Inside this post: Figuring out how to make kids listen can go hand-in-hand with power struggles and tantrums. Learn how to set firm boundaries and still keep a peaceful home using positive toddler discipline tips.
“Which one do you want? The truck pants or the navy pants?” As I stretched my arms out holding the pajama bottoms, my son looked up at me.
His exact response was, “Dump truck pants! Woohoo!”
(I have the same enthusiasm for yoga pants.)
We headed out to the living room with jammies in hand and went through our printable bedtime routine cards. He wanted to get himself dressed, and I was delighted because the more he does independently, the less I need to coach him through the routine.
But, there was a problem.
He was trying to put his shirt on upside down, and of course, trying to shove his arms and whole body through a hole designed for a toddler’s head wasn’t working out so well.
He wailed and sobbed out of frustration. I attempted to help him, but each time I got within a few feet he screamed that he “wanted to do it himself!”
His emotions pummeled towards me like a tornado, and we were approaching major bedtime tantrum territory.
I took a step back.
I’ve been struggling with the whole angry mom thing lately and I wanted to respond calmly rather than with a quip reaction like, “Just get your pajamas on and calm down already!”
I started silently talking to myself, “Breathe, Lauren. BREATHE, Lauren!”
My complaining child continued screaming a few feet away from me, and I sat there for a minute thinking, thinking, thinking.
Then it hit me…
This was about something bigger.
It was like all the things that irritated him throughout the day were now being expressed in this pajama debacle:
Feeling mad about that cookie I wouldn’t let him have at 9 am. Frustrated that I cleaned the house for several hours when he wanted to play at the park. Annoyed that his sister constantly interfered with his toys.
Positive toddler discipline tips.
If you find yourself dealing with a strong willed toddler who regularly tests boundaries over and over again, these are 6 core principles of positive toddler discipline that can help you set limits while still maintaining a peaceful home:
When toddlers are acting out, they are usually attempting to cope with a situation as best as they know how. If I see a behavior that I don’t like, this is my signal to give more information.
Whatever you call it, the concept is basic: give more information.
It might sound like this…
“You’re really angry that you can’t get your pajamas on right now.”
“Those pajamas aren’t going on the way you want them to.”
“You don’t want me to help you.”
The point of giving information is to let your toddler know that you understand his side of the story. Toddlers simply will not listen until this step occurs. Once a toddler feels heard and understood, he or she can begin to listen to your directions and guidance.
Imagine your boundaries are like walls.
Kids are learning to cope with frustration and boundaries. They are working on developing that self-control.
When I see a tantrum or power struggle, it usually means I need to do a better job teaching my kids how to cope with frustration and limits, rather than shifting my boundary.
A classic example of this is when kids have a huge tantrum over the wrong colored cup. At the beginning of meals, our oldest gets to choose between two cups. If he changes his mind, he has to wait for another meal.
Because–let’s be honest here–it’s not really about the color of the cup.
It could be about feeling powerless and wanting more choices besides “just cups.” It could be about struggling with frustration and boundaries.
Or it could be about wanting more quality time, connection and understanding from the parent.
Not matter the underlying reason for the tantrum, I always go back to giving information.
“You wish you could choose a different cup.”
“This is hard for you. I can tell you’re angry.”
“Gosh…you chose that cup and then you realized you didn’t want it anymore. And now I won’t let you change your mind. So frustrating!”
Think of it this way: if you bought a $100 top from Nordstrom, took it home, realized it wasn’t what you wanted, and they wouldn’t let you return it, you’d be really frustrated too. The store doesn’t change the return policy just because you don’t like it. And after that experience, you probably won’t buy another $100 top again without thinking through your choice.
Don’t let boundary testing ruffle you.
When kids start throwing tantrums or pitching a fit over boundaries and limits, it takes a ton of self-control as a parent to stay calm. If your child doesn’t comply to your requests, it can leave you feeling powerless.
And when you feel powerless, you may feel compelled to yell, get angry or throw things to fill your need for power and “take control” of the situation.
The thing that always helps me stay calm is to remember this:
Your boundary is your boundary. So if you are able to set it once and know that you won’t need to move it (i.e. bedtime is bedtime) based on your child’s reaction, then you are going to feel much less of an energy drain.
You can validate your child’s emotions or experience and lead with empathic parenting, but getting upset, angry and yelling, only drains us as parents when we are already exhausted.
Offer alternatives and choices.
When kids are frustrated or upset with a boundary, they don’t want to hear about what they can’t do and why they can’t do it. This is totally understandable because when I can’t do something, I don’t really want to hear about it five times over.
Offering alternative things the child can do will restore the balance of power. Maybe the child gets to choose the chair they sit in, or the game you play with them, or the toothbrush they use.
“You have two choices…” is a helpful phrase can make a huge difference in toddler discipline.
Grab a free preview of Helpful Phrases, a book with 100+ parenting phrases that I love and use.
Use peaceful, yet physical boundaries when needed.
If you are working to be a more practical and positive parent, there is a myth that you can’t use physical boundaries in a peaceful way.
If I see one of the kids trying to hit the other, I will put my arm between them.
If I need to gently grab my son’s hand to prevent him from hitting, I will do that.
If one of the kids tries to climb on the counter, I will put my arm out.
If my son tries to get out of bed multiple times, I will walk him back to bed. If he refuses, I have no problem calmly picking him up and carrying him as many times as I need to.
I always opt for the minimum physical intervention needed. But if you need to get physical in a peaceful and gentle way, you can do that. Toddlers are incredibly physical in the way they learn about the world.
Boundaries are no different.
If your words feel like white noise, then a well-placed arm or torso is a great way to reinforce what you are saying.
Keep a schedule or routine that serves YOU well.
The world feels super ambivalent for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. They have some idea of what to expect, but much of it catches them off guard.
Routines help them feel safe, secure, independent and capable as kids. Whether you are using printable routine cards or one of the sample routines found here, you have a ton of options when creating a routine that will work for your family.
A good routine always saves me from needing to use my energy on yelling and nagging and helps me build more peace and cooperation in my home.
Parenting toddlers is hard work.
When you find yourself battling over pajamas, cups or leaving the house on time, know that the time you spend giving information, staying calm, and holding your boundaries is turning your child into one heck of an amazing person.
Believe me when I say, it’s not about the color of the cup or needing different pajamas.
It’s about your child needing you to confidently lead them.
And you showing up and doing exactly that.
Print this free toddler listening checklist.
This post comes with a free printable checklist to help with toddler listening. I always have the hardest time remembering these phrases. This printable simplifies it!
Here is a sneak preview…
Download Your Free Printable
- Download the checklist. You’ll get the printable, plus join 20,000+ parents who receive my weekly parenting tips and ideas!
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
- Place it on your refrigerator. Check things off as you go and don’t forget a thing!
Want more on parenting?
- 7 Challenges and Solutions to Parenting a Toddler and Newborn
- How Empathy Will Transform Your Child’s Most Difficult Behavior
- 9 Genius Phrases for Dealing With a Strong Willed Child
- One Simple Trick to Help Kids Fall Asleep Fast
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