, a new bit could perhaps be used. That might not be the best thing on everything, if it leaves marks or pulls up some of the paint when it comes up though.

If there's a best room you really don't want messed up, better to lock it so as to keep the toddler out of there altogether, perhaps.

Some toddlers like to take things from the fridge. If something doesn't really need to be there, it might be best to put it somewhere else more out of reach; but if they're taking something that has to be there like milk, again, tape could be put on the door to stop a toddler opening it.

Also, it's best to keep things toddlers could cause a nuisance with out of their reach. They can be fascinated with things they can draw patterns and pictures with, such as lipstick and other make-up, nail varnish, pens and other things, and they don't understand why it's not the done thing to draw on walls and any other available surface. So anything that'll be hard to wash off should probably be hidden. Toddlers' newfound ability to draw can be encouraged; if you buy lots of paper and coloured crayons or something, it could keep many toddlers happy and off the walls for some time.

Keeping the Toddler Out of Danger


Houses with glass doors or windows that come down to floor level could be a real risk to toddlers who want to explore. If a toddler does something like rides a tricycle through the glass upstairs and plummets down to ground level, or just reaches out too far and falls out, they could be severely injured.

So it's best to put furniture in front of windows like that till the child's older so they can't get there; or at least get temporary bars fitted across the windows. And have safety glass in them if possible.

It's best to remove furniture or other things in the house with sharp edges, or tape soft material over them.

Make sure all medicines and tablets are locked in a cupboard high up out of the toddler's reach. If you've just brought them home and the phone rings or something before you've put them away, put them somewhere out of reach before answering it.

Also make sure the toddler can't harm themselves by drinking anything like cleaning fluid, weed killer, rat poison, dish washer detergent and so on. People can be severely harmed by that kind of thing, and naturally toddlers won't have any understanding of the dangers. Lock things like that away.

Don't keep a pet that bites when it's provoked in the same house as a toddler. Toddlers are likely to poke animals, pull their fur and do other things that might well annoy them. Even if a dog serves a good purpose as a guard dog, if it could be dangerous to a toddler who teases it, it's best not to have it.

Do what you can to stop toddlers escaping onto the road. Make sure there's a front door lock high up out of their reach so they can't work out a way to open the door. And it could have a chain on it permanently.

Gardens should be fenced off if toddlers could easily get out of them into the road; putting wire netting around them can be an affordable way of making them fairly escape-proof for a toddler, at least till something better can be arranged; and having gates that are always kept shut.

Certainly a lot of fun can be had by a toddler in a safe garden where they can play, and it gives parents more options for keeping them happy and occupied.

Keeping Toddlers Close When You're Out

Little children often don't realise just how dangerous roads are, and can get lost because if they see something nice, they can rush off to investigate it on impulse without a thought for whether they'll get lost. Most children will want to stay close to their parents, but not all.

So it can be a good idea to use reins to keep them close if they like escaping, or attach them to you in some other way.

Walking or Playing Outdoors With Little Children Can Soothe Tensions

When tensions get high because children are misbehaving, maybe partly because they've been cooped up indoors because the weather's been bad, getting out can let both them and the parents release energy. Also, if a parent thinks there's a chance they might lose their temper and hurt their toddler, getting outdoors for a while makes it less likely because they're in public. So even if the weather isn't that nice, wrapping up and getting out can be good, if there's somewhere to play or somewhere peaceful to walk. And the movement of a baby buggy can be soothing to a toddler so it can calm them.

The Tone of Voice You Use Can Have Quite a Bit of Influence


Your tone of voice can say a lot about how happy or displeased you are with something, so it can send quite a strong message to the toddler on its own. That doesn't mean the angrier and louder it sounds the more likely you are to get what you want - toddlers can be made angry and hyped up by a loud angry tone of voice so they can be less likely to do what you want. But a firm but calm voice, conveying the impression, "I'm in charge and this is the way it's going to be", can have more effect. If they do something you disapprove of, see if that voice works before you try anything else. Even if they're too young to know what you're saying, they can pick up from the tone of voice whether you're pleased or disapproving, like pets can. You can move away looking unsmiling, to signify you're disapproving. They'll know that whatever they've just done is something you don't like, even if they don't understand why it's a bad thing.

On the other hand, if they do something you're pleased about, let them know. Try to use an approving tone of voice, as you say things like "Good boy!" "Good girl!" "Well done!" and that kind of thing. You could sometimes gently rub them on the shoulder as you pass them or something and say one or two nice words. Try and transmit a look of love and approval. If you let them know when they're doing something you like, and they feel approved of for it, they'll like the feeling, know better what you want, and they might well behave like that more often. It's certainly worth a try.

The changes won't take place immediately; when toddlers have been misbehaving for weeks or months, they won't change in days. It'll take them a while to get out of old habits and fully appreciate the idea that better behaviour is better for everyone, including them; but if you're patient, they might well change significantly over time, bit by bit.

Tell Toddlers What to Do Rather Than Giving the Impression You're Giving Them a Choice of Whether or Not to Obey

The way you phrase things can make a difference to whether toddlers will obey. For instance, some people might think they're telling their child to pick their toys up when they say, "Would you like to pick your toys up now?" But to a child, that won't sound like a diplomatic way of commanding them to pick them up, but they'll think you mean you're leaving it up to them to decide whether to and they don't have to if they don't want to. Then they won't understand if you get angry with them when they don't.

Trying to Make Sure Good Behaviour is What Gets the Attention the Toddler Will Appreciate, Not Bad Behaviour

It might be kind-hearted to try to coax a child to behave better if they're being grumpy, for instance if they sulk or refuse to eat their dinner. The trouble is that if they enjoy the way you're trying to coax them to change their behaviour, they'll want the attention to go on for longer, so they'll misbehave for longer, and more often in future. Ignoring them can mean they're more likely to give up sooner.

Tidying Toys Away

It's best to be willing to tolerate a certain amount of mess around the house; it simply doesn't come naturally to most toddlers to be tidy; all they want to do is have fun.

Naturally the mess can be kept down if you only get a few toys out for them at any one time. You could maybe get different ones out every few days to keep their interest.

It's best not to buy toys that come apart into lots of small pieces. Apart from the hazard of small kids possibly swallowing some, looking for lots of little bits to tidy up could take a lot longer than tidying up a few bigger things.

You could maybe have a big cardboard box for toys; and try to make putting toys in it at the end of play a daily routine, in the hope it just becomes automatic.

Try and entice them to tidy up each time by telling them what's going to happen after they do in a way that'll sound inviting, for instance saying, "Can you tidy up your toys now please? Then you can have a nice play in the bath, and then I'll read you a story before bed."

When they do start tidying their toys away, it can be good to encourage them with a bit of praise, such as saying, "Well done!" in an approving voice.

Part Eight
Making Sure Parents are United About How to Discipline the Children for Bad Behaviour, and Encouraging Children to Behave Well

It's Hard Enough for One Person to Discipline a Child!

Child screaming

Children like to know what behaviours you will and won't tolerate. If you tolerate one thing one day but shout at them for it the next, they'll just get confused and think your behaviour is worryingly unpredictable, so they'll feel less secure than they would do if you consistently refuse to tolerate certain things.

And if at first you say no but then give in to them when they behave badly, the bad behaviour will continue, because the child will know it gets them what they want. Children can make such a noise and fuss when they're not getting their way that it can be hard not to give in just for a bit of peace. The trouble is that if you say no for a few minutes through the bad behaviour and then give in, you'll accidentally be teaching them that lots of noise and fuss and maybe tears gets them what they want in the end, so if it doesn't at first, they'll just carry on. Parents often hate to see their children cry so they'll give in to stop them being upset. But crying isn't necessarily a sign of deep distress. Before a toddler learns to talk, it's just the way they communicate anything from something serious to mild annoyance.

Not only can there be more fits of crying if parents give in after saying no at first, but toddlers can do worse things if they're not getting their way, assuming they will if they try harder. So tantrums can get louder, and they might even hit or kick their parents, all in an effort to make them give in. It can be hard for parents to brave out a tantrum like that every time it happens till the child eventually gets the message tactics like that just won't work any more. But if parents can manage to go for some time without giving in, possibly weeks if the child's in the habit of bullying the parents into giving them what they want so the kids will keep assuming they just have to try harder when it doesn't work for a while, they will eventually get the message that something's changed and that those tactics just don't work any more so there's no point bothering with them. Then children's behaviour can improve.

Having said that, there's no point turning little things into a big battle.

It's Good if Parents Work Out Some System of Disciplining Their Child They Can Agree On Rather Than Being Divided


So it'll help you if you decide what behaviours you'll accept and what behaviours you're not willing to tolerate and then try and be strict about it. And parents, where there are two, need to agree between themselves what will be acceptable in the house, since if a child is told off by one parent for something the other parent lets them get away with, it'll be harder for both to discipline the child, since they'll know the rules are disagreed on so they might be able to get away with more. They'll be confused about what's expected of them and what's acceptable behaviour.

The parents also need to sit down together and discuss what consequences they'll give for bad behaviour, because children will know where they stand if they get the same from both, but won't think one's being fair if one lets them off far more lightly than the other.

When my sister's older daughter was a toddler, she used to ask if she could have a chockice sometimes. If it was just before dinner, my sister would say no. Then her daughter would go and ask her dad who'd say yes. My sister wasn't happy about that!

If one parent undermines the authority of the other one in the child's mind by letting them get away with things they know the other parent doesn't want them to get away with, the child will have less incentive to behave well for either of them.

The author of the book Little Angels says the parents of one little girl who often had tantrums were with her in a cafe one day. She didn't eat all her dinner, so her mother wouldn't let her have an ice-cream. She cried, and her father felt sorry for her, so he got her one. Then they exchanged knowing smiles and the little girl muttered, "Stupid Mummy!" The father openly laughed.

Yet the father wanted the little girl's behaviour to improve as much as the mother did. They needed to talk through how they wanted to discipline their child and come to an agreement on what she'd be allowed to get away with.

Again, if a child cries, it doesn't necessarily mean they're truly upset. It could mean disappointment, annoyance, frustration and a number of things like that. But their memories aren't that long, so they'll quickly get over minor disappointments, frustrations and the like when the next enjoyable thing comes along.

Sometimes compromises can be reached where each parent tries to behave differently in return for the other parent behaving more the way they'd like them to. One was reached between a couple on the Little Angels programme. They had both been unhappy with the way the other disciplined their children; the wife thought the husband was too tough and disciplinarian, and he'd thought she was a "soft touch". They went to a cafe to talk it through. Arguing in public would mean they'd make sure the argument didn't get fierce and heated and insulting like it might at home. It can help couples to talk things through when they're out somewhere where they'll be more careful about what they say to the other one. Anyway, this couple had a talk about the best way of disciplining their children, and they agreed that from then on, the mother would be firmer so when she said no it really meant no, and the husband would try not to shout in frustration at the children or her when he got annoyed by the children's behaviour. Both of those things were compromises for the adults but would make things better for the children.

When they'd agreed on that, they drew up a set of rules for how they wanted their children to behave and what they weren't going to let them get away with anymore. It included things such as:

  • No fighting.
  • No biting, scratching or drawing blood.
  • No swearing.
  • At mealtimes, sitting on a chair all through the meal and not getting off it.
  • Getting pudding only after eating all the main course.

Then they went home, and from then on they could agree in front of the children about what behaviour they'd be allowed to get away with, so the children respected their wishes more, since they weren't arguing about what should be expected anymore.

Deciding on What Rules to Have

The book Little Angels suggests a method parents can use to decide on the rules they're going to have:

It can be helpful if a list is made of all the problem behaviours in the family, both the ones the children have and the ones the parents know they themselves have. It can help to think of them if category headings are made, such as Behaviour, Mealtimes, Sleeping, and so on.

Then they can be put in order of priority, with the ones that need to be changed most urgently at the top.

Then each problem can be thought about in turn, with the parents focusing on what they'd like to see happening differently.

Then parents should check the list to make sure they're not expecting perfection; children have to be given a bit of leeway; after all, it's normal for people to behave in ways others wished they didn't to some extent, especially children.

Writing rules

For a couple writing a list, they could discuss together exactly what it is about their children's behaviour they'd like to be different, and so come to an agreement about what behaviour they don't want. They could maybe each write a list first and then discuss their lists with each other. Where there's disagreement, they could try to reach a compromise, which might end up being better for the child than what each one had been doing.

Then write out the set of rules in a clear, concise and positive way and put it up in the house so it can easily be referred back to in times of stress where it might be forgotten, or in times where disagreements between parents about discipline might break out again.

While you're doing the task, think about what has tended to happen before when the children have misbehaved. Consider whether your previous responses to it might have been ineffective, especially if there's been disagreement between parents about the way discipline should be handled. Then you'll be more sure that a different approach is needed and can think of discipline strategies that will hopefully work better.

If the children are six or over, they'll be old enough to understand you if you decide on the new rules in their presence, and then talk through the behaviour you expect from them and the consequences there will be for bad behaviour from then on with them.

Resolving to Deal With Bad Behaviour in New Ways

Child screaming

The first thing to make sure of is that when you say something, the child knows you mean it. As has been said before, children can get the impression that what you say doesn't really matter if you shout the same thing at them over and over again because they won't obey. If you constantly just fume away at them in a steam of anger, they'll eventually become immune to it and tune out what you say, just not thinking it's worth taking notice of. And then if your temper gets worse and worse, they'll eventually end up crying and taking a long time to console.

The book Little Angels mentions an incident like that, where the father yelled at his son for fifteen minutes to get in the bath. He might have had no problems if he'd turned getting in the bath into a fun game or promised to read him a story afterwards or something that would have given him an incentive to get in. But instead, he kept shouting things like, "Get in there now! I don't care if you don't want a bath! Just get in there now!"

His temper got worse and worse as he was disobeyed, and in the end the boy was screaming and crying as he got in the bath. Afterwards he was still tearful as his mother comforted him, telling him his father was being silly.

Unfortunately that meant the boy didn't have clear guidelines for his behaviour, since he knew disobedience would make his father behave in a bad way, but he would think that was more to do with his dad's personality flaws than with what he himself was supposed to do. In reality it would be a mixture of the two.

But to give a clear message that the child has a responsibility to behave, they have to be asked to behave in a respectable way, at least at first, and when they're old enough, they need to be helped to understand why they're supposed to behave like that, so they'll know commands to do things are things they ought to obey.

There are good positive ways parents can show children they mean business with their new rules. The book Little Angels gives an example:

A couple took their five-year-old twins out to play. All the while a psychologist was advising them what to do. They made a plan to take photographs of the children when they were behaving well to show them what was meant by good behaviour and to make them happy they were behaving well. One had a tantrum though during a game of football and tried to hit his father. He was clearly told that if he did that one more time he'd have to stop playing. He sulked, and got ignored while the game went on without him. The other twin got more pictures taken of her. That was sending a clear message to the twin sulking that if he behaved badly from then on, he wouldn't have fun. Eventually, the boy who'd been sulking rejoined the game and played happily from then on. The children both went home happy, which was a new experience for their mother, who laughed that before, they'd normally been feeling like killing the children by then and dragging them home. With their new rules and plans about what they were going to do about bad behaviour, they were giving the children a clear message that bad behaviour wouldn't get any kind of reward any more.

Using a Sticker Chart

Child playing

Sticker charts can be an incentive for children to behave well if parents make them fun. If a nice sticker is put on a chart every two or three hours or half an hour a child's managed to behave well for, or even every ten minutes if good behaviour's a real effort and change for them, and when it's done they're praised and a bit of ceremony is made of it, children can make an effort to behave well to get that reward. It'll stop working if sometimes the parents don't bother putting a sticker on the chart after the child's made an effort, because the child will stop thinking the effort's worth it. But if the parent can continue to make it fun, a child can keep interested. It has to feel like fun for them when they get a sticker, and not too much of a penalty or humiliation for them when they don't get one, or they'll get upset and defiant and won't want to bother with it any more. So parents should try not to get angry or shout when they give penalties for bad behaviour.

Some sticker charts are only used for a few hours a day, during the time of day when the child usually behaves worst.

Sometimes, rewards can be given for a few hours of good behaviour in a row, like extra cuddles or extra time being read a story at bedtime.

To give a child a chance to stop behaving badly before they lose the chance of a sticker or reward, there could be a rule that if they start behaving badly, they're asked not to once nicely, and then firmly if they don't stop, and a sad face is drawn on the chart. If they don't misbehave any more during the time, the sticker could be put over the sad face as if it cancels it out, because at least they stopped misbehaving when they were asked and they only misbehaved once. But if they misbehave twice or don't stop after the sad face has been drawn, a black cross or something could be drawn through that time slot and they don't get the sticker for that time slot.

If the sticker chart is being used for the whole day and they're given a reward for good behaviour at the end, one cross through a time slot could be tolerated, but more could mean they lose their reward. They might soon be trying hard not to behave badly because they don't want to lose the reward. Then behaving better will begin to become more natural to them.

Sometimes sticker charts can be made more fun if they're organised so the child can count up the number of stickers they've got during a day and exchange them for something like brightly-coloured marbles they can put in a jar they're encouraged to decorate. They can either exchange them for a reward like extra cuddles, or save them up and exchange them for a bigger reward like being taken to a joke shop or something.

Other Rules for Sticker Charts

Sticker charts could be for all bad behaviour or for specific problem behaviours like not eating dinner and so on.

It's good if children can help decorate the chart and choose the stickers to go on it, to make it more fun for them, and so they think of it as something they're involved in that can be fun, not something they won't like that's being imposed on them.

Sticker charts don't work with children under three, who won't understand them.

If there's more than one child, they could both have one even if one behaves quite well, because competing to see who can behave best can give them more incentive.

Treats for good behaviour shouldn't be fattening food, but more healthy kinds of reward like play time spent with them, cuddles and so on.

If they start with short time slots, they could be lengthened as the behaviour improves so they have to behave well for longer to get a sticker. But if you congratulate them for their better behaviour, they needn't see that as a penalty.

At the end of the day, you could have a big family cheer around the sticker chart. If they haven't earned enough stickers for a treat, encourage them to do better tomorrow, but leave it at that. Don't scold them for not behaving well enough; that'll just discourage them and make them more likely to lose interest. The best frame of mind for them to be in for them to want to succeed is one where they think that aiming to do better will be fun, not one where they feel they're being punished.

If they can't seem to get many stickers at all, then maybe reduce the time they have to behave well for before they get a sticker so getting one isn't so much of a challenge for them, and increase it again when they begin to get the hang of good behaviour.

Sticker charts also help parents focus on what their children are doing well, rather than just on what they're doing badly, so they can feel more encouraged than they did. And when their relationship with their children has improved so there are more cuddles and praise than shouting and nagging, the sticker chart won't be needed anymore.


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