Getting a toddler to do anything can be hard. If you’re struggling with a terrible two-year-old or a threenager, try these seven practical parenting tips to encourage your toddler to obey without a fight.
I have a two-year-old teenager. Last week he didn’t want to wake up from his nap (but I didn’t dare let him sleep longer for fear that he wouldn’t sleep that night), and he just rolled over to face away from me and said, “I’m not ready yet.” Lately, his favorite phrases when he’s upset with me are, “I not happy with you right now!” and “Just leave me alone!” (cue door slam.)
Oh, help. I can’t wait to see what it will be like when he’s fifteen.
Toddlerhood can be tough. When Little Man (now 4) was almost two, he went through a phase where he had multiple tantrums a day during which he got so upset that he would throw up. Marvelous. Let’s just say that January of 2014 was NOT my favorite month.
Little Brother doesn’t throw up (thankfully), but he does throw impressive tantrums. There’s no doubt about it…this is a difficult age in many ways.
There’s a reason, though, that our toddlers act in the completely irrational and exasperating ways they do…and it’s not just to torture their parents (although sometimes I wonder if that’s a secret side benefit).
Why are toddlers so defiant?
Parents talk a lot to each other about the ways that their children develop physically and academically. We cheer when they learn to take their first steps or string together their first rudimentary sentences. However, we sometimes forget that they are changing emotionally just as quickly.
Around age two, toddlers develop self-awareness (they see themselves as separate beings from their parents). With this emerging realization comes a lot of experimentation regarding their individual identity and autonomy. These are big ideas and feelings for such a little person to process, so we end up with a lot of seemingly contradictory behaviors: separation anxiety often increases, and yet toddlers want to do everything “by myself”.
Toddlers want to do what they want, when they want, and how they want. It can be maddening when you just want them to get in the car already, but toddlers aren’t defiant because they want to make your life miserable; it’s because they are trying to learn what it means to be an individual in this big world.
What is a parent’s role?
We parents are the teachers of our children. We need to give our children opportunities to express their individuality, to prove their independence, and to practice making choices. We are the facilitators of our children’s development.
It’s helpful for me to recognize that my little guy is on a crazy rollercoaster of emotional development, but let’s be real. Sometimes we just need these emerging individuals to do stuff. We need to get shoes on feet, food in mouths, and rears in car seats.
When Little Man went through the roughest parts of this developmental phase, I was beside myself trying to figure out how to get him to do the simplest tasks. Through a lot of trial and error, a lot of research, and a lot of discussions with other moms, here are the best parenting tips I’ve found for getting a toddler to do…ANYTHING.
How to get your toddler to do what you need:
1. Make it a game or race
Everything in life is a competition for Little Man. I try not to overuse this strategy, but it sure is effective. He loves to have “jammie races” with his brother and dad to get dressed for bed, and it makes bedtime so much faster. We have also had races to see who can get shoes on first, get in the car first, and to motivate my kids to clean up their toys.
Almost any activity can be turned into a game, too. When Little Brother needs a little encouragement to eat, I’ll take his spoon and feed him airplane style…and for every bite he takes, I make a different random sound effect. He loves to find out if Mom is going to moo, boink, ding, or crash. The constant novelty of the game makes him want to play.
It comes down to this: kids love to play. So, rather than trying to beat them, join them. Just mold the game to suit your own purpose, too.
2. Start a “rocket ship countdown”
One of the hardest things for my toddlers is stopping an activity they enjoy. They don’t understand the idea of schedules, nor do they really acknowledge the needs of other people. So, why would they agree to put the Legos away when it’s dinnertime or leave the park willingly when they are perfectly content to stay where they are?
I know a lot of parents the classic, “count to three” strategy, but I always felt like I was initiating a power struggle when I used that. Instead, we now make it a game by counting DOWN instead of up. Whenever I need my toddler to do something, and he seems resistant, I’ll say, “Okay, let’s do a rocket ship countdown to get started. Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Blastoff!” Yes, I know I’m still counting, but somehow by associating it with rockets shooting into outer space, it becomes fun instead of demanding. Read more about how we use this strategy here.
3. Pretend like YOU are going to do it instead
Toddlers are really good at claiming “MINE!” for everything, so use it to your advantage. When your toddler refuses to eat food that you know he likes, ask, “Can I have it then?” Often, a child will snatch the spoon back and gobble it up before you get a chance to “steal” it away. Keep in mind, this only works with foods they typically like, not the dreaded brussel sprouts (which I happen to have realized in adulthood I really like, btw).
You can also use this strategy by having a favorite doll or stuffed animal do something that you want your child to do. We went through a stage where we always had to change my son’s stuffed bear’s diaper before we could change his diaper. If getting dressed is a struggle, try putting your child’s clothes on her doll first (or on yourself), and you can both laugh together at how they don’t fit. Then, you can go for the kill…”These clothes don’t fit mommy, do they? Let’s see if they fit you better.” A little humor goes a long way with toddlers.
4. Give two acceptable choices
This is the single most effective strategy I’ve used with my kids. I still use it every day. We determine SO many things about our kids lives…what they eat, when they sleep, where they go, who they play with. It’s no wonder they crave–and demand–a little bit of control over their lives. However, you can give them some control and still get them to do what you want by posing careful questions.
Think about what you really need, and then think of two acceptable ways your child can accomplish it. Need your daughter to get dressed? Offer two outfits and let her choose which to wear. Need your son to get in the car? Ask him, “Would you like to climb up yourself, or would you like Mom to lift you?” Is your toy-tornado of a house driving you nuts? Ask you child, “What would you like to clean up? The trains or the blocks?” Both choices lead to an outcome you are happy with, but your child gets the satisfaction of having choice in the matter.
5. Talk on your child’s level
We’re busy. I know. But calling to your toddler from across the room while he is absorbed in an epic battle between his construction trucks and his jungle animals is not going to yield a child who hops up immediately to obey your request. Especially when that request requires him to end the battle prematurely. I know. I’ve tried.
I did an experiment a while ago where I made it a goal to get down to my son’s level and talk to him eye to eye as much as possible. I expected it to help him listen to me, but I was amazed by how this strategy changed our relationship.
6. Harness the power of distraction
Sometimes, kids will be defiant just for the sake of asserting control. However, if you can get them to focus on something else, they will forget about their aspirations to be dictator of the household…at least long enough to get their shoes on.
Try singing a song, showing them something interesting to look at out the window, or letting them hold a toy. This can be helpful for making diaper changes, clothing changes, and even eating go so much more smoothly.
7. Get out of your chair
Kids are smart. They know when we mean what we say and when we don’t. So, if we want them to do what we ask, we have to show that we expect it to be done. That means that if your child doesn’t comply the first time, you get up and go help him or her to follow the request.
I’m as guilty as the next mom of getting busy on the phone, or talking to a friend, or doing any of a million other things. Then, five minutes go by and I realize that I’ve given the same request three or four times to my child and not done anything about the fact that he hasn’t obeyed. Sometimes we just want to let it go. However, our toddlers learn quickly whether or not we’re going to enforce our expectations. Don’t make threats or requests that you’re not willing to follow through on. Make your request in simple, clear language, and be prepared to stop what you’re doing and help your child follow your directions when needed.
Keepin’ it real
I hope these tips help you in your quest to survive toddlerhood. I can guarantee you that even if you use all these strategies, your toddler will still–at times–disobey, have tantrums, and generally wreak havoc. However, I also believe that doing these things will help you replace a little bit of the chaos with a little more peace and fun in your home.
Good luck, mommas! Remember, it is a phase, and it will pass.
What parenting tips do you have to get your toddler to comply?
If you found this post helpful, you may be interested in the three phrases parents need to know to speak more effectively to their children.
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