Managing Toddler Battles

When it comes to toddlers, striking a balance between easygoing and heavy-handed can be tricky.

Daily Arguments

When my son A.J. was 2 1/2, he became obsessed with his Superman costume. He wanted to wear it everywhere -- dinner, bed, play dates, and grocery shopping. But marching down the frozen-foods aisle with a kid in a cape was where I drew the line.

So for a while, I fought with A.J. He kicked and screamed as I peeled the Man of Steel suit off and wrestled him into his regular clothes. This was, of course, in addition to all our other battles -- getting buckled into the car seat, eating vegetables before ice cream, holding my hand every time we crossed the street.

One day I realized how tiresome all this fighting was. I gave up. "Leave the Superman suit on," I said. "It's not a big deal." And suddenly it wasn't. A.J. was ecstatic, and the first time he went out in it, I noticed a toddler girl decked out in a pink tutu walking down the other side of the street, her mother looking weary but resigned. And guess what? Within about two weeks, A.J. had lost interest in the costume. It dawned on me that I had learned something important: When you're raising a toddler, you have to pick your battles.

Choosing 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 (Wiley). "They have a strong need to demonstrate their independence and endless curiosity about their environment."

Parents often wear themselves out trying to correct every misbehavior. Saying no too often is a common scenario. Eventually, hearing this word over and over will make a child tune out, says Michele Borba, author of No More Misbehavin' (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."

Redirecting Can Work!

Carrie Templin, mother of Ben, 5, and Will, 2, in Edgeworth, Pennsylvania, found a tactic that works well with her kids. "Instead of saying no, 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 to give a whirl: Use different words -- "stop," "dirty," or "hot" instead of no, suggests Douglas. Also, offer alternatives to your child's nerve-racking behavior, she adds. For instance, if your son wants to color on the fridge, tape a big piece of paper to it and let him loose.

Deciding Which Fights to Pick

Of course, these strategies won't always work. To save your sanity and allow your toddler some sense of autonomy, you need to figure out which battles are fight-worthy. For most parents, health and safety issues come first. There's no negotiating about using a car seat or running in the street. But is it worth making an issue about crumbs on the sofa or going to Sunday school each and every weekend?

Each family must decide on its own hot-button issues, according to Borba: "The battles worth fighting are the ones you care most about -- behaviors that help form your kids' character," she says. "Picture your toddler grown up. What traits do you want to see in him -- empathy, honesty, responsibility? Once you identify what matters most, it's easier to decide what battles to choose and which to let go of." Still, you can't have total bedlam right now; you need to set some rules. For Lori Ann Pina of San Diego, that means adhering to a strict 8 p.m. bedtime with her kids. "It's nonnegotiable because we need to get going early in the morning," she says. "The kids need their sleep."

Consistency and Strategies

Once you've laid down your rules, try to stick to them. "Inconsistency sends a mixed message: Sometimes she means it, sometimes she doesn't," says Borba. Of course, being consistent is easier said than done. "If I'm trying to do something -- like make dinner -- and they're watching a show, I tend to overlook it," says Templin. "I know I shouldn't, but sometimes I'm just too tired." She always regrets the aftermath: "Once I've let something slip, it's five times harder to get them to do what I ask the next time."

Even though following through can be draining, the ground rules you lay now will affect your kids for years to come. "Parents don't always think about the long-range goals," says Alan Greene, MD, a pediatrician and faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine, in Palo Alto, California. "You really want to teach them to make wise decisions, rather than just to obey the rules by rote. What they learn now will carry through to the teen years and beyond."

Strategies to Keep the Peace

Try the following tactics to make life with your toddler easier:

  • "Use short sentences and give alternatives to behaviors you don't like. Instead of saying, 'Play nice,' say, 'We don't hit, we hug,'" says Alan Greene, MD, a pediatrician and member of the clinical faculty at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in Palo Alto, California.
  • Watch your tone of voice. "If you're yelling and out of control, your kids will be, too," says Dr. Greene. "You want to be quiet but firm; get down to their level and maintain eye contact."
  • Focus on correcting one behavior at a time. For instance, work on your toddler's yucky habit of spitting for a few weeks, and ignore his dinnertime messes. As soon as you've conquered one problem, move on to the next one.
  • Make sure your child has plenty of opportunities to be a total toddler. That is, get her outside (or in bad weather, in a room where she can run around like a maniac and shout loudly) at least once a day.
  • Don't waste your time on battles you won't win. No toddler in the world can be quiet throughout a whole church service. And if she'll eat only peanut butter and jelly for a week, no one will die.
  • Keep your sense of humor. Someday you'll think it's funny that your child insisted on wearing snow boots to the swimming pool.

Charlotte Latvala, a mother of three, lives in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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