How do I parent my toddler?

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about being a mother, it’s the number of times one has to say “No” to a curious toddler in a single day. It has actually been documented that all over the world, regardless of language patterns and grammatical structures, a young child generally learns to respond to “no” and his/her own name first. Those early years of parenting, it’s reassuring to know, are the same for everyone – you try to protect and prevent and the child protests.

But sometimes, especially during the ‘terrible twos’, these protests take such embarrassingly loud forms that parents are reluctant to say no and face the howls of anguish that are sure to follow. It’s amazing, the talent these little imps have for picking the most prominent and unsuitable occasions for such behaviour – like while waiting in a long queue at the supermarket or in the middle of a dinner function. The cringing parents, all too aware of the disapproving glances or mutterings of the public at large, end up just wanting to stop the noise, and the easiest way is… give the kid what s/he wants.

The difficulty in such a course is that children, being the bright sparks that they are, quickly learn when and where to make such demands, so as to be sure of getting them fulfilled. And whether it is kids or terrorists, the same logic is in place – you give in once and then you have to keep giving in. A leading authority on child rearing, Dr Benjamin Spock has said “The child supplies the power but the parents have to do the steering”. This means that the child’s needs and wants are always strong– but the parent has to be in charge of deciding what is necessary for the child’s wellbeing and what is merely wanted.

These tantrums are usually very frequent between the ages of 2 and 3, because that’s when your child is becoming aware of her own needs and also learning to communicate them. Often, the difficulty in getting her meaning across can result in your daughter’s feeling frustrated and angry. Overdue naptimes or mealtimes or over-excitement could also cause crankiness that toddlers don’t yet have the ability to express in words. So they have a meltdown: kicking, screaming, crying, drumming their heels on the floor and generally creating a furore.

At such times, the best a parent can do is ensure that they are safe and can cause no physical harm to themselves, be there to cuddle and reassure them, and wait for the storm to die down. It may take a while, but it definitely will. Once she is aware of your supportive presence, it becomes easier for you to reach out and communicate – you could ask her if she’s hungry or if she wants a particular toy, whatever sparked the tantrum in the first place. When spoken to calmly and affectionately, your child is not just getting the words to express her needs, but is also seeing how communication can be carried out in an effective manner without resorting to high decibel levels.

It isn’t a simple matter to be patient or available, especially if you’ve had a long day with still more of it to get through. But the more consistent you are in dealing with her anger or tantrums, the better she will learn the message that everything is possible with a smile and the right words. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusing the tot… put yourself in her place, and imagine how you would feel if your boss reacted to your anger one day by punishing you and the next by giving you what you demanded. The next time you felt angry, you wouldn’t know what to do, right? And the more complex the emotions aroused in the child (anger +fear+ anticipation), the more difficulty she’s going to have in telling you any of it.

Fussiness in food habits is often seen in children of this age group… they may refuse to try new things, or they may dislike dishes that are of a particular colour or consistency… like not wanting tomato soup because it is red or because it is more watery than the last time you made it. Meal times tend to be stressful events for the mother/caregiver with such children, which eventually makes the child also dislike food. Some tired and harassed mothers resort to using the TV as a distraction while feeding the child, which works well in the short-term. Unfortunately, it works too well in the long-term, meaning that your child may end up wanting the TV on for all meals, even when older. And TV viewing while eating has been found to be harmful in the sense of causing the child to eat more (the brain is too occupied by cartoons to get a message from the stomach that it’s full) and eat less healthy foods (the ads, even on children’s channels are for fast food, readymade noodles, chocolates, etc.), which could finally end up in childhood obesity and other problems. Meal times should as far as possible be made family time as well, so that the child has the opportunity to see his parents enjoying their food and each other’s company. Also children learn fussiness from those around them… so don’t be surprised if he sees you refusing a particular vegetable one day and then decides he doesn’t want it either!

Another problem frequently faced by parents of toddlers is that of toilet-training them. The complaint most parents have is that “He does it in the bathroom sometimes, but then again many times he doesn’t. I don’t understand, if he’s learnt it why doesn’t he go there every time?” The reason for this is that the baby doesn’t yet think the way you and I do. For him, each time, each experience is practically new. So every time he needs to urinate or defecate is also essentially a process of trial and error. What would help him remember the situation from one point of time to another are – words. Explain to him why there is a specific place for passing a motion or for urinating. Ask him, every hour or so, if he needs to urinate. Be alert to the timings of his stools so you can take him there at the right time. It’s important to praise the child each time he does this correctly. This not only gives him a sense of satisfaction, he also learns what behaviour is important to you. There will still be accidents; but don’t lose your temper or shout at him. Instead, try and find out what may have been the difficulty he faced, so you can try to avoid it the next time.

The early years are also a time of exploration and adventure. Some children are apparently fearless, running head on into every situation while others are more cautious. There are a few, however, who react to new places and people by becoming extremely distressed and ‘clingy’, usually towards the mother. Such a reaction is not entirely unusual for a child under 5; however, it could lead to other difficulties with time. For example, a 3-year-old boy who behaves in this fashion would show disturbances and delay in getting adjusted to a playschool routine. He might also have trouble in making friends and thus may not speak as much or as clearly as many of his peers (because at this age, speech and language are mainly developed through social interactions). He may indulge in prolonged bouts of crying and be difficult to console. Such behaviour would naturally affect the mother or other caregiver as well, since they would virtually be tied to the child in order to make him feel secure and happy.

At times, generally after a long illness or some other setback, children go ‘backwards’. Your daughter may start bed-wetting again or she may go back to ‘baby talk’ that you thought she’d outgrown. It is not something to get worried about, since this is a natural reaction to stress in childhood. It generally gets cleared up within 2-3 weeks of the stressful circumstance, provided that the stress itself has come to an end. You can help in this process by sitting down with her and trying to understand what the stress might be. This needs to be done in a sensitive and indirect way, without her feeling that she is being blamed or criticised for this lapse. Being able to verbalise problems, at any age-level, works wonders for the child’s self-confidence and for the parent-child communication; so talking to your son or daughter is always a good option.

If, however, the slipping back persists even after discussion or beyond a month; or if it increases in any way, then it would probably be a good idea for you to consult a specialist, such as a paediatrician, a counsellor, a psychologist or a psychiatrist for further guidance.

TalkItOver provides professional services for individuals and families. A lot of parents have found that it helps them to talk about issues of discipline, behaviour or age-appropriateness with a concerned third party, either alone or as a family. If you or someone you know is having difficulty with a young child, you can contact us for more information.

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About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.