Naughty or Normal
Ah… toddlers. They amaze us with their energy and new abilities such as walking and starting to talk while also frustrating us with their energy and new abilities such as making messes and saying, “No!” to our sweet requests.
How we respond to the frustrating behaviors our toddlers uniquely exhibit greatly impacts how they feel and behave as they grow into adolescents, and thus, can make our parenting job either much easier or much harder.
How is dealing with toddler misbehavior connected to a child’s future well-being?
The answer lies in research showing us that close parent-child connections are the paramount foundations for future emotional health, prosocial behavior, and coping with stressors of growing up in today’s complicated world. And this close connection begins early, when infants and toddlers receive sensitive responses to their needs by parents and other caretakers, and experience approving, positive, face-to-face verbal interactions and abundant nurturing touch regardless of their actions.
But common misunderstandings about normal infant and toddler behavior, and emphasizing obedience and good behavior over sensitive responses are early origins of relationship erosion and children having troubles.
Let’s go over some of these common misunderstandings that, by the way, also can lead to wasting your time and energy trying to correct what isn’t yet correctable.
Expecting more than toddlers are able to do
Relationships often begin to dissolve when parents expect toddlers to do things that they aren’t old enough or developed enough to do, or do well consistently. Parents can misinterpret this failure to meet expectations as intentional misbehavior, meanness, or even rejection. Resulting parental anger, sadness, or disregard can lead children to lose trust and affection for a parent and to develop emotional and behavioral problems.
Understanding whether expectations for abilities and achievements are realistic is therefore crucial to maintaining a close connection, and having unrealistic expectations is a warning sign that your relationship and your child’s emotional and behavioral health will suffer.
Misunderstanding toddler behavior as intentional
A common misunderstanding of infant and toddler behavior is that they normally and naturally use emotions to communicate their needs for attention, comfort, food, etc., and don’t do it intentionally. Because they’re too young to regulate their emotions and haven’t developed verbal skills, crying, screaming, whining, and fussing are normal.
Temper tantrums, meaning anything from short vocal outbursts to kicking and dropping to the floor, are normal and common (and such a joy), peaking around age three and then declining. The most important thing to do is to not pay attention to the child (while ensuring everyone’s physical safety and possessions) until he or she has calmed down. You might be able to identify and avoid triggers that set off emotional outbursts.
Interpreting normal toddler aggression as misbehavior
It’s also very important to understand anger and aggression from a developmental viewpoint. Infants and toddlers aren’t developmentally ready to manage their frustration, so aggressive behaviors are normal: pushing, hitting, biting, pulling hair, taking things from others, fighting, and throwing things. Aggression is out of their control, shouldn’t concern you, and shouldn’t be disciplined. Simply redirect their attention or remove them from the situation, saying, “We don’t hit (or whatever other aggressive behavior they exhibited).”
Normal early childhood physical aggression to get what one wants peaks around age two or three but then should gradually decline. Verbal aggression becomes more prominent as kids learn to talk, such as yelling or telling peers they won’t play unless they get what they want. Early childhood aggression may or may not be associated with anger. Starting at about age three (younger children aren’t developmentally ready for discipline plans), use limits and consequences just like you would for any other misbehavior.
Being shocked by intentional misbehavior
Then there’s the not-so-pleasant stage of development that’s important to know about when you have a toddler. Even when they can control their behavior, intentional disobedience is part of a normal stage necessary to develop healthy independence. You’ll recognize this when they say, “No!” or show other evidence that they are choosing to disobey. Toddlers don’t do this to make you mad, but to do what is generally required for proper development.
Some parents are unable to tolerate this normal stage of intentional disobedience, heightening the chance of overreacting or even committing child abuse. It’s critically important not to overreact with anger or punish small children for this normal developmental behavior because it can erode a child’s parental connection as well as future mental health and behavior. It can inhibit the development of self-preserving levels of self-esteem enabling resistance to detrimental outside influences, and promote anger, rebellion, anxiety, and depression later on.
Having unrealistic expectations of obedience
In addition to the normal stage of intentionally disobeying, another common cause of harmful overreactions is having unrealistic expectations for young children’s ability to obey parents even when they want to or are trying to obey. One- and two-year-olds aren’t developed enough to follow commands consistently or to follow a discipline plan. By the time kids are three or four, they can do what we ask only about half of the time. Also, because toddlers and preschoolers aren’t developmentally capable of controlling aggressive behaviors, they can’t be considered bullies, who by definition intentionally harm others in order to create power or distress.
Approaches to making life with toddlers easier and helping them succeed
Now that we’ve talked about common pitfalls with toddlers, here are ways to make your life easier and help your child successfully develop emotionally and behaviorally.
- Emphasize your relationship much more than obedience.
- Model calmness, even when your child’s behavior is frustrating.
- Help them learn to talk about emotions, even before you think they can understand. “I think you are feeling mad that you didn’t get that treat, but we don’t scream.”
- Praise talking (using big boy or big girl words) when upset and be empathetic, even when you find their complaints silly or don’t plan on giving in to what they want.
- You might be able to avoid aggressive outbursts in kids by having them come to you for attention when frustrated. Try asking, “Do you need a little attention?” Hugging them for a few seconds may be all they need.
- Really try not to respond to their frustration, anger, or aggression with more of the same because it will escalate these behaviors over time.
- Praise or give other rewards when you see them obey or play cooperatively with others.
- Because even G-rated TV shows and movies are full of aggressive behaviors, limit media exposure to developmentally appropriate educational shows and coview to ensure that content is appropriate, prosocial (helpful, kind, cooperative characters) and nonfrightening.
Understanding what is realistic to expect and achieve in the toddler years can greatly reduce your parental stress. Remembering what is normal and how to cope with it will keep you from wasting your time and energy trying to change these normal developmental behaviors.