How to manage your toddler and stay a peaceful parent?

Most children become harder to manage at around fourteen months. That's because they make a huge developmental leap at this point. They're not so easily distracted. They realize they have some influence in the world, but not a lot of power, and they start experimenting to see how they can get their needs met and their desires fulfilled.

This can be a maddening time for parents, or it can be a wonderful time, watching your child blossom. How difficult the phase from 15 to 36 months is depends at least partly on the parent's attitude. Your child's rebellion will be inversely proportional to the freedom your toddler is given to do her developmental work, and how capable she feels to get what she wants in the world.

How much is he allowed to explore? To set his own pace? To feel in control of his world? To discover that he is a competent person?

Much of this depends on the parent.

  • Can you appreciate your child's bids for independence without taking them as personal insults?
  • Can you give up some control so your child can develop some sense of mastery over her world?
  • Does he know he can count on you to help him get his needs met, or does he feel he has to fight with you?
  • Can you set whatever limits are necessary for her safety and your sanity, while empathizing with her disappointment when she doesn't get what she wants?
  • Can you tolerate his anger at you with understanding, acknowledging the full range of emotions he expresses?
  • Can you see the situation from your child's point of view and empathize?

The more often you can answer yes to these questions, the easier your toddler will be to live with -- and the healthier his emotional development will be.

It may seem that your toddler's main job is tearing your house apart, but that's just part of a larger job he's trying to master -- learning the physical and social rules of the world. Let's consider your toddler's jobs right now.

Your Toddler's Developmental Tasks:

  • Rapid physical and brain development.
  • Rapid acquisition of vocabulary and verbal rules.
  • Learning how to stay connected to you while he asserts his own needs and wants.
  • Development of Agency -- a sense of oneself as a powerful, competent person able to act successfully to get one's needs met.
  • Learning that other children are people too, and that he relate to them safely, so he doesn't have to be aggressive with them.
  • Learning the rules of the physical world, like gravity.
  • Learning the rules of the social world, like how to ask for what you want.

Your Parenting Priorities:

  1. Keep your child safe as she explores.
  2. Give up some control so he can develop some mastery over his world.
  3. Enjoy her emerging independence and curiosity.
  4. Stay connected even while redirecting or correcting.
  5. Stay positive!

What toddlers need from their parents:

1. Validation of their sense of agency.

Your toddler already knows there are lots of limits and things she can't control. Now she needs to learn that there are things she is in charge of, such as her own body (at least mostly), and she needs to experience herself as competent and powerful, able to get her needs and desires met.

2. Structure, Limits, Routines and Security.

Toddlers are beginning to grasp that it's a big world out there. Even their own feelings seem overwhelming to them at times. They need the reassurance that the parent is in charge and can keep them safe -- from the world, as well as from their own big feelings and lack of self control.

3. Help understanding and structuring time. he feels less out of control and pummeled by circumstance ("After lunch it's nap time, and then we'll drive to Grandma's.") Toddlers need to know what to expect and they do better with a definite routine. Talking about the flow of time and the order of events also helps develop your child's prefrontal cortex, which handles the executive functions of the brain.

4. Your responsiveness and connection.

Toddlers need to stay connected with their parents, especially at those difficult moments when emotions run high. Look at it from his point of view, and you'll see it makes sense. Even if she has to eventually learn more appropriate ways of expressing her emotions, it's important that she knows you love and accept her exactly as she is, even with all of those messy feelings. Even if you can't do what he wants, it will help him to cooperate if you can understand and empathize with his unhappiness. This is how your child learns that she can't always get what she wants, but she gets something better -- a parent who loves her unconditionally -- no matter what.

Given all this, here's your game plan for a healthy, fun toddlerhood -- for both you and your toddler!

Game Plan for a Fun Toddlerhood:

Photo: Crushed Red Pepper

1. Be the person you want your child to be.

Children learn to interact with others by experiencing relationships with their parents and siblings, and then they recreate what they've experienced. Remember that your toddler is learning both sides of any relationship she’s in. If you don’t want her to tantrum, don’t lose your temper at her, which models tantrumming. If you yell at her, you're teaching her by example that tantrums are how humans appropriately express themselves and get what they want.

2. Cultivate empathy for your child.

Your child's social skills start with empathy. Kids begin to develop empathy for others (and therefore, the ability to share, not hit, etc.) as they themselves feel understood. Click here for more on what empathy is and how to use it to raise great kids.

3. Use routines.

Kids self-regulate more easily when they live in a safe, predictable structured routine where they know what to expect. When you disrupt routines with travel, Grandma’s visit, or simply exceptions for your own convenience, you can expect tantrums, difficulty falling asleep, and other challenges. Grandma, of course, is worth it, but choosing disruptions wisely is part of protective parenting. Click here for more on schedules and routines that toddlers can understand.

4. Use age-appropriate "discipline."

For toddlers, that means empathic limits, information, redirection, and help with emotions. Researchers compared two groups of toddlers who were rated as behaving about the same at the start of the study. During the study, some of the parents began spanking their kids at around age two. Others used positive discipline. The children who were spanked behaved worse a year later than the kids who weren't. Even yelling at toddlers has a negative effect, causing them to harden their hearts to you and become defiant. Toddlerhood is where violence starts: Are you unwittingly teaching your kids that might makes right? (See Positive Discipline for help in managing your toddler.)

5. Sidestep power struggles.

You don't have to prove you're right. Your child is trying to assert that he is a real person, with some real power in the world. That's totally appropriate. Let him say no whenever you can do so without compromise to safety, health, or other peoples' rights. You'll be glad to know that since tantrums are an expression of powerlessness, toddlers who feel some control over their lives have many fewer tantrums.

6. Pre-empt tantrums.

First, know that tantrums are normal for kids this age. Second, since most tantrums happen when kids are hungry, tired, or feel disconnected, think ahead. Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, re-connection with you, cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation -- whatever it takes to calm down and rest -- prevent most tantrums, and reground kids who are getting whiny. (Whining is your child's signal that his internal resources are not up to the demands of that moment and he needs your help.) Learn to just say no -- to yourself! Don't squeeze in that last errand. Don't drag a hungry or tired kid to the store. Make do and do it tomorrow. For more on taming toddler tantrums, click here.

7. Use play to "manage" your toddler.

Toddlers don't like to be ordered around any more than you do. What they do love is to play. Want cooperation? Fly your toddler up to her bath. Get him to finish his milk by pretending to be a puppy who loves milk. Get her into her carseat by pretending to be the flight attendant preparing for takeoff. Race him to the car.

8. Don’t take it personally.

Your toddler will at times reject you or be hurtful in some way. Don’t take it personally. She’s learning from you how to modulate her anger. This is your opportunity to grow (choose love and understanding -- this is a toddler!), and teach her at the same time.

9. Allow time in your schedule for your toddler's need to explore the world.

That's his job, after all -- exploring, experimenting, learning. That's how his brain develops. Rushing toddlers is one of the common triggers of avoidable tantrums.

10. Don't force her to share.

That actually delays the development of sharing skills! Kids need to feel secure in their ownership before they can share. Instead, introduce the concept of taking turns. (“It’s Asia’s turn to use the bucket. Then it will be your turn.") Help him wait for his turn with empathy. Help him put his favorite toys away before another child visits. When he does share, out of the goodness of his own heart, empower him to make that choice again by observing, aloud, the effect of his choice: "Look how happy Kevin is that he gets a turn with your truck."

11. Let your child be in charge of potty training.

Remember, this is a gradual learning process for your child. They all get out of diapers sooner or later. Fights with your child about his or her body are fights you will never win. Toilet training can actually be empowering for your child, an important step in independence, but that depends on how you handle it. If your child shows zero interest in toilet training, find opportunities for him to be around other kids who are using the toilet, and he'll quickly want to emulate them. For more on easy potty learning, click here.

12. Eliminate visual electronic media.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not watch TV or videos at all because they have other important developmental work to do and because it impacts brain development. The AAP recommends that older children watch AT MOST an hour or two per day of nonviolent, educational TV. I recommend TV and movies only for special occasions. I know we’re told that Sesame Street is good for our children, but research shows that it influences brain development and shortens the attention span. It starts an addiction in kids who are prone to it. When they’re a little older, they'll want to watch other TV. And before they’re much older, you'll wonder why they flip on the TV instead of reading a book. Not to mention that you will have stopped being able to monitor what they watch by the time they’re eight. For more on TV, see Why Your Toddler Shouldn't Watch TV -- and What to Do Instead.

12. Feeding is the toddler’s job.

Never fight over food, You provide the healthy food. She feeds it to herself. (Yes, even when she's tiny. Just put a mat under the high chair.) Don’t obsess about how much your child eats. Kids don't starve themselves. Many toddlers are too busy during the day to eat enough and therefore ask for food at bedtime. This can drive a parent around the bend, unless you build a bedtime snack into the schedule – which also often helps kids settle down and sleep better. If you make sure the snack is healthy, you take the pressure off dinner so you can enjoy your child more at dinner without prodding them to eat. You can combine it with the bedtime story if you’re short on time (and who isn't, at bedtime?). Click here for more on feeding your toddler.

14. Forget about stimulating your child's brain by teaching her the alphabet or showing her screens.

The intellectual work of toddlers is about exploring, observing the world, talking and being listened to, being accepted, validated and acknowledged. Emotional self-management lays the foundation for intellectual development. It's never too early to develop a love of books, but that doesn’t happen by learning the alphabet. If you want your child to love reading, then read to her and tell her stories. Screens actually have a net negative effect on intellectual development.

15. Pre-empt whining.

Whining is an expression of the child's feeling of powerlessness. To nip whining in the bud, meet needs as soon as your child expresses them, and help your child with those helpless feelings. Click here for more on how to stop your toddler's whining.

16. Give her the opportunity to experience competence.

Toddlers tantrum less and cooperate more when they feel more powerful. How can you help your toddler feel more powerful? Three key ways:

  • Listen to her
  • Let her make decisions whenever possible
  • Give her the opportunity to experience competence

Toddlers need daily experience with work to gain confidence in their own capabilities and begin to think of themselves as competent people. As adults, we tend to think of work as burdensome. But toddlers LOVE to understand how the household functions, and to participate. They LOVE to feel valuable by contributing to the household. They LOVE to learn by doing. This was one of Maria Montessori's most important insights.

Invite your toddler to be involved with whatever you're doing. Ok, so the help will make your job harder, but he's learning and gaining skills for the future, and you're bonding. And in a few years when you want him to do chores, you'll wish you had been patient and gotten him started working with you!

What kinds of household tasks? They can stand on a stool or bench in the kitchen to help. (Definitely consider a Safety Tower!) They can help you as you run errands. They can help in the yard. Specifically, toddlers can:

  • Make themselves a snack, such as peeling fruit or an egg, or slicing soft cheese and making sandwiches with crackers.
  • Help wash pots and pans or other unbreakable dishes.
  • Wash vegetables in the sink.
  • Wipe the counter off.
  • Help you clean the refrigerator.
  • Help set the table.
  • Help clear the table.
  • Help you by turning lights on and off.
  • Dust.
  • Scrub the tub (from inside, barefoot!)
  • Pair the socks as you fold clothes.
  • Sort clothes (which clean clothes belong to which family member?)
  • Help you transfer clothes from the washer to the dryer, pull clothes out of the dryer, or hang them on a line.
  • Pick out fruit at the grocery store.
  • Wash the table or floor.

These activities are ultimately much more educational and satisfying than any screen, and most young children love them. After completing such a task, the toddler says "I did it!" and feels like a more capable, powerful person. (Compare that to how they feel after watching a screen for an hour.) And the cognitive development is huge.

Sure, it's more work for the parent than just doing it yourself. But you're helping your toddler feel competent and powerful, so they don't need to assert their power by being contrary. They're more confident. They're better at problem-solving. They develop more executive function, earlier. And they're more helpful, now and in the future! That's what I call win-win-win. (Click here for more on helping your child develop Competence.)

So that's your toddler game plan, guaranteed to increase the sweetness ratio of daily life with your toddler. And don't forget that there are lots more articles on this website about toddlers -- check out this list.