Toddlers are a whirlwind of both fun and frustration. One second, you’re taking a picture of the cutest child on earth for your Instagram, and the next you’re witnessing an inconsolable fit of rage because you wouldn’t let them lick the electrical outlet.
You want to bring out the best in your toddler, but you can probably commiserate with Mother Abbess and the Sisters in The Sound of Music: “She’s a darling! She’s a demon! She’s a lamb!”
In the past, I’ve written on toddler discipline, but this post is going to be a little different. Instead of focusing on correcting bad behavior, I’m going to show you thirteen ways you can empower your toddler, and thereby elicit their good behavior.
The Challenging Transitions of Toddlerhood
When your child is an infant, their cries signal their needs. Your biology as a mother causes you to be very sensitive to these cries, and you instinctively try to meet those needs as quickly as possible.
But now, suddenly, your brain has to start distinguishing between cries that signal an urgent need and cries that express emotion.
Hopefully, during your baby’s first year of life, you were encouraged to trust in your baby’s cries as genuine and legitimate, rather than manipulative or controlling.
However, as your child’s personality grows and their brain develops, they do begin to cry for varying reasons, and it can shake a parent’s trust in their child’s communication, as well as their own parenting abilities.
As an attachment parent who practices responsive parenting, this is something I have really struggled with: learning how to interact my toddler now that she’s no longer a baby.
A great discovery I have made about parenting a toddler is that you don’t just have to wait to correct misbehavior. You can take a proactive role in promoting desirable behavior in the first place.
Here are 13 ways to set the tone for good behavior, as well as bolster your toddler’s development, build confidence (theirs and yours) and encourage independence.
13 Ways to Empower Your Toddler (and Bring Out the Best in Them)
#1. Slow down to your toddler’s pace
I know you’re probably thinking: “Slow down!? I can barely keep up with my toddler!”
Toddlers are busy busy busy ALL the time (at least, mine is), but you’ve probably found that if you try to redirect them, interrupt what they’re doing, or rush them on to something else, they protest VEHEMENTLY.
One of the best ways to prevent outbursts and tantrums is to let go of your own preconception of time and allow the day to flow at your toddler’s pace.
I am someone who has a set timeframe in my mind of what is supposed to happen when, and it’s precise. If I plan to go to the grocery store at 10 am, I want to be starting my engine AT 10 am. It’s not always conscious, either. It’s just part of my temperament.
As you might imagine, though, this rigidity and precision does not work well with a toddler. I have found that when I release my idea of what our day should look like and the time markers that go along with it, my toddler and I are both SO much more relaxed and happy.
The day goes more smoothly, and I come out feeling more fulfilled than flustered.
So I want to encourage you…
- If your toddler wants to linger and study something more closely or exercise their senses, take a moment and let them.
- Let your toddler walk whenever possible (rather than being pushed in a stroller or shopping cart) and allow them to lead some of the time.
- Start getting ready for outings well in advance to allow for interruptions and lag, so that neither of you have to feel rushed leaving the house.
- Don’t run your day on a schedule or specific timeline, but instead, keep a flexible structure/routine that can be stretched or condensed as needed.
I know this isn’t always possible. Sometimes you will have to gently move your toddler along for one reason or another, and sometimes you will have to prevent certain explorations for their own safety. Some days, we do have to be on a tighter schedule.
But on the whole, if you slow down to your toddler’s pace, you will both enjoy your days much more, and actually form a very close bond by being a more present parent.
#2. Watch for your toddler’s sensitive periods
One of the incredible (and enviable) things about toddlers is that they LOVE to learn. No one has spoiled that for them yet.
Everything is a new discovery, and everything has an endless variety of uses and purposes.
Because of that, you don’t have to try and force your toddler to learn specific skills or to be interested in new things.
A component Maria Montessori promoted at the center of her educational approach was “sensitive periods.” A sensitive period is a phase of psychological development in a child during which they demonstrate an intrinsic interest in acquiring a new skill or refining certain attributes.
You don’t need to compare your toddler to other’s when it comes to their development. Just because someone else’s child walked before their first birthday, or is talking at only 13 months does not mean YOURS should.
If you’re concerned that your child is missing critical milestones and might truly be behind developmentally, you should absolutely consult your child’s doctor.
Generally, though, you can rest assured that most children will develop at their own paces in their own time. Once you let go of your preconceptions of what your toddler should be doing and when, you can really start to watch for your child’s sensitive periods.
These sensitive periods are usually related to: movement, language, sensorial perception, and order (source). You can pick up on different sensitive periods by observing your toddler’s interests.
- What do they do over and over and over again in an attempt to master?
- What are they captivated by?
- What actions or activities do they resist help with (ME DO!)?
- In what areas do they exert independence?
- What are they NOT interested in/receptive to?
To give you a few anecdotal examples (in no particular order), my 15 month old toddler:
- Has very little interest in toys, but is OBSESSED with books. (language)
- Would prefer to run and climb, and move and drag objects than sit and stack blocks or focus on a particular activity. (movement)
- Exerts independence (and demonstrates interest) in self-care and grooming by brushing her own teeth, brushing her hair, and attempting to dress herself. (order)
- Is beginning to experiment with drawing, painting with water, and placing stickers. (sensorial perception)
- Wants us to name objects as she points to them and describe pictures. (language)
As you observe your child’s interests, a lot of their seemingly random (or even disobedient/disruptive) behaviors will start to make a lot more sense. You can then encourage and promote activities that align with what your child wants to learn, rather than trying to make them interested in what you think they should be learning.
#3. Utilize a rich vocabulary and teach sign language
A major way you can empower your toddler is to enable and encourage communication.
Even a preverbal child can communicate quite effectively. By empowering a toddler to communicate calmly and clearly, as well as demonstrating your own willingness to listen and understand what they’re trying to tell you, you will drastically reduce your toddler’s perceived need for tantrums and emphatic outbursts.
Here are some of the best ways to promote effective communication:
- Talk throughout the day using a rich vocabulary.
- Explain your actions using specifics rather than generics (I’m putting your arms into your sleeves vs. Mommy’s dressing baby!).
- Teach basic sign language so your toddler can express specific needs.
- Make a concerted effort to understand your toddler’s noises, gestures, and other attempts to communicate (even if you’re wrong, they’ll be able to tell you’re trying hard!).
- Ask questions, and wait for a response.
- Provide options when appropriate and allow your toddler to choose (blue plate or red? Striped pants or solid?)
- Articulate boundaries rather than just saying “no.”
#4. Keep an orderly, tidy home
Despite the impression your little Tasmanian Devil might give, toddlers thrive on order, structure, and organization.
Toddlers are sensitive little critters who are insecure in many ways.
With so much changing for your toddler on the inside, they crave consistency on the outside. We can instill a stronger sense of security and order by cultivating a calm, tidy environment for our toddlers at home.
If the messes and clutter in your living spaces are overwhelming or stressful to you, chances are your toddler feels that way, too.
If you need to, overhaul your space with a massive declutter. Strive to keep surfaces clear and arrange objects, furniture, and decor in ways that are aesthetically pleasing.
It’ll go a long way toward relieving a lot of your own tension in the process.
#5. Furnish toddler-size pieces
Get down at your child’s height and look up at the over-sized grown-up world around you. From your toddler’s perspective, nothing is made for them.
I felt what I imagine might be a similar frustration this week at the gym my husband and I just joined. Much of the workout equipment was clearly designed for men, or at least, people with much longer legs than my own, to the point that it’s actually prohibitive.
At one point, I even got stuck on a machine because I couldn’t reach to replace the weight safely. (And I’m not even that short! I’m 5’5″). Operating in an environment where things were only marginally too big for me, I can only imagine the frustration our Littles must feel sometimes when everything is designed for people 3 or 4 times their size.
A great way to empower your toddler is to thoughtfully incorporate toddler-sized pieces throughout your home— perhaps a small arm chair in your living room, a short table and stool where they can color, eat, and do other activities, a bed they can independently climb in and out of (ditch or transition that pesky crib!), you get the idea.
Show them it’s their world, too, by inviting them to share in your home, not just live in it.
#6. Help your toddler to help himself
Time to use your imagination again. Picture yourself in a state of almost total dependence. For whatever reason, you need someone else to feed you, take you to the bathroom, dress you, hand you anything you want or need, etc. Maybe you’re not even permitted to walk on your own the majority of the time. It would be quite demoralizing, don’t you think?
This is a huge source of frustration for your toddler. They want to be able to do things themselves, but because they haven’t achieved mastery of whatever action yet, they aren’t permitted to.
It’s inconvenient to clean up their spills and sit for long periods of time while they try to work something out when we could just do it for them in a matter of seconds.
But again, put yourself in their shoes. Wouldn’t you prefer someone helped you to help yourself?
If you allow your toddler the opportunity to start learning how to do things properly, they will take an active interest in these new skills and before long, it won’t take 30 minutes for them to put a pair of pants on, and they won’t spill everywhere when pouring a cup of water.
Place yourself in the role of teacher, rather than servant. You don’t need to do everything for them, and they don’t want you to!
#7. Teach the right way instead of saying “no”
In conjunction with the last point, take the time to teach your toddler the right way to do things.
We tend to make things off-limits because it’s easier than teaching a small child to do something properly.
Rather than teaching a toddler how to handle a paper book carefully, we say, “no touch.”
Instead of helping a toddler learn that glass can break, we don’t let them touch fragile objects and fill their world with cheap plastic.
But instructors like Maria Montessori and Magda Gerber proved that even the youngest of children CAN be taught the proper way to do and use things.
So next time you find “no touch!” on the tip of your tongue, consider whether this might actually be a learning opportunity for your Little.
(Please note that I am not recommending for you to let your toddler stick a butter knife in an electrical outlet in the spirit of “learning.” If your child is in danger of harm, you should intervene swiftly!)
#8. Involve your toddler in housework and give responsibilities
Toddlers find so much joy and fulfillment in accomplishing tasks around the house. (Really, we could too if we fixed our attitudes…)
They don’t see these tasks as chores; they’re more opportunities to exercise new skills.
Even the youngest toddler feels a strong sense of pride at contributing in the home.
So next time you want to say, “Go play, mommy is [doing x, y, or z],” say instead, “Come here, let me show you what I’m doing!” They will LOVE that you involved them.
Start thinking of each household task as an opportunity interact with your child, teach new things, and strengthen your relationship. They aren’t trying to get in your way; they’re trying to understand what you’re doing so they can imitate you!
You will be amazed how quickly your tiny tot picks up on things.
At 14 months, my toddler would try to find a towel or rag on the floor to wipe up her own spills. One day, she found the dustpan and tried to empty it into the trash by banging it on the rim of the bin (even though it was empty already). She picks up paper towels or washcloths to try and clean surfaces. Now, at 15 months, I can hand her an item and ask her to put it where it goes, or throw it in the trash, and she will toddle off to do it!
Now is such a unique opportunity because they actually want to help you and learn to do things right. Take full advantage of it!
#9. Praise your toddler with specifics, not generics
You toddler loves to be praised. She loves to know that she’s made you happy and won your approval.
Praising your child is not a bad thing, despite what some might tell you, yet some ways are more constructive than others.
Generic praise is not very constructive. It provides the immediate gratification for both of you, in that the child did something, you responded positively, and now they are thrilled to have pleased you, and you get to enjoy their happy squeals and clapping hands.
But it has very little lasting benefit, and may even have some negative side effects.
When you praise your child, you should try to be specific as often as possible, as well as speak calmly and clearly, rather than high pitched and exaggerated.
For example, a toddler who has just managed to put her own pants on would already be intrinsically excited and proud of herself, even if you weren’t in the room to witness it. If you are there, though, she will look to you for a response, wanting to know that you are proud of her as well.
This is where you might be tempted to exclaim, “Good job!” while wildly clapping your hands and making exaggerated facial expressions.
Instead, you could say something like, “You put your pants on all by yourself. That is a huge accomplishment. I can see that you are really proud of yourself! You have been working hard to learn that.”
- Helps your child to understand what they did well.
- Provides a deeper sense of accomplishment and pride.
- Incentives the action/process rather than the result (the dramatic “good job!!!”)
And a controlled voice:
- Keeps the focus on the child’s accomplishment.
- Is less likely to breed a “praise junkie.”
- Is less likely to over-excite a child who might still be trying to focus.
The “good job!” response is a difficult habit to break, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for using it. Just make a conscious effort to reduce the frequency with which you say it, and replace it with a more specific description of the child’s accomplishment.
#10. Provide activities that require “maximum effort”
It’s basically a law of nature that toddlers want operate with “maximum effort” at all times.
Toddlers crave challenges, so if you find that your little person seems bored frequently, it’s probably because they aren’t being challenged!
Once a toddler has achieved mastery of something (at least in their mind), they will move on to something else. In fact, they are always looking for something to master, and they like to exert “maximum effort.”
That’s why you’ll see a new walker, who has just barely started to find their footing, already trying to carry a heavy object around.
If a toddler finds something too difficult, though, they’ll abandon it, sometimes throwing the activity or object in frustration, or screaming/crying. That’s a good cue you should redirect their attention toward something different and save that challenge for later.
A lot of the undesirable behaviors toddlers exhibit are actually because they are bored! You can reduce this issue by making sure your toddler’s environment supplies a few good challenges (and you can do so based on the sensitive periods you’ve observed from #2).
#11. Don’t interrupt your toddler’s focus
As parents, we tend to over-insert ourselves into our toddler’s activities. Subconsciously, I think we assume that they need to hear our voices and be praised, or they’ll lose interest in what they’re doing.
Actually, the opposite is true. We can demonstrate respect for our toddlers by allowing them to focus on their work without interjecting needless good jobs, and wows, and neats!
Our babies are born with great attention spans. They are either preserved or dissolved as time goes on, and we can help to strengthen them by allowing a toddler to finish what they are doing without interruption, even if it means that maybe dinner sits for a couple of minutes, or you leave the house a little later than planned.
#12. Utilize daily routines
Similar to #4, toddlers need routines because they love consistency. They want to be able to anticipate the order that things will happen and know that each day will look very similar to the last.
This will not only help your child to feel more secure, but also boosts cooperation because they know what’s happening.
We can’t always make every day identical to the last, and that’s okay. The goal is to strive for consistency while remaining flexible.
#13. Implement strategies that integrate your toddler’s right and left brain
In “The Whole-Brain Child,” Drs. Daniel Seigel and Tina Bryson teach the need for integrating the opposing hemispheres (top with bottom, left with right) of a child’s brain.
The left side of the brain is associated with logic and order, while the right side is credited with instinct, abstract thinking, and emotion. When we operate dominantly with the left side of our brains, we tend toward rigidity; when our right side is in control, we tend toward chaos.
“The Whole-Brain Child” lays out strategies and tactics we can use to help our children integrate opposite hemispheres to maintain a more peaceful state of well-being and mental health.
I encourage you to check it out! In the process of reading it, you may well realize the need for integration in your own brain, too!
The Basis for Empowering Your Toddler
Truly, the most meaningful way to empower your child is to try to understand their behaviors from their perspective before attempting to correct it.
This is NOT to say that you should permit all behavior; only that you can more effectively respond to inappropriate behavior if you first try to understand why it is occurring and how you can proactively circumvent it through your routines, environment, and parenting style. Don’t just assume your child is acting out for the heck of it (even though sometimes, they are).
You may also discover that much of the behavior you considered bad is more accurately “undesirable” or “inconvenient.” By simply slowing down and altering your mindset, the way you view your toddler’s behavior may shift as well.
The way you structure your home and your day can mean the difference between good and bad behavior for your toddler.
Remember that your toddler is a whole human being who needs respect in addition to boundaries and discipline.
Do you have a toddler right now? What are some things they do that drive you nuts? Leave me a comment below!
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