Feeling exhausted, frustrated, even angry with your toddler’s behavior? I feel you. Parenting toddlers is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. The constant demands, tantrums, and other challenging behaviors can easily leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Some days you wonder, what happened to the joy? Perhaps your dreams of becoming a parent look nothing like your reality. Instead of sweet snuggles and watching the wonder as they explore their world, most days you can’t get past the fog of sleep deprivation and the “wonder” of how you’re going to make it through today.
Though parenting toddlers requires the patience of a saint, there are many things you can do to make your days easier. Small things that will actually reenergize you and give you more time, rather than draining what little you have left.
After all, parents are busy, tired people. No one wants to add one more thing to their to-do list. We just want to start where we are and add a little peace to our lives.
Let’s check out five things you can start today to help lighten the load of parenting toddlers.
First, examine your life and how your own stress level is affecting your toddler’s behaviors
Little ones may seem oblivious to anything or anyone in the entire world beside themselves, but they can be some of the most perceptive people you know. One of my girls is like this. She has a sixth sense about people. She can look into your eyes and know exactly how you are feeling. When I’m having a bad day or feeling out of sorts (hello, PMS), she knows it. Even though outwardly I think I’m keeping my cool and looking like everything is fine, she perceives that something is off with me.
How do I know that? She has a behavior shift. She is more defiant, needy, and angry, and less loving and helpful. Sure, she has off days that have nothing to do with me, but my mood dictates her days much of the time.
Though not all toddlers are this perceptive, they all have some degree of awareness that affects how they respond to you and their environment.
Your stress level plays a big part in your child’s behavior. What does that mean for you? Examining your own life to reduce your stress and your anger triggers is a great way to begin bringing back the joy of parenting toddlers. It has a two-fold effect on you. First, you feel better and are enjoying life more because some of the pressure is off. Second, your child is responding more positively, which continues to decrease your stress.
Just a year ago, I was in a season of parenting through chaos. Every day was a struggle and there was really nothing I could do about it but wait it out. There were three teens and three toddlers in the house and it really was just about as hard as it sounds! It’s can be so difficult to remain positive and have a good attitude for the little ones when your life is in such chaos. Read about my experience in Finding Peace in the Chaos.
Second, understand why toddlers do the things they do
The first time I was parenting toddlers, I don’t remember stopping and asking why my children were behaving the way they did. I just assumed they were being naughty and needed correction. But now that I have two little ones who came from a hard beginning, I am looking at most of their behaviors through a new lens. Thinking about the why behind the actions has a big impact in the way I respond to their behaviors.
The most important thing I’m learning in this is that ALL children deserve that kind of response to their behaviors. Let’s not just assume they are acting out of ill intent, but consider what might be provoking them and how we can help them through it.
Toddlers are not mini adults. Think about it. Two or three years ago they came into this world completely helpless. They depended on you for their very life. When we expect them to do things their bodies are not ready for, or to behave in ways they cannot yet control, we set them up for failure. In doing so, we set ourselves up for more frustration and disappointment.
Though toddlers still depend on us for their very existence, they don’t realize it. They are beginning to learn that they can do some things for themselves. With this realization comes a fierce fight for their independence.
Toddlers are experiencing all kinds of big feelings that they don’t have words for yet. Remember, just a few short years ago, the only way they could tell you something was wrong was to cry. Their cries would tell you when they were hungry, tired, or uncomfortable. Now they’ve discovered a new way of communicating: the tantrum. Instead of simply crying, they may throw themselves down on the floor and kick and scream. Their feelings are completely valid, but they don’t know the best way to express them yet.
Entire books have been written on the subject of why toddlers do the things they do, but I’ll just leave this section with one final thought. Recently, my four-year-old had a rough day and was treating her little sister very poorly. At one point, little sister and I were discussing why big sister was being so mean. She said, “I don’t know. Maybe she needs her favorite toy and a hug.”
So take it from a three-year-old: we can speculate about all manner of “whys” when toddlers are acting out, but maybe sometimes they just need their favorite toy and a hug.
Third, control your toddler’s surroundings to help reduce unwanted behaviors
This is perhaps the easiest way to improve the atmosphere in your home. Adjusting the environment to make it more toddler-friendly is the quickest way to reduce conflicts between you and your little one. This can be done in several different ways. One of them is to minimize the number of things they can get into.
Minimize the number of things they can get into
You wouldn’t put a penny on the floor in front of a crawling baby and then scold him for putting it in his mouth, would you? Of course not! Parents with crawlers at home are constantly looking around to make sure there are no choking hazards in their path.
In the same way, one powerful way to help reduce unwanted behaviors when parenting toddlers is to minimize the number of things they can get into.
For example, when our twins were two, we didn’t want to spend the entire Christmas season trying to keep them away from the Christmas tree. Instead, the bottom 1/3 of our tree was filled with ornaments they could play with.
Maybe your little one won’t stop climbing the kitchen chairs to get up on the table. You could put a bungee cord around the chairs to make them harder to pull out. Or if your toddler does nothing with toys but dump them out and spread them all over the room, reduce the number of toys and the number of bins they can dump out.
I haven’t had a house plant for 17 years. Why? Because it quickly became a battle when I began parenting toddlers. I gave up the plants rather than constantly trying to keep my toddlers away from them. (Then when they were old enough to handle them again, I realized I didn’t miss them at all. Who needs one more thing to nurture and keep alive, am I right??)
Toddlers hear enough “nos” in their day. We say, “No touch!” when they come near a hot stove. We say, “Stop!” when they run toward the street. And we say, “Not yet” when they beg for candy for breakfast. We need to save our “nos” for the many, many things that involve their health and safety.
At some point it’s good to begin to teach your little ones self-control by helping them stay away from things they shouldn’t have. However, most toddlers won’t be ready to learn much self-control yet, and until then your job as parent is to control their environment.
In addition to minimizing the number of things they can get into, toddlers need plenty of physical movement in their day. That can be tricky when you’re stuck inside for an extended time. Check out Simple Indoor Activities to Burn Their Energy for ideas that have worked for me!
Fourth, get on your toddler’s team
When every day with your toddler feels like a battle of wills, it’s time to lay down your weapons and get on your toddler’s team.There are several simple things you can do to let go of power struggles with your little ones.
I’m sure you’ve heard the term “choose your battles.” This is so important when parenting toddlers.
Clothes are something a toddler is willing to fight to the death. You think your child should wear socks and a sweater when it’s cold, but she wants to wear a sundress. Why argue? She’s the one who will be cold, not you. Just make sure she wears pants or tights and has a sweater on hand if she wants it. My 3-year-old recently walked around the mall wearing a sundress and holding a sweater in her hand. It was 10 degrees outside.
Food is another area toddlers will battle about if you are willing to join the fight. This is such a difficult issue that there are people who have dedicated their lives to teaching parents how to feed their little ones. Toddlers know we cannot physically make them chew and swallow food, and if you try to coerce them, they will see a wonderful opportunity to exert control.
Toddlers are dependent on others for so much. They need to be given plenty of opportunities to begin to control things in their world. Choosing your battles by giving them power wherever you can will help get them on your team and make them more willing to concede in the areas where you need to be in charge.
Here are some other ways to get on your toddler’s team and gain their cooperation:
How to Get Your Toddler to Listen—5 Simple Ideas. This comes with five more ideas plus a cheat sheet you can print out for quick and easy access when you need it. Just fill out the form below.
Fifth, respond appropriately to your toddler’s behaviors
The behavior of toddlers can be confusing and draining. It’s easy for us to respond in kind by having our own grown-up tantrum. Yelling, punitive punishments, and knee-jerk reactions are all ways we mirror our toddler’s poor behavior.
Parenting toddlers can bring out the worst in us. We get overwhelmed and break down, yell, give up, or resort to reactions that we know will do more harm than good. No one wants to be that parent, but we’ve all done it.
This can become a teachable moment for you and your child. They are learning that though you’re not perfect, you are always striving to do better. You can show them that when someone makes a mistake, they make it right by apologizing and showing love or doing something kind.
We all know how NOT to respond to our toddler’s behaviors. But how SHOULD we respond when our toddlers are having a tantrum or blatantly disobeying?
Think about it in terms of your goal. More than punishing them for poor behavior, your goal should be to teach them the correct behavior. When they mess up, such as taking a toy from someone, hitting, or forgetting to say thank you, have them re-do the scenario with the correct response. Gently remind them of the appropriate behavior and allow them to try again.
Of course, there is a plethora of ways to respond to your toddler’s unwelcome behaviors, and just as in the subject of why toddlers do the things they do, entire books have been written to help parents know how to respond to those behaviors. Parenting toddlers has a learning curve. You need to get to know your toddlers and what motivates them in order to know how to foster positive behavior.
Find the joy you’re missing
Despite popular opinion, it is possible to experience the joy of parenting. Yes, even parenting toddlers!
If you are struggling with your toddler’s behaviors, you can begin today to change the atmosphere in your home in many little ways that will have a positive impact.
Of course, parenting toddlers will never be a continuous journey of sunshine and rainbows. Your child will sometimes act out in their frustration or anger. YOU will sometimes act out in frustration or anger.
But the bottom line is this: if you have a positive mindset and do your part to control the environment and your responses, you will begin to experience the joy you’re hoping for.
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