How to tame a toddler, gently – ten easy tips

Cry baby

Image by joanneQEscober (tacit requiem) via Flickr

My baby is nearly  18 months old. The ‘terrible twos’ are hurtling towards us – and the first signs are here. She is slowly stretching her will-power-muscles. She is discovering she is a separate person, with separate wants and she is learning she can ask, nay demand, to have those wants met. This is a super-empowering time and I am proud of her for finding her voice… and I am having a chance to learn how best to respond to these new strong emotions as they come rushing up for my child.

But here’s the thing: I am all into gentle discipline. I have been inspired by friends as well as by authors like Alfie Kohn and I am convinced by the research that has found that not only is this approach more humane and empathic but it is actually more effective in producing emotionally balanced, secure, caring grown-ups.

Alas, being committed to gentle discipline means I know a lot of what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to hit, yell, bribe, ignore, punish, isolate in a time-out or otherwise attempt to manipulate my daughter into being or behaving how want (unless it is for her or someone else’s safety, of course). I want to listen and I want to learn about who she is. I want to find strategies for co-existing which respect both my needs and hers. This is about focussing on the inner motivations for what kids do and always  acknowledging what is true for them, their feelings, needs and desires. In other words instead of concentrating, for example, on the fact that she is screaming and then moving to stamp that behaviour out, I will ask myself what it is that she is trying to communicate, really, and – where possible – respond with compassion to the underlying need or challenge she is facing… or, at the very least, help her express these overwhelming feelings, as they surge through her little body, in more benevolent ways (say instead of hitting her sister, hitting a pillow).

What this entails, at its core, is a shift from looking at behaviour to looking at relationship. The foundation of ‘gentle discipline’ is respect, clear communication and empathy and (though I am VERY MUCH A BEGINNER at this) I find so much of it is about prevention. It is about spending 90% of the time forging a strong bond so that in that 10% of times when they test you and ‘misbehave,’ you have a base of trust there, to fall back on.

“But what does this look like in practice?” you ask. Here is my starter kit, gentle parenting tips for beginners. These are 10 ideas for working with your toddler, toward peaceful transitions and mutually beneficial outcomes (a.k.a meltdown prevention measures):

  1. Tell them what you want them to do, not what you don’t want. This is classic but remember their language skills are very basic and they pretty much pull out key words. If you say ‘don’t hit the dog’, they pretty much hear ‘hit… dog…’. But even with adults, it is far more effective to state requests in the positive. As they say in ‘the Secret’, there is no use telling a taxi driver where not to go, if you want to give effective direction, tell them where you do want to go.
  2. Be consistent. Kids at this age are all about forming ‘rules’ and patterns about what is happening in the world. It is very confusing to them, then, if one day daddy allows them to play on the computer and watch YouTube and the next day they cannot. It is far easier and will lead to far less pestering, in my experience, if you just set a rule and stick to it. You don’t need to go on about it, kids will love and be entertained by what they can do and not pine for what they can’t… unless they keep getting little teases of it and then told it is off limits again. Give them a clear message about what they can do.
  3. Show don’t tell. Toddlers are mainly in a realm of movement and action. Verbal commands don’t mean so much to them (and according to Steiner best leave ‘logic’ arguments out of it until they are about seven). If you want a toddler to do something, you can put it in words, yes (and that helps them acquire the vocab that  enables them to first thing and later talk about these things) but also physically show them what you want them to do either by modelling it for them (e.g. cleaning the table, walking over here or whatever) or by moving their body (e.g. removing the rock from their mouth for them, rather than verbally asking them to do it, from across a room and then getting angry at them for not complying). Be the change.
  4. Give advanced warning. Transitions can be sooo hard for toddlers – and probably would be for you, too, if you were really into doing something and then someone else came and grabbed you and told you that was over. Bwaaah! One of the easiest ways I have found to lessen the stress is to follow the advice to give toddlers a ‘heads up’. If I am cutting Baby off from berries I say ‘this is the last one’ when I hand the last allotted one for today to her (or the last handful or whatever) and it is amazing how accepting she then is when the next time she asks (a minute later) and I say that we are done for today. She might still protest, but it is demonstrably less. The same works for saying there is ‘one more minute left at the toy store’ or ‘one more go on the swing’. It is also helpful to just give an advanced running commentary of what is to come: ‘we are going to go to the car and then you’ll go in your car seat and we’ll go for a drive to Ellie’s house’… or whatever. It really seems to make things so much easier for them, they no longer seem lost in a sea of unpredictability and uncontrolled chaos (from their point of view). It is always good to feel in the loop.
  5. Make it fun. Put yourself in their shoes – what would make this seemingly mundane task, like say putting your PJs on less of an annoying strain which gets in the way of play and more like a game, itself? What is working for us at the moment is to name body parts. If I ask Anya where her bellybutton/knees/hair/what-have-you is, she’ll stop almost anything to ‘tell’ me. But you also got to keep changing it up. You know that game will become boring then you’ll have to come up with a new one that keeps stretching your kids area of interest.
  6. Let Teddy do it first. If your kid has a favourite toy, it might amaze you how much easier it is to persuade them to do something if their teddy/monkey/doggy/tractor has already done it first. This works for anything from diapering to getting into the car, for us, at the moment.
  7. Only offer meaningful choices that you will follow through on. I find if you ask a toddler a yes or no question their instinct (unless it involves swings or strawberries) is to say ‘no’. It is good to give a constructive choice (say between walking to grandma’s or going in a carrier or stroller, for example) when it is something they really can determine. At the same time, the key is not to make it seem like there is a choice if there isn’t. Don’t ask “Do you want to go to grandma’s house?'” when really you mean “It’s time to go to grandma’s, now” (which by the way can be a very clear and positive way to announce it). Again, toddlers like structure and predictability and if you tell them in advance that you are going to grandma’s, chances are they may take your word for it. Of course if they really object, you might want to get down into the possible causes for that, understand what needs of theirs are not being met and how you can change this so that both your needs (and schedule) are being attended to and your child’s needs for love, support, play, etc are being met. Which leads us to:
  8. Stay flexible. Be open to renegotiation and understanding their point of view. If your toddler feels strongly about something like staying at the park a little longer, for example, and you check inside (in your heart) and find dinner can wait, don’t be a hard-arse just for the sake of it, listen to your little guy or girl just like you would to another person – yes you CAN treat a child with the same respect you afford an adult. Dance with them and find a movement that suits you both.
  9. Slow down. Wherever possible I try and move toddler speed (ahaha) and with her energy. I figure so much of the world and her life are being dictated to her at this point that whenever I can I slow down and allow it to take half an hour just to change a diaper without coercion or tears. Okay I say ‘allow’ – that makes it seem like I have a choice and am always in control and if you have a toddler you know that is a joke! But what I mean is I don’t fight it, I just relax and go with it and let her take the time to make this transition peacefully, gleefully.
  10. Channel the energy. Most of these tips are preventative, but if your kids engages in a behaviour that you want to curb, presto, one of the best ways is to tap into and re-direct that same energy. Say your kid is hitting your new table with a heavy toy truck. Instead of having a meltdown yourself and yelling the word nooooooo across the room, try just atuning to what they are getting out of it. If they are into the noise of banging and want to learn about cause and effect, just quietly move them from banging the table to hitting another surface you are okay with them hitting like a shoe-box or… come on, you are a mom (or dad) you must have some toddler proof thing they can hit?! Reinforce it with words, of course, but again keep it positive and find a way of turning a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’: ‘you can’t hit the table but you CAN hit this box’ and then show them with gusto how fun it is to hit the box. In fact, finding as many times and ways as possible to say ‘Yes’ to your toddler is a wonderful way to show you understand it sucks that they otherwise hear the word ‘no’ an average of 30 times per hour!!! Be a firm but gentle ‘Yes’-parent.
      11.  Distract, distract, dis… what? If all else fails and the (sometimes) inevitable meltdown does occur, one of the best tools to use on kids this age is still distraction. They are so wonderfully in the moment that if you bring them out of the cause of the anxiety and point them toward something they love – especially if you engage their curiosity by asking questions about it – that can completely bring them to a new place. It is almost magical. Don’t get me wrong, this should come AFTER listening and honouring your child’s emotions, acknowledging them, accepting and releasing them. Crying is good. Sometimes a feeling just needs to be felt… but rarely does it need to be fed or indulged. Acknowledge it, remind them (with actions and words) that feeling sad/angry/frustrated/etc is just fine and normal and then, when it feels right and they seem open to it, help them move on from that.

In our household we have two other things working for us. The first is Attachment Parenting which means I am so connected to my baby I can really feel what she wants and needs a lot (not all!) of the time and can move easily with her, often. The second is Sign Language – which further helps to close any gap in understanding as she can tell me so much of what she wants and could starting at nine months. And being able to show that we really understand what is going on for our little ones is a huge part of Gentle Parenting. In fact, ‘terrible twos’ are said not to exist in other cultures, where mother and baby move as one. But, hey, I am from this culture and see different moods rising for my daughter… so the learning continues.
Please do get in touch and tell me which of these work for you or, better still, add to the list with other ways to wrangle a toddler successfully and with love. Thank you.

16 thoughts on “How to tame a toddler, gently – ten easy tips

  1. This is really good advice. :) I’ve used them a lot myself. It’s amazing how much difference it makes to just slow down for two seconds and think about WHY a toddler is doing something and to give appropriate alternatives. I’ve found that most crying and whining can be easily stopped and replaced with a smile if I just pay attention to what he was trying to tell me in the first place (which can be challenging with limited signs and words).

    • Oh, yeah, I hear you. It is all about putting yourself in their shoes and treating kids if not how you would want to be treated at least how you would treat another adult who was telling you they didn’t like something. If your husband didn’t like soup would you force him to finish it?? lol It is true that ‘energy’ somehow tells us so much of what we need to know (even before words or signs). Thanks for passing by and wading in :)

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    • Well, we are learnING, right. It is a process. And it is a new habit of mouth that takes time to cultivate. On a slightly different topic, ‘good job’ still flies out of my mouth, unbiden. I am having to retrain myself slowly to utter more meaningful, process-oriented and inward-pointing forms of praise. It takes time but our mere willingness to examine these things is a GREAT thing, in my view. We rock! lol :)

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  5. My daughter has just clicked that she has a voice and a very proud one at that, she is saying new words every day as we explore our surroundings. I have taught her NZ sign language from birth and she has responded very well. She is able to communicate to me when she is hungry or had finished her food. she can ask questions and is able to do some animals. I loved your ideas and feel that i am using a majority of these and wow what a difference it makes just to slow down and think about where they are coming from. Many thanks for affirming what can be achieved with our little darlings with a little compassion and just learning to listen

    • Yes, I am big into baby sign language, too (and have blogged about it, of course :)

      I agree with you that the most important step is always, always to try and view things from our children’s perspectives. That can change everything.

      Thank you for dropping by and commenting. Cheers,

  6. I agree that all of these techniques are effective most of the time with our 3 children, but there are times that require just being the parent. Soft parenting is borderline idealistic and in my opinion has lead to a less motivated generation. When necessary, there are healthy ways to kick butts in to gear.

    • Hi, I am glad you have found that these kind of respectful, empathic techniques work for you and your family, too.

      I agree that soft, permissive parenting is not helpful or healthy – and can lead to a lot of self-esteem issues, as well as, yes, a lack of motivation. But no-one here is advocating permissive parenting! The difference between peaceful parenting and permissive parenting is this: permissive parenting has no rules, no limits and no ‘displine’; peaceful parenting has all of these but applies them gently, empathically and with love. It is the difference between a household in which no-one ever says ‘no’ to the kids and one in which ‘no’ is said gently with conscious awareness of the tone, body language and wording one uses (in fact it is often possible to re-direct/change a course of action without ever using the word ‘no’… but that is a whole other post).

      Gentle discipline is about focusing on the long-term quality of relationships in a family, rather than just short-term outcomes. It is about replacing punishment, shaming and bribing with dialogue and respect. But it is not about letting the kids ‘rule the roost’ and do anything they want without anybody ever explaining there are limits not only around danger but also, for example, around other people’s feelings and wellbeing. A home where gentle discipline is the norm (or at least what they are earnestly striving towards) is one in which limits are held to… and then when the child inevitably becomes upset or even angry about this, their feelings are acknowledged, validated, accepted.

      Gentle discipline is also 80% prevention, building closeness and trust that breeds a desire to co-operate (mostly through child-led play). Then, when behaviour goes off track for that 20% of the time, you do not ‘give in’, you stick to your limit but do so with genuine empathy and move closer to the child, now ready (and trusting you) to show you their full feelings.

      Here’s are some of my other posts exploring different aspects of this subject, if you are interested in finding out more about this gentle but effective approach to parenting:

  7. hahahha wonder how you feel about this article AFTER your kid has actually become a toddler ?! wasn’t hard to tame my 18 month-old – but how did applying loving logic work out for your 2.5-year-old?

    • Hi,

      I get your point – sure it is easy at 18 months but how does this hold up when they are older? You are in luck because if you notice, this article was written several years ago. My child is now 4 and I still only use connection-based parenting with her – no punishments, no rewards, no bribes or time-outs. This is NOT an easy path. It takes a lot of inner and interpersonal work, for sure, but it is possible and incredibly rewarding. In fact, there are very effective approaches to disciplining kids which do not resort to any of these things.

      I have since written other blog posts detailing some of the approaches I use now (on my kids, on kids I babysit, on other kids at her co-op school) including this one Gentle Parenting 101: How to Set Limits. And my approach is by no means one I have made up, it is based on sound and thorough research. Many have written about these positive parenting practices including Alfie Kohn, Pam Leo, Patty Wipfler, Lawrence Cohen, Heather Schumaker and Laura Markham, to name but a few.

      As I say, it is NOT easy to change our ways, to parent gently even in the face of great misbehaviour and defiance – especially if this is not how we were parented… but it is possible and worthwhile.

      Thanks for dropping by and for being open about your misgivings about this way of parenting.


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