A number of recent workshops with parents of toddlers produced the following list of ideas and key points to keep in mind when facing the challenge of parenting children whose life space is dramatically expanding but whose verbal skills and concepts of time, place, and consequences are still quite limited.
Visual aids are very helpful in establishing the sense of sequence and time for the behaviors required to start and end the day. Charts with drawings or pictures that have clock faces next to them enable the child to more quickly grasp the specific steps needed to complete the process but also begin to learn the importance of sequence and time in completing complex tasks. Parents must remember how complicated getting ready to leave the house is for a 2-year-old. There are so many steps to be mastered and so-o-o many distractions. Plus, “What’s a ‘5 minutes’?” We talk time to very young children which is one of the most abstract concepts in life.
Speaking of time, transitions are another major challenge for young children. At the end of a workshop, one mother went into the classroom to get her child and go home. The child resisted. The mother had been mentally preparing to leave. The child had not. Children need warnings, often a few of them, to begin to wind down and finish an activity. Toddlers will often need the parent to enter the activity in order to ease the child out of it. Making a game of cleaning up or creating an ending helps as does distractions that begin to shift the child’s attention to change and transition. It can be helpful to talk about what will be happening when you leave, especially if it involves the child in actively making some decision about what will happen at the next stop, e.g., what book she would like you to read that night.
More about time goals: use timers to give children a visual, concrete focus and often make a game out of it. Can you brush your teeth or get your clothes on before the bell rings? One mother had success laying out options of sets of outfits plus beating the timer for a child who was having a lot of trouble getting dressed in the morning. Parents also need to be careful of taking too much responsibility for getting the child ready in the morning. Taking a child to preschool in his or her pajamas with clothes in a bag is often a very powerful way to underscore that you cannot control your child’s behavior but you can control consequences. If you get drawn into believing that it is up to you to make sure everything is in perfect order before leaving, then your toddler is training you rather than vice-versa.
Whenever you are trying to say something important to a young child, kneel down and say it softly, eye-to-eye. Parents often attempt to give directions/orders/make requests from a distal position rather than a proximal one. But very young children cannot focus their auditory sense on a distant object when it is competing with an ongoing tactile or visual experience.
Don’t call out from the next room and expect more than about two seconds of attention. Even being next to a child but emitting words that are more than three feet from the ears, and more importantly, without the requisite visual or tactile attention, limits your effectiveness in getting attention and getting the message across. Even with older children in a classroom, a teacher walking about the room simply touching the shoulder of an inattentive child can dramatically improve being heard.
A biting 2-year-old? Eye-to-eye — a very firm “No!,” immediate but quiet removal, and consistent repetition. Don’t waste time lecturing toddlers!
A toddler being mean to a new baby? Again the eye-to-eye “No!,” but this time you should add a brief comment that it IS hard to have to share attention with a new baby, while you pick up the baby and go off, negating the toddler’s attempt to gain negative attention by having you focus on punishing him.
Distraction is one of the most helpful strategies. Also, parents need to use their knowledge and anticipate situations when a toddler may have difficulty or cause a problem, e.g., the child who interrupts whenever you are on the phone or the slow-to-warm up child who resists or runs out of patience in a group activity. Always have some interesting object that will hold the child’s attention for a few minutes (an object not otherwise available for the child to play with) or have a favorite book and read to the child for a little while until she is able to enter or re-enter the social situation.
One mother, whose son was physically hitting children in group play, realized the child would give her a clue by coming over and clinging when he couldn’t tolerate the intensity of the social play of the other children. Her son needed a timeout, in a positive sense, and once they worked out the signals, she would call him over for some quiet time before an incident occurred.
Some toddlers have hypersensitive sensory systems. They react with distress to loud noises, can’t tolerate physical closeness (don’t relax when you hold them; lash out when children are suddenly in their face), reject foods and clothing that don’t “feel right” in their mouths or against their skin. These are valid issues. Treat them as such by developing accommodations and not worrying they won’t turn out all right.
Toilet training is a constant concern when it need not be. Gently encourage the child when she appears to be interested but if not ready, be patient. It will occur in due time. And loss of control is quite common. Don’t expect once mastered that the issue is forever gone.
Hyperactive children are a challenge to get to sleep. They have difficulty calming their systems to the point of being able to fall asleep. They will need more gentle rocking, sucking, and rhythmic sounds as aids to falling asleep and are less likely to be able to fall back to sleep if they wake up during the night. Try brief interventions, but the reality is that some children will need your bodily presence to regain control of their own biological rhythm.
Keep in mind that toddlers are not in training to be miniature adults. Parents and teachers often put too much stress on training very young children to cope by using words when developmentally they are more skilled at learning to cope through action and tactile or visual modalities. Let them be toddlers. And enjoy the process. It really passes very quickly.