Do you know any toddlers? You know, those little humans full of curiosity and energy who teeter around sharp corners, draw on anything but paper, make bizarre fashion choices, and exert a will that could stop a hurricane? If you do, you also know that toddlers can put the “No!” in “Yes” and the spaghetti in couch cushions. It’s difficult to know what they might be thinking and their budding language skills can definitely leave us guessing. Although parents often feel frustrated and even worried by typical toddler behavior, it may actually be a good sign that they are on target for developing some very important skills. Here are some facts to give you a fresh perspective on what to expect and how to deal with developmental changes during toddlerhood:
Fact #1: Independence is a major motivation for toddler behavior, don’t fight it!
• Give choices whenever possible during daily routines. For example, since your toddler must wear a coat during winter, give him or her choices about the act of wearing it. He or she can decide whether to put the coat on before or after putting on shoes or whether to zip up by him or herself after you start it. Or, your little one can pick out your gloves for you and help you get ready to go outside.
• Pick your battles. Figure out what your ultimate goal is in a situation with your toddler. Your little one may not make it pretty or do things efficiently, but when toddlers are given the flexibility to do things on their own they are more engaged.
• When your toddler does not have a choice, be clear and firm in your expectations. Do not get trapped by asking your toddler if he or she wants to do something because the answer can always be, “No!” For example, “You have to lie down for your nap now,” not “Are you ready for your nap?” Follow up with a choice they do have and what to expect or look forward to when naptime is over.
Fact #2: Emotional control is another toddler developmental milestone, help them achieve it!
• Go with your child’s temperament and provide more opportunities to test out his or her independence and emotional control.
• Label feelings out loud in a variety of situations, whether for yourself, a character in a book or TV show, or those observed in your toddler. Encourage the use of words to express emotional states and validate when he or she is having a tough time (or a great time) with mirrored facial expressions or level of enthusiasm.
• Don’t overload your toddler with long explanations or multi-step directions.
• Tell your toddler the appropriate thing to do instead of “No!” or what NOT to do. It is much easier to process positive instructions and then choose the appropriate behavior response.
• With all of the mental energy that goes into learning independence and emotional control, remembering how to behave all the time is tricky. As with people of any age, pay attention to the behavior you want to see more of and praise it—your toddler loves your attention more than anything else and will continue to do things that succeed in getting it!
Lauren Knickerbocker, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Knickerbocker specializes in treating selective mutism and anxiety in young children, ADHD and difficulties with organization and time management, disruptive behaviors, and parent management training. She is also the co-director of Early Childhood Service at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center.