Pick Your Battles When Disciplining Toddlers

Why You Need to Choose Your Fights

Every parent who's ever had a sweet, compliant baby turn into a stubborn, tantrum-throwing toddler wonders the same thing: What did I do wrong? Actually, nothing. "Toddlers are highly impulsive and self-centered," notes Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Toddler Books (John Wiley & Sons). "They have a strong need to demonstrate their independence, and endless curiosity about their environment." Unfortunately, these positive qualities translate into behaviors that adults consider dangerous, weird, or just plain annoying -- ripping up books, emptying drawers, pulling the cat's tail.

Parents often wear themselves out trying to correct every misbehavior. Michelle Weinstein of Pittsburgh knew she was saying no too often when her daughter, 18-month-old Aubrey, started following the dog around, shaking her finger and chanting, "No bark, no bark." "She hears me say no all day long," says Weinstein. "I think it was her first word."

Eventually, hearing no over and over will make a child tune out, says Michele Borba, author of No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them (Jossey-Bass). "Toddlers get overwhelmed by being constantly corrected," she says. "They are trying to make sense of their world, and a constant barrage of instructions makes them interpret it as a negative, overwhelming place."

Carrie Templin, mother of Ben, 5, and Will, 2, in Edgeworth, Pennsylvania, found a tactic that works well. "Instead of saying no 30 times a day, I'll say, 'That's a good idea, maybe we'll try it another time.' Redirecting them works much better than just saying no over and over."

Other strategies: Use different words -- stop, dirty, or hot instead of no, suggests Douglas. Also, offer alternatives to the nerve-racking behavior, she adds. If your son wants to color on the fridge, tape a big piece of paper to it and let him loose; if he wants to jump on your heirloom sofa, give him a pile of soft floor pillows to bounce on instead. And as a general rule, don't schedule major expeditions or events when you know your child is likely to be tired or hungry.

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