What do strong-willed toddlers need from you?
Toddlers are a force of nature at the best of times, but some operate on another level of intensity. Usually described as headstrong tornadoes, their constant wilfulness can be exhausting to manage.
So how do you support a child who is particularly defiant and emotionally intense? In my Power Hour sessions, parents often say they want to approach discipline more confidently but without crushing their child’s spirit. As a positive parenting coach and mum myself, I know how challenging it can be to raise a deeply-feeling kid.
If it feels like all you’re doing is saying “No!”, dealing with meltdowns and pulling your toddler away from hazards, here are my top tips to consider:
Parent the child in front of you not who you’d like them to be.
Spirited kids aren’t asking to be tamed, they’re asking to be understood. Often they persist in challenging behaviours because they’re being redirected away with an air of disapproval rather than acceptance. Channel your inner sports coach and approach each situation as if you’re on the same team, not locked in a power battle.
If your toddler’s being extra clingy and whiny, you can acknowledge the need - “You’re telling me you need some cuddles, huh?” - whilst asking for what you want in a non-shaming way: “Can you try that again in a clear voice? I want to make sure I hear you.”
While they’re learning to control their impulses, do it for them.
Toddler’s brains are developing at an incredible rate, and yet it’s not until closer to 6 or 7 that we can expect the kind of impulse control we often think they should have at 2 or 3. If your little one is learning how to handle things gently, the most effective way is to physically be their hands for them. Stay low and close as much as possible, calmly redirecting them before they can do damage. Use breezy words like “I’m just going to help you here” rather than “No grabbing!”
The same goes for getting in the car seat or buggy. If you’re waiting for them to do it willingly and it’s causing both of you to get more upset, mobilise yourself to get the job done quickly with lots of warmth in your voice. Being firm in your discipline really doesn’t have to mean being cold or scary to your child.
And because it’s not always possible to man-manage a toddler, let the space do some of the work for you. It sounds simple but put tempting stuff out of reach and use play pens to give your toddler their place to bulldoze without you having to stop them every 2 minutes.
Boundaries are opportunities to build emotional intelligence.
Strong-willed toddlers often appear to hate boundaries. The world is theirs for the taking so nothing should get in their way, right? In fact, it’s the opposite. They actively want and need strong leadership. That doesn’t mean telling them off, it means feeling empowered as the adult to hold a limit AND hold space for whatever response comes with it.
As part of a child’s emotional development, they need lots of opportunities to feel their disappointment, frustration and anger. We can do our job of saying No, and also let them do their job of feeling how they want to feel about it.
That kickback is an opportunity to start building a language around feelings. Whenever they protest, whine, scream or wail, instead of trying to shut it down or distract, you can try something like: “You didn’t want me to say “No” - thank you for telling me how you feel. This is difficult, we’ll get through it together.” Giving empathy won’t magically calm them down quicker but the coping skills they’ll get from you over time will grow each and every time.
Give them a daily dose of leadership.
Strong-willed children usually have a really big need for independence and decision-making. You’ve probably tried giving this-or-that choices when needing their cooperation, but some toddlers just need more autonomy. They let us know they’ve had enough of being told what to do by acting out in all sorts of ways.
One way to help prevent getting to this point is a daily role reversal. Look for times when you can let them lead completely. Play a game where you’re a hapless fool and your toddler is running rings around you. Look for opportunities to be ‘surprised’ by something they’ve done or pretend to be stuck on a problem they can help with. Your toddler will love feeling in charge and one step ahead of you. It’s easiest to do this at home, rather than out and about when you need to be clearly the one in charge!
The take-home message here is that the more we can accept our child’s wild and wonderful personality, the more we can work with it. It’s important to remember that it takes many opportunities (and a lot of patience!) to see your efforts pay off, rather than expecting a script or phrase to ‘work’ straight away. At this age, it can feel disheartening when you’re not getting much back, but plug away at the above with consistency and you’ll soon start to see your child working with you - at least some of the time!
This post was written by Natalia Baker, founder of Kindred Families.
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