Changing a Toddler (changing behavior pt 7)

Toddler problems

Toddlers are a real problem for me. I mean it.

As a Clinical director of an agency that cares for hundreds of children at a time, the number one referral I get is for the quintessential 3-year-old that is on the brink of being kicked out of daycare for biting, fighting and not listening.

Parents of toddlers worry that the behavior is a predictor of how this child will be as an adult.

Also, I have a toddler…so I get it.

So we are all asking, “What am I doing wrong and how do I change this little human?”

A couple facts about toddlers:

1. Toddlers are jerks.

Let’s just be honest, 2-year-olds are some of the most egocentric, tiny human beings in the world. They are 100% selfish with 0% responsibility, empathy, and compassion.

They also communicate like cavemen. They grunt, bite, spit and they scream. Ohhh, the screaming!


2. Toddlers are incredible.

Every toddler starts off as an artist, scientist, explorer and engineer. The depth of their creativity is only limited by their imagination.

Their confidence is so pure. My 2-year-old son has taught me that confidence isn’t about trying to ignore what people think about you, it is the innocence that doesn’t even register that people’s opinions matter.

From this point forward, unfortunately, life will conspire to remove this sense of incredible hope and faith that comes so naturally to a toddler.


How do we help them?

As parents, it is our job to curb the chaos of being a toddler while emphasizing their natural qualities as individuals. We have to add discipline, self-reflection, and modeling in order to teach our toddlers how to slow-down and self-regulate. We also have a responsibility to laugh, explore and play with our toddlers to create an environment for them to appreciate their individuality.


Review: 4 Steps to Change

Let’s discuss how the 4 Steps towards change apply to a toddler ages 2 to 4 years.

The following information will be organized into our 4 steps:

Step 1: Slow down and pay attention
Step 2: Learn the story
Step 3: Learn the triggers
Step 4: Create lasting habits


Step 1: Slow Down- Mastering Temper Tantrums

One of the most amazing things about human development is the fact that when we are the most opinionated, impulsive and emotional we are also non-verbal, tiny people with useless muscles.

It is important to state that toddlers do have the ability to intelligently organize their emotions in ways that are necessarily understandable to us adults. In fact, they do not have much of a vocabulary bank for their emotions. Largely due to the fact that as infants, their emotions were based on two main factors: fear and safety. Now that they have a concept of the world and feel safe they are ready to start exploring and making sense of their world.

For this reason, our toddlers don’t think in terms of organized feelings, they express themselves through intensity. Not happy or sad, only intensity. They try on different emotions like we try on different coats during the winter. One second their intensely happy and playful, the next they are intensely frustrated.

The quintessential way a toddler expresses their intensity is through a temper tantrum. This is ok. Do not be afraid of the tantrum. The toddler’s tantrum is a necessary milestone that gives a toddler the opportunity to learn to self-regulate. So, as parents, we cannot be afraid of tantrums. They are not a thing to avoid all the time. In fact, I encourage you to take 30% of your toddler’s tantrums and tutor them on how to manage their intensity.  For example, at his most toddler-mode, my 2-year-old was having an average of 10 tantrums per day. I focused on at least 3 out of 10 tantrums to do the following steps with my toddler during a tantrum.

Surviving the tantrum

  1. Don’t be afraid of their intensity.
  2. Get on their eye level.
  3. Give them words for how they feel with the same intensity that they are showing it.
    • “You are mad, you are feeling mad!”
  4. Calmly tell them why they are crying.
    • “You are mad because…. [Example] I told you that you cannot go outside right now.”
  5. Then give them permission to cry more.
    • “You are mad because daddy said no. It’s ok to be mad and cry. Do you want to cry more or are you ready to use your words?”
  6. Let them know you are there to help them calm down.
    • “Let me know if you need help, I’m here for you when you are ready to talk.”
  7. Engage and direct them, when they are ready.
    • Example: use your words, say it with respect, calm yourself down, give me a hug.
  8. Then immediately give them 2 choices on how to move on OR give them a compromise.
    • Example:“Are you ready to put on your shoes or read a book?”
  9. Repeat.

**I can send you a printable copy of the steps above. See below to get a copy.

There’s a point where your love will not be enough and the temper tantrum is not redeemable regardless of what you try. There are often instances where toddlers have to be emotionally and physically depleted before they can get control. Your only option at these times is to wait it out and rebuild. 

There are other occasions where tantrums are seemingly unredeemable but they are really triggered by a need for food, water, sleep or fear. In these cases, I’m going to do everything in my power to get them food and make them feel safe. More than compliance, this becomes the priority.

Through consistently responding to your toddler you are teaching your little one how to:

  1. Not be afraid of their intensity.
  2. Know that they are valuable and not rejected.
  3. Learn words for how they are feeling.
  4. Realize that they have space to express their intensity.
  5. Realize that they have options and can control their own outcomes.


Step 2: Learn the story- You did this!

If you were a good parent when your child was an infant then they will grow up to be a toddler with all the behavioral issues above. You did this! It is your fault, you horrible, nurturing, safe parent.


This is how it works:  

  • A new infant comes into the world facing the challenge of mastering the attachment dance. During this dance, the infant cries due to distress, loneliness, hunger or soiled diaper. The caregiver responds consistently to their distress which tells the child they are safe and their needs will be met.
  • As a result, the child learns that they have a voice and that they are valued. They learn that whatever they need, it will be provided by a consistent and safe caregiver.
  • With this new understanding of the world their cry changes from the horrific, “I’m in danger” scream to a fake “I want it now” pout.
  • Instead of being stirred up by a sense of need they are triggered by a want.
  • Good parenting + Human sin nature = A normal 2-year-old


“So why is my toddler horrible around me, but behaves well in daycare or with her other relatives?”- frustrated parent

They are heightened around you simply because they are most comfortable and feel safest with you. It is actually an honor to get the chaos of a toddler because it means they are at home with you. Believe it or not, this is a mark of privilege and gives you access that no other person will have to shape your child for the future. Trust me, cherish the -in your face- realness that your child gives you. There will come a day when they become teenagers and become more genuine with their peer group and less transparent with you.

Also, note that if your toddler comes to you after experiencing trauma and excessive fear (e.g. A foster or an adopted child), as an infant,  your battle as a parent may look a little different. Children from hard places have BIG emotions and will need a safe repository to place them. Their temper tantrums are deeper and harder. They don’t just scream for their wants but they scream for their need of safety and stability. You have to be that safe place for them. This child may need you to go back and give them what they missed as an infant. They have to learn the attachment dance with you.


Step 3: Learn the triggers- Fighting with “NO”


The biggest task for a toddler is understanding the NOs repeated by their parents and their personal limitations. According to Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, this is the stage of development where toddlers begin to assert their independence. They walk away from their parents, make choices about outfits and food, and take risks to exercise their personal individuality.  

This behavior is normal development for a toddler, even though it creates more chaos. And it does!

These little cavemen will be triggered by both their physical/mental inability to accomplish the task that they want to complete, AND they will be triggered by a parent trying to stop them from accomplishing something that is potentially dangerous.

HINT: Toddlers often say, “NO!” Because they feel out of control and are trying to gain control back. A toddler that feels out of control is a toddler that feels defeated by life. Slow down and pay attention to what they are trying to achieve and try to help them slow down (See steps on “Surviving a Tantrum” above).

Again, it is crucial that they test their boundaries. They will exit this phase of their lives with either greater autonomy OR a greater sense of shame and doubt. All depends on how you, the parent allow them to explore their limits.

As parents, we have to create a delicate balance between allowing our toddlers to take risks while redirecting them in ways that does not destroy their self-esteem. Go on to step 4 to find that balance.


Step 4: Create Lasting Habits

Toddlers take risks; that is what they do, and it is their job. They are either taking on a task, a meal or a challenge that their little bodies and brains cannot fulfill, or they are testing the limits of what their parent will allow.

As the parent, you must first, know the difference between the risks that will give them wisdom and confidence and the risks that build callousness towards obedience. We will use the lessons that teach wisdom and confidence to build our children. We must also use the lessons that reinforce disobedience to give them a correction.

The right way to build:

Dealing with the risk that will give them wisdom and confidence.

It is important to watch for opportunities when your toddler is attempting to take a risk. If it isn’t dangerous try your best to watch and allow it without intervening. Also, try your best to be available when they ask for your support.

You have to learn the specific way that your child asks for additional help. Some verbal children will just ask, “Will you help me.” Some children will cry, some will shut down, while others will act like they were not interested in the task in the first place. Either way, know their signal when they need additional support and provide that support.

With the constant agitation from their inability to fulfill their aspirations, they can potentially learn that their sense of exploration is shameful. So, we have to support it by allowing them to go off on their own with a watchful eye. We also strengthen it when they come back to us and we are able to encourage and play with them. Read more about how we build this support pattern on the Circle of Security site, they provide another great parenting model. 


The right way to correct:

In order to build, you have to break the ground to create a good foundation. As parents, we have to work to break the unsustainable habits that will put our children at a disadvantage later on.  Toddlers give us ample opportunities to correct them.

So, you have to correct them. Get them back on track.Use techniques like time outs, redirection, loss of privileges, etc. But here are some things to remember:

In that post I talk about how to use traditional parenting in a way that works, I also make a strong statement about spanking that you might want to take a look at.

  • When you are correcting behavior, never attack your child’s identity.

This is what messes our kids up from the start. When we attack not just what they do but we attack who they are. This gives our children conflicts that they will not be able to unravel on their own.

Examples of attacking identity:

“You are just a little baby aren’t you.”
“You need to man up and stop acting like a baby”
“Why can’t you do anything right”
“You are just like your daddy”


It was an early Tuesday morning while rushing to prepare for the day that I noticed my 2-year-old was feeling and behaving in a way that seemed distant. He struggled to give me eye contact and behaved more passively than normal. I was sure he was worn out from the constant no’s and redirection that he normally gets.

While he helped me make the bed, I stopped and told him that I loved laughing with him. I told him that I loved his jokes and he is really good at having fun.

My sons face brightened up with a huge smile. For the rest of the morning, he chose to walk by my side and held my hand, all the way up to the time to leave for school.

Here is the lesson: Do not be afraid to hit the reset button with your toddler. That was exactly what my toddler needed from me. Sometimes, you have to forget all the craziness and just look in their eyes and tell them who they are and why you love them.


Crossing the bridge [your turn]

Get their Heart

This statement highlights the objective of raising a toddler. As much as we have to redirect them, and deny them access to potentially dangerous and annoying activities, at the end of the day, are we getting their heart?

How do you get to a toddler’s heart? PLAY!

Every now and then you have to allow yourself to submit to the audacity of a toddler’s play world. That might mean playing Christmas, running around the house as an owl, or creating silly songs with your child (All recent games I’ve played).

Let go of your need for formality and you will gain a toddler’s heart.


What’s next?

We have completed a post on changing an infant, just knocked out the post on the toddler. Time to move on to the school age child.  Stay posted to learn how to change the school aged child.

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