Why Your Toddler Throw Tantrums, Doesn’t Listen and Misbehaves
Disciplining a toddler is challenging because to do it effectively, you have to understand his stage of brain development. Your 1 to 3 year old child does not yet have the rational thinking of an older child. He still cannot easily understand and remember rules. He still does not appreciate the concept of empathizing with other people, of being nice, and even making himself safe. His grasp of logic and the consequence of his actions is still primitive.
A toddler is just beginning to develop his sense of self and starts to want to do things for himself. He often wants to do things that he is not yet capable of, and this causes him to feel frustrated. And because he still lacks the skill to communicate, he vents his frustrations through tantrums and unruly behavior.
Also, a toddler may not really mean to misbehave. It is just his response to his situation, the best way that his underdeveloped maturity knows how. That is why to make the most appropriate response to your toddler’s misbehavior, you need to be empathetic or understanding. You need to be aware of what your toddler is going through in his developmental growth to help you respond and discipline him appropriately.
You have to understand some of the common causes of your toddler’s misbehavior:
Extreme fatigue, hunger, physical discomfort, sickness – These could cause your toddler to have temper tantrums. They are a cry for help, and sometimes his best way of saying “Enough!”. He is expressing his feelings in the only way he knows how – with screams, contortions, lying on the floor with limbs flailing, and whining.
Frustration – Your toddler oftentimes feels powerless with his limitations. There are a lot of things that he wants to do physically that he is too weak or too uncoordinated to do, such as making a toy stand properly. Being unable to express what he wants verbally is also a big cause of frustration. Thus he vents this in outbursts of anger, aggression and anti-social behavior. He is still at a stage where it is hard for him to control his temper.
Not getting what he wants – Toddlers have a hard time controlling their desires and impulses, and they expect that they will be given what they want. When parents say “no”, toddlers can find the disappointment difficult to manage and do not understand why he is being denied. Toddlers also have no concept yet of “delayed gratification”.
Curiosity – Your child is actively trying to learn things about the world, and sometimes it causes him to cross the line of unacceptable behavior. He may pull the cat’s tail to see how it reacts, or bang a spoon on objects to hear the different sounds it makes.
Testing – Your toddler is growing increasingly aware of his personal power. He tests the limit of what he can get away with.
Desire for attention – A child has a strong craving for attention. He would rather face the consequence of his misdeed than to be ignored.
Changes – Big life changes, such as having a new sitter, or small changes, such as it’s time to leave the playground, make your toddler feel emotionally lost or overwhelmed.
Why is it important to discipline your toddler?
Although you may understand why a toddler misbehaves, it doesn’t mean that his misbehavior should be ignored. Toddlers should be disciplined, so that he is aware at an early age that there is such a thing as right and wrong. Disciplining your toddler should be an ongoing effort, not just something you do only when your child misbehaves.
These are some of the things that you should accomplish when disciplining your toddler:
- Teach him right from wrong, and acceptable standards of behavior.
- Correct undesirable behavior, encourage desirable ones
- Impress upon him limits of what he can do
- Provide structure in his life. Make him aware of the rules that makes his life predictable and not overwhelming.
- Keep him out of danger.
- Make him learn to discipline himself as he grows up.
Age-appropriate Toddler Discipline
Here are some general approaches to disciplining your toddler, based on his age:
Your one-year old to 18 month toddler does not have much control over his personal response because of his still undeveloped frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobe of the brain, among other functions, is responsible for some aspects of your child’s emotions. Your toddler at this stage will experience extreme emotions. He will cry and act out when he is overwhelmed, tired, scared, want something, sick or just needs a diaper change.
The main thing to remember to react to your toddler is to be patient. If he appears to want something, you have to figure out as quickly as possible what it is. Oftentimes, distraction is the best strategy to cope when your toddler acts out or “misbehaves”.
Your 2 year old toddler cannot think logically yet, and his thinking is not that sophisticated to predict the consequence of his behavior. He is just beginning to understand and use language. He can follow simple directions, but sometimes forgets midway what he is trying to do. He has low threshold for frustration and may be short-tempered, show aggression and have little impulse control. He is able to learn to not do certain things if it is associated with negative outcomes, such as a reprimand or punishment. He is also beginning to assert his control over some aspects of his life, and begins to give orders.
At this age, because your toddler still does not understand logic and reason too well, it is still better to divert attention or use humor when your toddler wants to do something you don’t want him to. Remove objects that you don’t want him to touch. Tell him “no” gently when he starts to do things you don’t want him to do. Make loud, negative responses only with behavior that has serious consequences such as touching the stove or running suddenly into the street. Repeat rules over and over. Ignore undesirable behaviors such as whining and tantrums if it is about anything trivial.
At age 3 your toddler is better able to communicate his needs and wishes. Although his language skills are more developed, his logical thinking is still not developed. He can remember simple rules, but will often give in to his impulses. This is the age where he learns by repetition, that’s why he loves familiar routines, and hear the same songs and stories over and over again.
To discipline your 3 year old, repeat rules over and over again, and have him repeat them after you. This is an important time to be consistent. If you say no, don’t be tempted to change your response to his whining or throwing a tantrum. Continue to remove dangerous objects and other temptations, rather than scold him. If he has done something aggressive or harmful, remove him from the situation for a few minutes. If he does not stay put by himself, hold him without talking or making eye contact. If he is angry about your effort to discipline him, do not offer comfort until he calms down.
Best Ways to Discipline Your Toddler
Having his brain development and receptiveness to discipline in mind, below are the most effective strategies to discipline your toddler. Find the one suitable to your toddler’s age and disposition.
- Know what to expect from your toddler. As seen in previous section, you have to familiarize yourself with the stage of your toddler’s mental development and empathize with her. For example, your one-year old could barely sit still for fifteen minutes, or your 2 year old cannot always clean after herself. If you are expecting the level of advanced maturity from your toddler, you probably will be disappointed. But increase your expectation as your child grows up. Also, know your toddler and see what works best to discipline her. Toddlers do not respond the same way to discipline. Some toddlers respond better to cheerful or gentle reprimands, and some to sharp ones.
- Give an effective reprimand. To be effective, give your toddler a gentle but firm command to end the behavior, tell him it is wrong (why it is wrong if he is old enough to understand), what the consequence is if he keeps doing it, and what he should do instead. For example, for a child who is grabbing a toy from a friend, you can say, “Roland, stop grabbing the toy from Kathryn. Grabbing is not nice. If you keep doing that, you are not going to play with her anymore. Wait until she’s finished, then you can have your turn.” Get close when you are reprimanding, say his name, talk to him at his eye level, touch him and get him to look at you. After the reprimand, you can smile at him. If he insists on misbehaving, follow through with the consequence you warned him about.
- For older toddlers who are more verbal, try reasoning. This may help your toddler begin to understand others’ feelings and needs, as well as the big picture consequence of his behavior. For example, instead of saying a simple “No” and “because I say so”, tell your older toddler that she should drink her juice on the table only, because if she brings it to the living room, the juice might spill and make a mess on the floor. Consistent reprimand without context makes your child fearful of trying anything new or angering peers.
- Use non-verbal correction for minor misdeeds, if effective. A facial expression that communicates displeasure, shaking your head, or other body language can be as effective as verbal reprimand for minor misdeeds if your toddler responds to them.
- Prevent your child from misbehaving whenever you can. If an object or a situation is potentially a source of misbehavior, remove the trigger ahead of time if possible. For example, giving her a regular schedule of eating and sleeping can prevent meltdowns triggered by hunger and fatigue. Also, since your toddler has a short memory, remind her of the rules when there’s a possibility for her to misbehave. For example, when handing juice to your child, you can say “Always drink your juice at the table”, or when bathing, “Don’t splash water on the floor.”
- Distract your toddler from problem situations. Your toddler has a very short attention span, and therefore you can easily divert his attention from anything that could cause trouble. This way, there is less stress from both sides. The more enticing the distraction is, the better, like an irresistible toy, or a change of scenery. It is a good idea to bring a supply of distraction when you are bringing your toddler in public.
- Selectively ignore some misbehavior.Minor whining, expressions of being in a bad mood and being irritable, and other non-big deal behaviors can be ignored as long as nobody is getting hurt. This tactic can be used for tantrums. Ignore your toddler until the tantrum burns itself out. Save your energy for destructive behaviors and those that can set dangerous precedents like hitting, biting, handling dangerous objects and getting himself into physical danger. Give your toddler the most attention when she’s being cooperative. Give the least attention when she’s being difficult.
- Set rules and limits and be firm about them. Your child may continuously test you to see how much he can push the limit of what you will allow him to do. He is trying to figure out what is okay and what is not. Let him know when a behavior is unacceptable. In fact, your child needs and craves for clearly defined limits to make him secure about how the world works. Once you have set your limits, be consistent, and don’t make unacceptable behavior negotiable. Inconsistencies will just confuse him, and prevent him from learning.
- In being firm, do not lose your cool. Do not lose your control. Your child will better accept your disciplinary message if you deliver it in a calm and rational manner. If you become extremely emotional and starts to yell, you may just encourage your child to respond in the same way. If you’re really very angry, count to ten before you confront your child. Remember, discipline and venting your anger are not the same.
- Use simple commands, and be brief. Your toddler responds better to short, clear and to the point message and commands. Use the fewest and simplest words possible to tell her what you want her to do, for example, “Go inside now!” or “Don’t run!”
- Make directions positive. Strive to tell your child what to do instead of always telling him what not to do. Phrase your commands in a positive way, such as “Walk slowly” or “Eat on the table”. Use “No” or “Stop” less often, and save it for serious situations. (You can also make “no” emphatic by delivering it with a clap to get your toddler’s attention and impress upon her the seriousness of the situation.)
- Forge a loving connection with your child. Sit with your child, talk to him and comfort him. Teach him to pause, and reflect on his behavior. It is not a time to isolate your toddler, that’s why time-out is not the best way to discipline a child at a young age. Try the gentle methods of discipline first such as kind requests, polite appeals, or just a hug.
- Avoid giving in to whining. Whining is a midway developmental step between crying and being able to speak. Toddlers rely on making this sound to express their frustration and signal their wants. Parents feel obligated to respond to whining because it stops the annoying sound. However, this impresses upon the toddler that whining works, and can become a habit if left unchecked – and the behavior might even persist up to adulthood.
- Be a good example to your child. Be a model to your child. If you tell your child not to hit, do not hit your child. Your action speaks louder to your child than your words.
- Look for opportunities to reward your child for good behavior – and not just intervening or reprimanding him for bad behavior. Discipline is not just about punishment, reinforcing good behavior may be a better teacher. Your child loves your show of affection, and he would behave well if he is rewarded for it with a hug, a smile, a praise or a compliment. Remember to praise the specific behavior when it’s appropriate, for example, say “It’s nice of you to clean up your toys.”
Disciplinary Tactics To Avoid
Avoid these tactics when disciplining your toddler. They are at best, controversial in their effectiveness, and most of them can even backfire and do harm. Instead of teaching self-control, they may teach your child violence and other bad habits, and worse, may erode self-esteem.
- Spanking – Although it seems to work because there is an immediate reaction from a child, spanking is a form of violence that can teach the child aggression, anti-social behavior and even health problems later in life. Experts say there is “no evidence that spanking is associated with improved child behavior”
- Hurtful words – Many parenting books equate this with “psychological spankings”. They humiliate a child and erode his self-esteem. On the contrary, building your child’s self-worth should be an essential part of discipline. For example, don’t tell your child “You’re bad!” Instead, tell him that it is his behavior that is bad. Say, “Pushing your friend is not nice.” Also, don’t say “You’re so lazy!” as he might internalize and believe this about himself. Instead say something like “Not picking up your toys is being lazy.”
- Shouting – This mainly teaches a child to fear, instead of lessons from his bad behavior. Shouting also teaches the child that to solve problems, especially conflicts, he should exert control over others.
- Time-out – Although recommended by many child development experts, new studies suggest that it is not the best way to teach your child a lesson because in an emotionally charged time, at a stage where misbehaving is usually a cry for help, a toddler actually needs to connect more and soothed by the people who care for him, and not isolated. Timeouts make a child angrier, and more unable to control himself and think about what he’s done. He will just be thinking about how mean his parents are for punishing him.
- Bribery – Offering a reward such as a food that he likes or a toy to make a child stop whining or misbehaving teaches a child that he has to misbehave in order to be rewarded.