Toddler tantrums are an inevitable part of parenting but a little preparation can go a long way when it comes to negotiating with your spirited child.
Sometimes parenting can feel like you’re a police negotiator and your sanity’s being held hostage. A toddler’s list of demands can be as endless as it is irrational, but there are ways to resolve the stand-off in a peaceful fashion.
1. Agree on the rules before negotiating
It’s difficult to define correct behaviours and boundaries if you don’t know them yourself. Before doing any deals, establish the ground rules and the ‘family values’ that guide them first.
This includes everything from bedtime to screen time to how they greet new people. Agree on these with your partner so you’re both consistent. After all, it’s tricky for tots to learn what’s acceptable and what’s not if it keeps changing.
“If you’re not consistent, the child will always win,” explains Chris. “They’re looking for boundaries and you’re not setting them, because you’re not sure where they lie yourself. If your child is a little older, you can print the rules out and put them on the fridge so they’re clear. Of course, this won’t work with a two-year-old, they’ll just draw all over them.”
2. Set the negotiables and the non-negotiables
Once your child is old enough to communicate appropriately, consider dividing your rules into two categories: non-negotiable and negotiable. The former includes things like road safety, bedtime, ‘no hitting’ and so on. The latter could be what they wear to daycare or eat for lunch, depending on the guidelines you’ve set.
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“The key is to be reasonable,” says Chris. “[The non-negotiables] are the big things we have to work out for them because they’re not old enough to understand, like stopping at the road. They can’t negotiate because they haven’t experienced it, so we have to do that.”
3. Negotiation is part of their learning process
Yes, debating every little thing can be draining, but it’s essential in developing your child’s ability to reason. So know there’s a bright side to your one-hour pow-wow about why they can’t have ice cream for dinner. One day they might be using those skills as a lawyer!
“It’s important for kids to make choices and learn the consequences of them,” advises Chris. “It’s a very complex thing for a toddler to do, so we have to help them.”
A great way to do this might be to give them the choice of two options. “It’s not about winning or losing,” says Chris, “It’s about the process of them being allowed to make decisions.”
4. Keep your communication short and direct
We all want our kids to understand the decisions we make and ideally learn from them, so it’s tempting to over-explain them in the hope the message gets through. Chris advises keeping your explanations concise – big words and bigger sentences will just get lost in translation.
“You want to be fair and reasonable and want them to understand, but often it’s all flying over their heads,” she says. For important issues, Chris advises: “Don’t keep discussing the issue. You need to be ‘I’ve told you and now I’m doing it’. As parents, often there’s a tendency to talk too much.”
5. Don’t be afraid to say no
Sometimes we cave in because we’re tired, or fearful of the fall-out that could follow if we tell Little Miss or Master they can’t have the iPad or another biscuit. But according to Chris, if you stand firm, they often react better than you think and accept your decision.
“We fear it because little toddlers have big tantrums,” explains Chris. “When they get up to two-and-a-half to three years of age, they’ve got the power of rational thought so often they understand you’re not going to change your mind. The next time you do it, they know you mean what you say. If the tantrum happens, just ignore it. They need to learn that tantrums don’t work, because that’s what happens in the outside world, at daycare or school.”
6. Issue warnings to defuse tantrums
Before things go nuclear, defuse the situation with some friendly words about what’s going to happen next.
“It’s an old tactic, but if you’re in the park, give your toddler a five-minute warning that you need to leave. Say ‘We’re going soon, we need to put your shoes on’, then let them have a little more time to play, with a reminder that time is almost up. Once you say ‘We’re going now’, by that point, it’s non-negotiable.”
7. Be patient with them – and yourself
After a long day of draining arguments, patience can be a distant memory, but remember your toddler hasn’t done this before and neither have you (if you’re a first-time parent). Don’t be too hard on yourself – we’re all learning.
Let’s face it, we’re far more experienced dealing with adults, who are usually more articulate and less prone to tantrums (we hope). Accept that this little league is a totally different ball game.
“It’s easy to lose your patience,” says Chris. “It’s tempting to say, ‘Just do it and save us the trouble!’ But my advice would be to be patient, be kind to each other, and trust your instincts.”
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