When your toddler wants to do something that you don’t want, your toddler is not testing you. Your toddler is testing his or her ideas, boundaries, and power. Learning to be independent is an important part of development.
“Would you like to wear your yellow T‑shirt or your red T‑shirt?” Try to limit choices to two options. More than two options may confuse your toddler. Making choices helps your toddler develop independence.
“Let’s throw your ball out on the deck. No one will get hurt out there.” Use this strategy when your toddler is doing something that is okay, but the way in which your toddler is doing it, is not. If your toddler is throwing blocks in the kitchen, take your toddler to find a ball and a place where it is safe to throw. You can say: “This is where it is safe to throw, and a ball is safer to throw than a block.”
“Remember to hold my hand when we cross the street.” Let your toddler know what the limits are and what is expected. If possible, state limits in a positive way. The most important limits you set are around safety. A simple “no” is an effective way to make the limits clear: “No. We don’t hit.” Be consistent and remind your toddler of limits when you need to: “You need to be buckled in your car seat before we drive to the park,” or “Be gentle with your little brother.”
“Look at this book.” Distraction can work very well with even very young children. If your toddler is doing something you don’t want, switch to something else. Show your toddler a toy, ask your toddler to read a book with you. Distraction works because young children have very short attention spans.
“That’s too bad—the bubbles are all gone now.” Older toddlers can learn from experience. Make sure you tell your toddler ahead of time what is likely to happen. Then your toddler has a choice. If your toddler is going to pour bubble‑making soap on the grass, tell him or her, “There won’t be any bubble soap left if you pour that out.” And, if your toddler decides to pour it out anyways: “That’s too bad—the bubbles are all gone now.” Your toddler may cry and may need a hug for comfort. But your toddler will learn quickly that some actions have consequences. Use consequences that teach.
“It’s time to take a break. Come and have some quiet time with me.” If your toddler is nearing 36 months of age, removing him or her from a difficult situation can work well. This gives him or her a chance to calm down. Give your toddler something quiet to do, like looking at a book or doing a puzzle. Once you feel your toddler has calmed down, praise him or her. If your toddler is going to go back to the same situation, remind him or her of what you expect: “You seem ready to play with your sister again. Remember to play gently with her.”
“You need a time out.” Time out is when you take your toddler away from a situation where she or he is doing something unacceptable. You then move your toddler to a spot by herself, such as a quiet corner. This allows time to calm down and teaches your toddler that her or his behaviour is not acceptable. Time out is a teaching tool that works only if a toddler is old enough to understand why it is being used. Some experts say time out works for children between two and 12 years of age. Other experts say it doesn’t work until the age of 36 months. Ask yourself if you think your toddler understands why a time out would be used. If you choose time out, keep it short. Time outs should last no more than one minute for each year of your toddler’s age. For example, if she or he is two years old, the time out should only be two minutes. Your toddler may become frightened of being alone or separated from a caregiver, so if you are using time out, stay near your toddler.
A compromise is a middle way that is safe and will work for both of you. Your toddler may be at the stage when your toddler needs to try things out. Sometimes your toddler may want to do something that you don’t want. In these situations, a compromise might work. Compromising is a skill that your toddler will use to get along well with others. For safety reasons, some things are not open for compromise. Your toddler should learn that safety comes first.