Coping with a toddler's behaviour

By: Christine Langlois

Author: Canadian Living


Coping with a toddler's behaviour

By: Christine Langlois

Behaving appropriately
What's appropriate behaviour for a toddler is often very strange behaviour for a parent to understand. When you're in a battle of wills with a tiny person who is determined, for example, to not put on his snowsuit despite the zero-degree weather, it's easy to question why your child is compelled to exhibit some of these behaviours at this stage in his development. But the opposition of children in this age group is all about self-identity, something that your ornery toddler is working very hard to establish.

At this age, your child begins to see himself as a distinct and separate person. For all his short life, he has been completely dependent on you and other caregivers -- a baby is not aware of himself as an individual separate from his mother or primary caregiver. But this awareness develops in the second year of life as he becomes more self-sufficient and independent.

He can feed himself, he can walk, he can speak. He wants to know more about himself and see what else he can do. Can he make the VCR work? Can he flush the toilet? Your child wants to try everything and will complain loudly when you stop him. Around eighteen months, he may begin to say No! to almost every request, not because his personality has suddenly changed, but because he wants to show you that he's becoming his own person, with a separate identity and individual needs and wants.

As your toddler begins her second year, she gradually discovers that she really isn't the centre of the universe and that's a frightening and frustrating revelation. Your child wants to be in control and have things done her way. She is annoyed at having to follow rules, and she's frustrated that she can't make her body do all the things that she wants to do.

By this point, she has had a bit of practice at being her own person and she might dislike being told not to do what she feels like doing, or not to eat what she feels like eating. As you put more demands on your toddler to follow rules and routines, you will often find yourself in face-offs over everything -- from getting dressed in the morning to not playing with the telephone. You need to allow her to do as much for herself as she can and go at her own pace at least some of the time. But you also need to set clear limits and gently remind her when you must take charge. Tell her, "You can't go outside without your snowsuit, but you can pick which pair of mitts you want to wear,"

In spite of their opposition to everything and their need for control, toddlers are very teachable. Your child will imitate your activities around the house as well as your mannerisms and your spoken expressions -- so watch what you say! You may gain unflattering insights into your own speech and behaviour through this little mimic. Children's language skills increase rapidly in this period, and their unique personalities start to blossom. Your toddler absorbs knowledge and experiences so fast that she will constantly amaze and entertain you with her newfound skills and abilities to communicate.

Typical toddler behaviours
Here are some typical toddler behaviours, with tips on how you might respond.

Running away from you. He catches your eye, gives you that achingly cute smile, then suddenly turns and tears off across the room. After a few steps, he turns again and comes back to you, giggling. Then he darts off once more. This is a game toddlers love to play. Running off is one way they practise being separated from their parents. But they don't want to be too separate, so they come back. This is a wonderful game to play with your toddler in a safe place, but it can be very dangerous if he tries it in places that are not so safe.

• Play the game often at home to give him lots of opportunities to practise and enjoy his separateness.

• Let him know where he is not allowed to play the running-away game, but don't count on his remembering

• In areas or at times that you judge to be unsafe, always carry him or hold on to him.

• Some parents use a harness on children who love to run. If you're comfortable with the concept, get one that fits over your toddler's chest, but still allows him freedom to move within your reach.

Temper tantrums. He throws himself on the floor, kicks his heels in the air as if riding a bicycle, and screams at the top of his lungs. Or he holds his breath until his face turns blue. The sheer force of his anger can stun you. Remember, however, that he's not behaving this way as a personal attack on you or in reaction to your request that he not poke the cat. Tantrums are a natural part of toddlerhood, and sometimes the only expression of a child's frustration -- a feeling he can't express any other way.

• When your child erupts in a tantrum, you must remain calm and allow the tantrum to wind itself down. He needs to know that you're in control when he's feeling so completely out of control.

• Don't try to reason with him, but talk to him calmly and, once he begins to settle down, try to distract him. "I know you're upset that we can't find your teddy. We'll find it soon. Let's see if it's in your bed. Maybe your doll is in your bed."

• If your child has several tantrums in a day, look at his sleep schedule to make sure he's getting enough rest.

• Offer meals and snacks before he becomes cranky with hunger.

• Try to eliminate unnecessary frustrations-for instance, put latches on the doors of rooms he shouldn't enter.

• Without being rigid, keep up a regular routine with him every day.

Refusing to share possessions. Before two-and-a-half, your toddler is too young to understand sharing. Don't force him to share, and don't shame him if he won't. If he's the aggressor and grabs another child's toy, quietly tell your child No! and give the toy back. If the two children can't play without interfering with each other, then it's time to pack up and move on.

Playing with genitals. It may make you uncomfortable that the minute you take off his diaper, his hand dives between his legs. But it's a very common action at this age, and the best thing to do is to ignore it. As he gets older and better understands what you say, you might place limits on this behaviour and let him know that playing with his genitals is not something to do in public.

A toddler's fear
"Mommy, I'm scared." Many fears are normal at this age, and one fear once overcome is soon replaced by another. Separation anxiety is the most common fear of toddlers, and almost all experience it. Also common at this age are fear of the dark and fear of falling asleep. Some toddlers are terrified of dogs; others wont go near a toilet because they think they might fall in and disappear; still others are frightened of sudden loud noises and run toward you if someone switches on the vacuum cleaner.

You may also find, to your surprise, that your toddler is afraid of costumed characters like Santa Claus and clowns. If you've planned an outing that includes one of these characters and your toddler dissolves in tears of fright, it can be upsetting for both of you. Don't push her to go closer or try to reason with her. Just reassure her and remove her far enough away that she feels secure. She might be willing to peek from a safe distance at the object of her terror.

Why do these fears appear at this age? A toddler is still adjusting to the larger world outside of home, and most of what he experiences is new. Like most people, toddlers are frightened by the new and different -- new people or different places or unusual experiences. Also a toddler is moving from feeling secure at the centre of her world to a dawning realization of how small and powerless she is in the larger world. From that perspective, many new people or experiences can seem gigantic and over-whelming. A toddler is also developing a rich imagination and her memory is improving. So she will remember that a dog once scared her by barking fiercely, and her imagination allows her to embellish the memory and see other more frightening possibilities.

Strategies for controlling fear
There are several ways you can help a toddler gain control of his fears. Gradual desensitization may work for some; for example, if the child is afraid of the noise of a particular appliance, give him opportunities to touch it when it's turned off. Then he might be willing to watch from his mom's arms while dad turns it on. Finally, he might agree to sit in the same room while you run the machine. Ask him what you can do to help, but above all, don't belittle him or push him to do something he's afraid of. He will build confidence as he overcomes his fears.

You might also create stories to help your daughter deal with her fears. If she is frightened of monsters, you can weave a story about the magical power of her teddy to watch out for monsters as she sleeps and turn them into snowflakes. When you do this, you aren't lying to your child or confusing her with fantasy, but rather you're entering her own world of imagination.

While toddlers have their own fears, they also pick up on their parents' fears, so your behaviour as a role model is important. If you're squeamish about the sight of a drop of blood or panicked by a spider, try to keep your reactions to yourself.

Television is a potential source of fears. Most parents shield their toddlers from television programs that are frightening-including some cartoons and programming for children. But sometimes, a character or an image in a commercial or a cartoon that an older child or an adult would find amusing will frighten a toddler, who still lives in a world where the line between fantasy and reality is fuzzy.

Signs of stress
Sometimes a child's fears go beyond what you expect for his stage of development; try to ascertain whether they are signs of real stress. For instance, if your toddler is suddenly afraid to go outside and cries if either parent leaves the house, he may be showing stress. Toddlers cannot verbalize their stress, so look closely for the following:

• stomach aches or rashes that have no other apparent cause
• less interest in food
• changes in behaviour during toilet learning
• more temper tantrums than usual
• an increase in nightmares or night terrors or sleep interruptions

If you feel that your child is exhibiting one or more of these signs of stress, try to figure out what may have changed in his day-to-day routine that might cause him to react. It may be something obvious, like a recent move or a change of caregiver, or it may not be one particular event but an accumulation of changes. Maybe there's another two-year-old now at his baby sitter's and, at the same time, his dad was away last week on a business trip. Or it may be that he's starting to use the toilet, but he's resisting the change.

Helping him cope
Once you've identified the cause, you can either eliminate it or give him lots of reassurance and time to adjust to whatever changes are happening in your lives. If life has become too busy, he may need more quiet time with mom or dad every day; or you may need to eliminate some activities from a hectic routine; or you may postpone helping him learn to use the toilet for a month. If he's reacting to a change of caregiver, you should spend time with him and his caregiver together, perhaps a few minutes every morning, both to monitor their relationship and to let your child know that you understand that this is new for him and he needs time to adjust. Most childhood fears disappear on their own in a few months. But if the fear lasts longer than six months, if the child's sleep is continually interrupted, if he loses weight or if his play is affected, then it's wise to consult your doctor.

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Coping with a toddler's behaviour