CENTERS PIECE: Parenting toddlers comes with challengesTeresa Porath is Licensed Professional Counselor in the Midland office of Centers for Children and Families

“But pancakes are your favorite, don’t you want breakfast?”
“It’s time to get dressed so that we can go to the park.”
Sometimes I think my toddler is on a personal mission to outdo himself from the day before with the amount of times he says no. He will say no to foods I specifically know he likes and no to activities I’m sure he enjoys.
Does this mean I am a terrible parent? Does this mean he is a terrible child? No.
Defiance is always telling us something. As parents, our primary goal when kids are misbehaving is to correct the behavior. But what if the corrective methods being used are actually fueling the power struggle and escalating the problem? In a perfect world, kids would do what they are asked to do when they are asked to do it simply because they are asked. In reality, however, things rarely work out this way.
Some days feel like two steps forward and one step back. I have to constantly remind myself that every step forward is a small victory and every challenge is an opportunity for growth.
My husband and I have a unique perspective on parenting. As foster parents, it’s like each toddler who comes through is a unique case study. We have had kids of different genders and from different backgrounds, but something they have all had in common is the “No” phase. Yes, my husband and I are the common denominators in this equation, but I am confident we are not the only people experiencing these issues.
As people, we have an innate need for power and control in our lives. Asserting ourselves by saying no is an attempt to gain control. When toddlers argue with you, they are asserting themselves. Being assertive helps to build confidence. So as parents, how do we work with this need for control rather than against it so that our kids can gain confidence while still being respectful?
I have learned that parenting is not a one size fits all type of situation. What works for one child does not necessarily work for another. I have come to accept that a lot of parenting is trial and error, but as long as we are always looking out for the best interest of the kids, I think we are doing okay.
We are not perfect parents and we do not have all of the answers, but with Father’s Day in mind, it seemed appropriate to discuss some strategies we have used that I have found to be helpful.
1) Empathize. When kids are told no repeatedly, they feel shut down. Think about the way you respond when you feel your emotions are shut down. Does it increase your rate of compliance? How does it impact your self-esteem? Try putting yourself in your toddler’s tiny shoes.
2) Be proactive and find opportunities to say yes. According to Parent Magazine, the average toddler hears the word “No” an astonishing 400 times per day. Your toddler doesn’t like hearing no as much as you do. Offer choices within reason as much as possible. But be sure to offer limited options of two items. If kids are given a complete free for all, life can become overwhelming. Choices allow you to say yes while giving kids a sense of control within limits that are acceptable to you.
3) Choose words wisely in order to reason with your kids. Toddlers are often smarter than we may give them credit for. They don’t have to like the rules, but if they understand them perhaps they will be respected. Imagine how much easier teenage life will be if your kiddos can develop respect for rules at any early age.
4) Transition. Help your toddler move from one activity to the next by giving an advanced warning. Ending a desired activity to participate in something less enjoyable such as having to stop playing to go to bed can elicit tantrums and tears. Instead, prepare your kiddos for the next activity.
“We can read two books and then it’s time for bed. Okay, we finished the first book. Okay, we finished the second book, now it’s time for bed”.
5) Find opportunities to ask for help. We currently have our first male toddler. He is defiantly the strongest willed child we’ve parented. Finding opportunities for him to help or be in charge has made a world of difference. Whenever he hears the phrase, “I need your help,” he runs right over to offer his assistance. The smile on his face lets me know that he is proud of himself. This strategy works two-fold. Not only is it encouraging desired behavior, it is also helping to build his confidence.
6) Ignore and praise. How do you do both simultaneously? When you ignore the undesired behavior, the child isn’t getting any kind of reinforcement. When you are doing this though, it is important to be watching and waiting for the very moment your child starts doing the desired behavior so that you can immediately follow up with praise. Just as we have an innate need for power and control in our own lives, we have a need for esteem. Praise helps to build esteem.
7) Distract. Redirect. Laugh. Laughter is a great distraction and tool for redirection. Make the directive for the desired behavior fun or silly. Instead of giving a directive and following it up with the potential consequence, make up a game or talk in a funny voice. I have found that his room stays much cleaner when we race to put toys away. I have also found that he responds really well when I give him a directive using an animal voice or ask him to hop to the bathroom to brush his teeth, or crawl like a puppy to get into bed.
8) Pause. It’s hard not to lose your cool when you give your child the crackers he’s been asking for only to watch him throw them on the floor and say, “I don’t like it.” If you try to demand a rational explanation for an irrational behavior, you will likely only fuel the fire. Instead, pause. This pause may be enough for your toddler to think through his choices and can help to defuse the situation. Odds are he will regret throwing down the snack he requested and pick it up on his own.
Sometimes I feel like I am on the brink having an adult tantrum. I want to yell, “Do it now, because I said so!” I do not always have the energy to put time into creative parenting strategies, but then I remind myself that putting in a little extra effort will likely result in a compliance reward.
The “No” phase may be annoying, but it is actually a normal way for kids to assert control. It helps kids to set limits and boundaries for themselves, which is an important life skill. This willful behavior is actually a sign of positive development and healthy parent child relationships. Don’t get me wrong, I still get frustrated, but these are a few techniques that have been helpful to ease the struggles with this developmental stage. Parenting is by far the most rewarding and difficult job any of us will ever have.