Modifying behavior without being mean

At just over two and a half years old, it’s not just developmentally normal, but totally expected for your toddler to have big feelings and big reactions to go with them. They may throw fits, have low impulse-control, want your attention all the time. This point in their life is sometimes called “the terrible twos,” though really, it’s more of a challenging learning period, when your little one needs to develop a lot of social skills in a very short time (that doesn’t sound as snappy, though). This phase impacts you as a parent in many ways, as you try to figure out how to respond to Baby’s behavior. You may start to feel like you’re constantly repeating yourself as you try to correct their behavior again and again and again. So what’s the best way to react to Baby’s behavior – without feeling like you’re being mean?

What’s going on developmentally?

The typical two-and-a-half-year-old is naturally wrapped up in what they want, and finds it difficult, if not impossible, to share. This is also a very emotional age, full of tears, meltdowns, and frustration. this year can be hard for both parents and toddlers, but that difficulty is totally developmentally normal.

Tips for modifying toddler behavior

A key way to stop feeling – and sounding – like a drill sergeant around your toddler is to focus on their good behavior as soon as it happens, instead of waiting to react to the things they do that they shouldn’t. One of the best ways to keep things running smoothly between you and Baby during this time is to make sure you don’t reach the boiling point with them as you teach them better ways to react to their strong emotions.

  • Concentrate on good behavior: Most adults love to get positive feedback at work. What if your boss did nothing but point out your flaws every day? Baby probably feels the same way. In addition to correcting when they do something wrong, try letting them know how happy you are at their good behavior, like when they put the truck back in their toy box after playing, or chooses not to run inside the house. You’ll both reinforce these positive actions and feel even more supportive in your parenting.
  • Set a good example: Young children love to imitate parents’ and caregivers’ actions. Making sure Baby sees you talking nicely to friends and neighbors or hears you say “excuse me” when you pass by your partner is an investment in their future niceness. You will get better results when you show toddlers what you mean instead of always telling them what to do.
  • Be prepared with great activities: Instead of hoping Baby behaves themself while you make dinner or wait to board the flight to grandma’s house, have some ideas for activities to keep them occupied in your back pocket. Offer up colorful stickers or a new coloring book to keep them busy when you’re out and about, or have a set of plastic bowls at the ready so they can cook with you.
  • Offer limited choices: Toddlers often act out because they’re frustrated with the world around them and offering them choices gives them back a sense of control. For example, if Baby won’t get dressed, instead of getting exasperated, try letting them choose whether they want to get ready before or after breakfast, or if they want to wear sandals or sneakers.
  • Learn your toddler’s trigger points: After a while, you can begin to predict what causes Baby to spiral out of control. This might be anything from too much stimulation to waiting in long lines – once you know what it is, you can try to avoid situations that you know will set them off so you can eliminate bad behavior before it begins.

Taking steps to head off challenging behavior before it starts will go a long way in helping you and Baby bridge the gap between the “terrible twos” and the more settled behavior typically found when toddlers reach age 3.

  • “How to Shape and Manage Your Young Child’s Behavior.”  Trauma Tool Box for Primary Care American Academy of Pediatrics. 11/21/15.
  • “Tips for Grandparents of a 2 Year Old.” Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 American Academy of Pediatrics. 11/21/2015.
  • “Child Development by Age.” The Gessell Institute of Human Development. Your Two Year Old by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D, Pick Up Your Socks by Elizabeth Crary. Center for Parenting Education. 2002.
  • Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE. “Top Tips for Surviving Tantrums.” Mama Doc Medicine: Finding Calm and Confidence in Parenting, Child Health, and Work-Life Balance American Academy of Pediatrics. 11/21/15.
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