After having a baby I really thought nothing could be harder than those sleepless nights.
I was wrong because I hadn’t met my toddler yet. I love my toddler to pieces. My toddler is my world, and I could never imagine it any other way.
However, that being said, my toddler has brought me to my worst parenting moments. You know exactly what I am talking about if you have a toddler of your own. They know how to push buttons in a way no one else can.
So how do you get your toddler to listen, to cooperate, to simply get their shoes on so you can leave the house without pulling your hair out?
It took me a long time to get real solutions and parenting help when it came to toddlers. Most of my help came from a child psychologist who taught a preschool parenting class and from a close friend of mine who has been a preschool teacher for over 40 years (she seriously always had the best advice).
I hope by sharing what helped me during these little years, it will also help you too in your own parenting journey.
The wonderful magic of a visual timer
If you have not yet discovered the visual timer, then you are about to have your mind blown. This free app on your phone is going to save you from so many meltdowns.
The visual part is important because toddlers can not tell time. Most apps are a circle or a bar where the color will slowly tick away. You can use it for literally any change that your toddler has trouble with such as time to go, time to leave, time to share a toy, time to brush teeth, time out etc. All you do is have your toddler come over and say, “we need to set the timer so we know when it is time to leave, let’s set it for 5 minutes.”
Since doing anything on a phone is a delight for a toddler, they will be more than happy to help. Once it rings say, “oh did you hear that? It must be time for us to leave.”
I still to this day can not get over how much easier it is to get my toddler to cooperate when I use a timer. Its seriously such a helpful tool.
The reason the timer works is that it puts you and your toddler on the same team. Instead of you telling them it’s time to go, the timer is telling both of you it’s time to go. Additionally, they set the timer, so you gave them a feeling of being in control. Lastly, it gave them time to process the fact that a change is coming and give them a few minutes to finish up.
We recently started using the timer to help with sharing between our 4- and 2-year-olds. When they get into a fight over a toy, one of them now comes to ask for the timer so they can have a turn. It resolves the fight over a toy nearly 90% of the time. They trust the timer will go off and therefore they feel better knowing they will get their turn.
But did they hear you?
Talking to a toddler can be infuriating. You might have more success talking to your dog or even the wall. Really.
Toddlers do not listen. Why? Simply their mind is a very busy place. It has taken me years to realize just how true that statement is, and I never really grasped it until I had this exact conversation with my toddler.
Toddler: I want to read a book.
Me: First we brush teeth.
Toddler: I want to read this one.
Me: Okay, we need to brush teeth first. Do you understand me?
Me: Okay, tell me what I said.
Toddler: complete and total silence
My toddler had absolutely no idea what I said. Why? My toddler’s mind was busy and focused on the book. Your words hit a wall unless you have the complete attention of your toddler and here is how you get it.
Get on their thought train
Whatever subject or feeling they have going on you need to talk about first before they are capable of moving on to what you have to say.
For instance, I needed to acknowledge the book before bringing up teeth. I could have said, “Oh, you want to read Goodnight Moon. That is a great book.” Now I have their attention, they know I heard them and know they want me to read the book. I can move from the book to the teeth brushing by saying something like “I would love to read this book with you. Let’s brush our teeth quick so we can start reading!”
It might seem very simple, but it can make a world of difference. It was also surprising to me how many times a day I could use this strategy and how effective it was at getting my child to listen without the tempter tantrum or repeating myself 50 times.
Additionally, what you are doing is getting on the same side as your toddler. Instead of being at odds with both of you wanting different things, now your goals align. You both want to read the book now.
A few more examples:
“Wow! What a cool car…does it go fast or slow… It likes to go fast. Could you tell me more about the car as we sit down to have dinner?”
“What is your baby doll doing? She is taking her nap. Do you think she wants to go for a car ride? Could you show baby how we get ready to go. What do we do first? Let’s show baby your shoes!”
You don’t have to solve your toddler’s problems
I always felt that when my child was upset, I needed to do something about it.
I cannot tell you the immense relief I felt when the child psychologist in a parenting class I took told me that was not my job. My only job, besides keeping my child safe and healthy, was to understand and validate how my child felt.
In fact, I shouldn’t solve my child’s problems. For instance, let’s say my child wants to stay at the playground and I say it’s time to go. As you can imagine, the result is the classic temper tantrum.
We don’t want our children to be mad or sad especially when it comes with bad behavior like throwing a fit or crying. We want our children to be happy and so we try to fix it when they aren’t.
These fixes we try are exhausting on us and a lot of times don’t even work resulting in our own frustration. Instead, all your child needs from you is validation of their feelings such as “I know you are mad at me right now because you really want to stay at the playground.”
I always fall into the trap of then trying to give my child a long explanation of why I said no. I have learned these don’t work. First, your child can’t listen until they have calmed down.
Just think of how good you are at trying to listen to your child when you are angry. Secondly, you have to keep it short. More than no because that doesn’t help your child understand but no more than one sentence. Such as “we need to go home for dinner. We can come back another time.”
Be at their eye level
Be at their eye level because getting down to their eye level to ask them to put their shoes on, for instance, takes an extra 30 seconds but will probably save you 5 minutes in the long run.
Understanding emotions are hard
Big emotions, but no logic and not really a way to communicate. They are making huge strides with language. However, to be able to identify what emotion you are feeling and to be able to not only put it into words but also say why you are feeling that way. It’s hard.
Hell, there are times as an adult with years of practice I can’t even do it. I can’t say how I feel or explain why I feel a certain way. I won’t know why I’m in a funk or what is bothering me.
When your toddler is losing it, be sure to name it to tame it or in other words, say what emotion is going on. I might say “you want that toy but it was time for someone else’s turn. That is so hard. It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hit. Let’s take a break.”
Do as I say not as I do
Unfortunately, toddlers live by the opposite rule. They will copy everything you do because they want to be just like you. My favorite example of this is my toddler imitating her dad using a stud finder by taking her block and moving it on the wall while saying beep beep beep. Both my 4- and 2-year-olds also love to “text” on their “phone” or answer their “emails”.
Seriously, use this to your advantage. It is one of the best parenting tools you can use. You can do this by doing what you want your child to say or do with another child (be your child’s actions and words until they can do it themselves) or model by doing pretend play with dolls, etc. Here are some ideas:
Model how you want your child to react when they accidentally hurt someone. Instead of making your child say sorry, go over yourself to the child and say “Sorry, are you okay? Can I help you feel better?” Trust me your child is watching you and taking it in.
Model a time out. If you are ready to lose your temper, then tell your child. I am very frustrated and mad right now; I need to take a time out. I am going to go and take a break over there for two minutes. When I feel better, I will come back, and try again. This is also very effective because by leaving your child and going to a different spot, they also take a break.
Model language. If you want your child to say please, then say it to them. You can do this even when they aren’t using full sentences. For instance, when they say apple, you can say “I want an apple please.” It will make a difference and the more words they hear the faster they will learn them.
Logical consequences teach natural consequences
If your toddler throws the ball and you take away showtime that day, then you are missing a valuable teaching moment. First, the consequence needs to be immediate, or the toddler will not connect the two. Additionally, the reason this doesn’t work is because ball and TV have nothing to do with each other. A young child will make a connection with “if you throw the ball in the house, then the ball gets taken away.” It is an immediate and logical consequence, just like if you touch something hot, it burns you. You can even give a choice, you can go outside if you want to throw the ball. If you throw it inside, it will have to go away.
Find as many ways to keep consequences logical. It will help them understand why they must do certain things such as wearing a coat when it is cold. Or in my toddler’s case, wanting to wear a bathing suit in the freezing rain because in my toddler’s mind, a swim suit is for getting wet so of course you wear one in the rain. The logical consequence is they can’t go outside until they put the coat on. Seriously, just calmly say when you put your coat on, we can go outside. Do not get into a power struggle or give them any attention. They will eventually agree or they might go play inside. If the latter happens and you need to leave, then get your coat on and tell them you are leaving now. They can join you when they have their coat on.
Jumping through hoops has its place in parenting
I needed to hear (specifically from the child psychologist) that all the silly things I do to try to get my kid to go along with whatever was a good thing.
For instance, we play so many games to get my toddler to brush her teeth. I wondered if I was going about it correctly. The answer from the psychologist was an undeniableo yes.
The reason was that what you are teaching them when you work diligently on gaining their cooperation is creativity and problem-solving. They are learning fundamentals of relationships here and how you treat them will not only be the basis for everything but also develop their mind to be flexible.
Flexibility is a good parenting tool
It is okay to be flexible, another thing I had to hear from the child psychologist. I always felt like I lost when my child would drag out bedtime time or wouldn’t get her shoes on until I caved in on her request to first read a book.
The answer from the psychologist was when I do that I am saying you matter more than the rules. By being flexible and compromising when I can, I am building my relationship with my child in that their wants, feelings, and needs matter.
Stories give children a chance to try out different outcomes
Children’s books are fantastic learning tools. Use them! Books gives children a way to see stories ending in different ways. It gives them a chance to see how they could succeed or handle a situation.
Therefore, anything that is a struggle right now such as going to the doctor, hitting, or being dropped off at school. Find a kid book. I always ask our librarian if she knows of any good books on the subject or I just search the internet.
Everyone’s toddler is the same
On the first day of the parenting class I took, the instructor asked if we would all share what concerns we had and why we were taking the class. At first, I was very annoyed. I had taken this class because I wanted an expert to tell me how to parent. I didn’t want to waste my precious time hearing what other parents had to say.
Little did I know that by the end of that class, my mood soared. I had realized just how important that single class was because I had realized that I was not alone. Everyone had a toddler who was a handful. No one’s toddler listened or behaved. Everyone had tried every trick in the book and was at their last straw. Every parent had felt like they had run out of solutions and that every day was as struggle.
In that moment, my own feelings and struggles felt validated. I felt like I was listened to and heard. I felt like someone understood me where I am at right now and a weight lifted off.
I also realized in that very moment that that was exactly what my toddler needed. Not someone to tell them what was right or wrong or to fix their problems for them. They needed someone to meet them where they were and to feel heard. It would not solve every problem, but I knew that if I could take this one lesson with me and use it in my parenting, it would change my child’s and I’s relationship forever.
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I am a wife, teacher, and mother to two awesome girls. I write about what I am passionate about, which includes being a mom, house projects, beauty and skincare. I love to share my experiences, failures, and successes with my readers. Let this space be a resource for you to pursue your very best day.