"No! Me!" Your little one shouts angrily at you. He wants to do it himself. Even as you want so badly to jump in there to help him put on his shoes ... don't. Developmentally, when your baby reaches toddlerhood, he discovers a new-found independence that's all about HIM and what HE wants and how YOU must be stopped from getting in HIS way. This "Me, Inc." behavior is absolutely normal and adorable ... except when it's not. It's cute and good that he's working so hard to put on his shoes. It's NOT cute and good when he willingly throws his food to the floor after you've asked him not to.
According to Harvey Karp, M.D. author of the popular The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam; 2008), there are three situations that can help you determine if you need to intervene in your toddler's behavior: dangerous acts; aggression; and breaking family rules. Karp calls these "red-light behaviors," and when they occur, it's time for Mom or Dad to take charge.
How to modify your toddler's behaviors:
• PLAN AHEAD
Often with a little forsight, you can stop undesireable toddler behavior from happening by thinking ahead on your day's activities with your child. If you're planning an outing, make sure you build in plenty of time for your little one. He may want to dress himself, he may want a little playtime built-in before you rush out the door. Be aware of your child's needs so you can transition smoothly. Also: Be aware that a child who is hungry, thirsty, tired or rushed is more likely to misbehave, so plan to get ahead of those potential issues.
• GIVE OPTIONS
Instead of insisting that your toddler follows your directives, know that his desire for independence works well when he has a choice. Instead of saying, "I want you to drink your milk," (which could potentially cause a power struggle if he doesn't want to drink his milk), say, "Which sippy cup do you want to drink your milk from? The blue one or the dinosaur one?" Toddlers want to make choices, says author Aubrey Hargis in the book Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage (Rockridge Press; 2018). If you just insist on something, a power struggle will come up. "If you say 'No,'" Hargis says, "Your toddler will want his way even more." Choices, choices, choices1
Basically, the more you supervise your little one — showing him the appropriate behaviors throughout his activities — the better he may behave. For instance, in trying to help him to learn how to take his turn going down a slide where other kids are playing, you can say, "Let's let these three children go first, and then it will be your turn!" The more you watch him as he goes through his day, the more you'll be able to assess situations and whether or not you need to step in and coach.
• BE CLEAR ABOUT EXPECTATIONS
A child cannot follow your rules if they don't know what they are. You have to follow up with your child and make consequences clear: "We don't use crayons on the wall. I will give you some paper so you can color there. If you draw on the wall again, I will need to take your crayons away."
• CATCH HIM BEING GOOD
Be on the look out for your toddler's efforts to do things right, afterall, he really wants to please you. Give him plenty of attention and when he does things correctly, say so. "Oh, what a good boy for coming to the table when I asked you to!"
• REDIRECT HIM
If you are good at coaching and supervising him then redirecting will follow. For instance, if your child starts doing something you don't want him to do, give him something else to do that you know he enjoys or something new that he's yet to try. Make sure it's something as fun as what he was interested in before!
With all discipline — with kids of all ages — your ability to follow through and be consistent is important. And remember, if your little one melts down, he needs your empathy and compassion. And probably a nice, big hug after he's cried it out.