10 Ways to Have a Better Day with Your Toddler/Preschooler

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At the moment, I have an almost 4-year-old and an almost 2-year-old. They are adorable, funny and loving. They are also a lot of work.

I absolutely cannot get enough of them and yet at the same time, no one can infuriate me or push my buttons as well as them. It is a very weird feeling to me that I want them to never grow up and at the same time can’t wait until they are older.

Over the years, I have found some things really worked while other things backfired. Hopefully by sharing my experiences, you can learn from us and what has worked for our family. 

Morning Play First

If I try to start the morning with a schedule (breakfast, clothing, teeth, hair and shoes), then I am fighting them every single step of the way. It is so painful, and we all start the day off on the wrong foot.

It has taken me a long time to realize that my kids just can not jump straight into a morning routine. I need my coffee in the morning before I can function. My kids need something too. What has worked for us is just doing a 15-20 minute playtime.

I will grab my coffee and sit on the floor of the playroom while they play. Another plus is that I have had my coffee by the time we do start our morning routine. I could wake up before them, but I am just not that time of morning person.

Give them the words

Toddlers are learning words at a rapid rate however don’t let that fool you. If you have ever tried to learn a language, then you will know that you understand a lot more words than you can say. It is very hard for toddlers to access and utilize words especially when they are tired, hungry, hot or frustrated.

I have found that the best way to get toddlers to use words more often (and the words I want them to use) is to give them those words.

For example, my child wants an apple and screams apple at me. I could say “ask politely” or “that is rude” but those don’t help as much as just saying what you want them to say. I respond with “I want an apple please” and I say it until she asks correctly. Obviously, adjust to the level of their speech such as just “apple please”.

Narrate Everything

We did speech therapy for my toddler since she wasn’t using words. The best way to increase their words is to use the strategy break down and build up. Once we started using this strategy, her speech was incredible. Honestly, she went from using around just 10 words to 5-word sentences in a matter of months. Now, most people think she is 3 even though she just turned 2. 

Start by narrating everything you do. I mean EVERYTHING. Everything you see, everything you do. When you narrate, say a sentence, break it down and then build it up. Here are a few examples:

Let’s open the window. Open the window (with action). Window! Open the Window. We opened the window.

Do you see the dog? See the dog? Yes, dog! Dog! I see a dog. Do you see the dog?

I have a blue ball. Blue ball! Yes, ball! Can we roll the ball? Roll the ball (with action). Your turn. Roll the ball. You rolled the ball! Yay! 

When you get to the point where you are just saying the one word such as dog or window, give them a chance to repeat it. Once you get in the habit, it is hard to turn off. Similarly, to how you will rock grocery carts like they are strollers for a long time.

Social Story Play

We have all heard kids learn through play. But what I never realized was that I could use this as a strategy to help us through anything that was a challenge for our family.

For instance, if your child hates going to the doctors or hates brushing their teeth. You can dramatically improve it through play. Play allows your child to become more familiar with it (a doctor will check my heart, eyes, and ears etc.) and to also work through their feelings.  My favorite three go-to options for this are:

Pretend Play: Use whatever your child is into (dolls, babies, horses, trains) and pretend the train or doll needs to brush their teeth or go to bed. You want the toy to be in the position your child is in and the child be in your position (the helper). You can say “oh, it is train’s bedtime but train doesn’t want to go to bed, can you help train go to bed?”

Write a social story: Here you create your own story. You can tell the child the story or even create a paper book and draw out pictures. The point of these stories is it is about your child, the challenge and their success. For instance, John has a dentist appointment. John does not want to go to the dentist (the challenge). He is nervous so he brings along his teddy bear and holds mom’s hand (feelings and options to help him).  The dentist checks his teeth with a mirror and brushes them (what to expect). John is all done now. He did it (success)! He was very brave.  

Read a book: Another option is to utilize your library to find kid books on the topic and read as many as you can. We always grab these before doctor or dentist appointments. We also grab some on feelings and other social situations that we are working through like sharing, expecting a new sibling or starting school etc.

Routine, routine, routine

These little creatures love routine. You hear so much about how important bedtime routine is. I knew this, I had been told it and yet, I still didn’t take it to heart as much as I should have.

I am not a routine person, but I could have made my life SOOOO much easier if I had more routines.

For instance, dinner was always hard for us. They would fuss, complain, and never eat it.

A dinner routine literally changed our lives. Honestly, I am still amazed at how much it changed our world. All I did was make a schedule and made a big deal about it. I would be so excited all day that today is Thursday, oh Thursday is Spaghetti Night. I’m so excited. I love spaghetti. After about a few days of this, my 4 year old would ask… what day is tomorrow?

Your kid will also learn the days of the week this way too! My oldest says “oh today is Tuesday, we have Tacos on Tuesday!”

Our dinner meal routine is essentially this:  

  • Spaghetti Night
  • Mac and Cheese with Broccoli and Chicken (Parents do Take-out that night)
  • Pesto Chicken Pasta with Veggies (I buy the Vegan Kale Pesto at Trader Joe’s, it is full of green leafy vegetables and both of my toddlers love it)
  • Taco Tuesday
  • Grill Night
  • Stir-fry Night

I always make sure each dinner has a food item they will eat. I also always include a food item that they won’t. If they will at least try one bite, then that is a win. Food tastes develop over time. In fact, it can take over 21 times of trying a food before you like the taste.  

You can leave one day of the week as a mystery such as Mystery (or surprise) Monday to try new foods. We play this picky eater food game at dinner to get kids to try new foods. 

Anyone but you

My kids do best when they know I am on their side. Therefore, if anyone else but me tells them to do something, then the outcome is better. So I have found ways to parent my child other than me telling them what to do.

I also really like these tactics because at the end of the day, my overarching goal for them is self-discipline. When they grow up and leave, the only thing that stays is self-discipline.

  • Daniel says: When my toddler gets into a conflict with another toddler or kid, chances are neither kid is going to say or do the “correct” thing. If my toddler hits, then I say, “Alex says don’t hit me, that hurts my body.” It is much more effective than saying don’t hit.
  • State their point of view: Like I said, if my toddler knows I am on their side, then it helps a lot. If they hit or take a toy, then I will say something like “you really wanted the toy, so you hit.”
  • Options: Another great tactic that I follow up with is to give a few solutions. This gives them a choice and some control over how they handle the situation
  • Use a timer: Even though I set the timer, my child reacts differently to it then to me. I think that a timer makes time (a very abstract concept) much easier to grasp. I also think the timer works so well because it always rings whereas I will say 5 minutes and then sometimes I get caught up in conversation and 20 minutes later, I say time is up.

“They know better”

I have found that when I have no more ideas or I am at my wits end, I always try timeouts.

When my toddler started hitting, I tried everything and nothing worked! I got to the point where I felt my toddler should “know better.” It was to the point where after hitting she would say, “no hitting.”

When we finally succeeded in getting her to not hit, I understood why time outs didn’t help and why it was about they should “know better.”

The issue was my toddler didn’t have any other solutions. Once she did have other solutions besides hitting, she needed practice implementing them. Additionally, by helping her with this, I was building a lifelong skill in how to be assertive and handle conflict.

Prevent if possible

I went through a few months of helping my child navigate play.

I would be right there to prevent her from hitting or using any other negative tactics. When I could see she was getting frustrated, I would step in. I would give her the words she could use instead of hitting. I would describe the situation and give her other options (we can ask for a turn or we can have a snack or we can take a sip of water or find something different to do).

Example:

“You really want to play with the bucket. Alice has the bucket. She is taking her turn. Let’s ask for a turn. Say: turn please.”

“Oh, Alice said no. She is still taking her turn. Let’s wait until she is done. What can we do while we wait?”

I would then find a toy to play with and wait with her until she could take a turn with the bucket.   

And I did this for any situation. I would help my child through the conflict so she could see there were other ways to navigate it. I also use this to teach my child to be assertive. Instead of screaming and crying that another kid took her ball or hit her. I tell her: Say “Don’t hit me, that hurts! or I was still taking my turn, can you give the toy back please?”

Model it or do it with them

As my toddlers get older, I am always amazed how much I see them imitating me or my husband. It is fascinating (and scary) really how much they learn from watching you. For instance, my husband was using a stud finder on the wall and after he set it down, my two-year-old picked it up and copied what she had seen him do.

No one had to ask her to do it, but she was curious. It took us way too long to realize how powerful this parenting tactic could be and that we had never really utilized this to its full advantage.

For instance, getting either of my kids (2 and 4 years old) to brush their teeth is honestly a nightmare. The game changer was when we brushed our teeth with our kids.

When I want them to work on their letters, I sit down and work on my letters. When I want them to eat or try certain foods, I eat them. 

Just start doing things you want them to do. Model it and after a while, you will be amazed at how you don’t need to say anything, they will just follow along interested in it because you do it.

Change the game

The fighting in our house had become out of control. Sibling rivalry is a real thing and I was in way over my head. One thing that really helped our household was reading Siblings Without Rivalry.

One of the biggest takeaways from that book for me was to not join the fight or take sides. It recommends just stating what you see. You both want the blanket, hmmm what could you do?

If they don’t offer suggestions, then you can offer a few solutions.

If this doesn’t work, then I always change the game. It works almost every time with my 2 and 4 year old. So if they are not wanting to work it out and share the blanket, I playfully snatch it, yell it’s mine and run away.

They usually will come chasing after me. The mood changes to fun again and now they are on the same side trying to get the blanket back.

Another example is my 2 year old wants to play but my 4 year old doesn’t want her to join. I find a way to change the game. If my 4 year old says “she keeps knocking my tower over”, then I say “oh no! we need to protect the castle from the dragon.” I then scoop up my 2 year old and fly her over the castle.

I will play until they are good to play by themselves again, which is usually a few minutes. The important part is that each child has a role that they can play. When they have roles, the other child will view the activity differently. Instead of trying to take my playthings, they are playing with me.

High energy time after dinner

As a parent, sleep at some point or another is going to be a challenge. I was not one of those lucky parents whose baby slept from day one. In fact, we struggled with bedtime for a long time.

With my toddlers, I always tried having calm evenings to get them ready for bed because that is what I kept reading worked for so many people.

Well at some point, I gave up with it because it was not working. One summer night, we stayed out way too late (like past bedtime), playing outside on tricycles. We were just having so much fun running around the yard that I completely forgot to check the time and since it was summer, it stays light out.

To make a long story short, our kids went to bed in a matter of seconds. It was the shortest bedtime routine we had ever done, and they were asleep with no fuss or getting out of bed.

That night changed everything, we started doing high energy activities after dinner all the way up until bedtime so from 5-7 pm. We follow with a quick bath and a bedtime routine and then its lights out. And they stay in bed and go to bed.

Have a better day with your toddler

Having a toddler, much less two toddlers, in your family is a lot of fun and a lot of work. I aim to have our days go better so that we can all enjoy this time together as a family.

I hope by sharing what has worked and truly helped our house function will also help you in your parenting journey.

If you have found anything that has worked well, then please share your wisdom in the comments.

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