Toddlerhood is a time of rapid brain growth and leaps in emotional and cognitive skills. Our little ones need heavy doses of affection, empathy, warmth, and understanding – and they need to feel seen and understood as they navigate the bumpy waters of early childhood.
On the other hand, our kids also need us to be in charge. For a toddler, a world without consistent expectations and rules is like an adult driving around a big city with no stop lights or road signs – it doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t feel safe.
At some point or another, most parents question whether they’ve mastered the empathy part, but have let the rules get too loose. If that’s the case, here are some things to consider:
What spoiling is not
In a way, “spoiled” is an outdated word (harkening back to the days when child rearing advice came from psychologists like John Watson, who said, “never kiss and hug (children), never let them sit on your lap.”). Now we know better: all the latest science and research on parenting tells us that responsiveness, understanding, and warmth are key to raising healthy kids. There’s no limit to the affection, hugs, kisses, and love we can give our little ones. But nurturing and structure are not mutually exclusive – they actually fit very well together.
Signs your toddler needs more structure:
She’s anxious or extra-emotional
Since life without rules can feel like internal chaos to a toddler, if yours is in need of more limits and boundaries you might notice that she’s especially sensitive and anxious. Of course these traits also come and go with the natural course of development (and they’re highly linked to your toddler’s particular temperament). But having set expectations and consistency feels containing to kids, and sometimes when toddlers have too much control, they can become more nervous or clingy.
You feel helpless, out of control, or angry
All parents do at some point (or, let’s face it, on a daily basis during certain developmental phases). But sometimes we can feel trapped and controlled by our toddlers’ whims: If you don’t let him watch another Thomas episode, give him the fifth stuffed animal he’s demanding at bedtime, or let him take home a toy from Target, mayhem will ensue. Again, it’s a completely normal part of parenting a toddler. But if it’s a non-stop pattern, it can make you feel really powerless and angry.
Your toddler’s sleep has gone haywire
Sleep patterns can be like a barometer for what’s going on during the day. If your toddler is waking up a lot at night, going to bed very late, and is sleepy during the day (and you are too), it might be time to consider tightening up the routines and expectations in the house – both daytime and nighttime.
You can’t stand to see your child upset
It breaks my heart to see my three-year-old disappointed, frustrated, or sad, and sometimes every fiber of me wants to scoop him up and rescue him from whatever challenge he’s hit. But our kids need to know that it’s okay to have difficult feelings, and that we can tolerate them too. When you set a limit and your child melts down in response, is it too uncomfortable for you to stand? The discomfort can make us cave, but it can also send mixed signals.
What you can do:
Reframe your thinking
If you feel like your toddler is being showered in toys or rewarded with too many treats, see if you can shift your thinking about this. Objects and goodies are fun, but they don’t do much to fill up our kids’ self-esteem or bolster our relationships to them. Toddlers will gravitate to flashy new playthings, but in the end, a simple puzzle on the floor with mom is worth more. Toddler attention is malleable, and if you redirect yours to a basic activity like books or drawing, she will catch on.
As you get busy reigning in your toddler’s wild desires or setting tighter rules, make sure you don’t skip the most important step. When she melts down because you won’t buy the useless Target toy or you have to extricate her from a play date, give a nod to her feelings before you lay down the law. Connect with the emotional side of her brain by saying something like, “I know, it’s really hard to leave. You’re having so much fun!”
State the reality
Once you’ve engaged your toddler’s feelings, clearly state the line. “Today is a looking day, not a buying day,” for example. Don’t negotiate or over explain. Problem solve by offering suggestions like, “Maybe we could put that on our list of things we like for when it’s a buying day.” When you both empathize and bring in logical rules, you’re literally helping your child connect the raw emotional centers of her brain with the rational centers – the more these synapses fire, the stronger the connections (and your child’s ability to self-regulate) get.
Don’t make statements you can’t follow through on
Sometimes in an attempt to regain control, we throw around hollow or random threats. This will only amp up the chaos in your toddler’s mind, so avoid making statements you can’t act on. Only say, “If you hit your friend one more time we’re leaving the restaurant,” if you’re prepared to throw down money and leave the table immediately.
Talk before and after
One of the best ways to handle toddler demands is to prepare ahead of time. In the car on the way to the store, talk about what the objective is. If she ends up disappointed or struggles with a limit you’ve set, process it after you leave. The more you talk about what’s happening with your child, the more her bustling emotions (and your structure and rules) will make sense to her.