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Toddler Discipline: Setting limits with empathy

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It’s inevitable that you’ll need to set limits with your curious, mobile little risk-taker. Toddlers have newfound motor skills that make life an endless series of explorations, but they need your guidance and coaching while they work on impulse control and social skills. Our goal as parents is to keep our little kids safe but also help them label their emotions, express themselves, and figure out social dynamics. If it sounds like a tall order, consider these concepts:

Staying calm in the face of toy snatching: Welcome to the emotionally charged world of toy burgling. Remember when your baby reacted to a fellow six-month-old Sophie the Giraffe thief as if nothing happened? Now things don’t roll off her as easily – and they shouldn’t. This is the beginning of will and strong emotional attachments. It’s also the start of your toddler’s all-important play plans (she’s got her own), which, if interrupted, will be momentarily devastating.

Whether your little one is the snatcher or the snatchee of a prized possession, see if you can hold yourself back from reacting right away to fix it. Wait a beat and just describe what you saw:

You were playing with the helicopter and Jack took it, or Jack was playing with the helicopter and you took it.

If your little one did the snatching and her friend is upset, get down and say something like We don’t grab toys from our friends. You might have to help her give it back and find a replacement to distract her. If things went down in the other direction and your child has words, encourage her to use them. Let’s use words to tell Jack “I was playing with that,” or “My toy.”

At 12-14 months, most toddlers still don’t care when a toy is taken away, so try to let it go (instead of imposing your own adult sharing standards) and only intervene if someone (besides you) is actually upset.

Choosing when you say “no” wisely: It’s tempting to blurt this word multiple times an hour with a toddler in the house. But since she’s built for mimicry, it will likely come back around – soon you’ll be hearing “no” from her morning and night. A good rule of thumb is to use the word no when there is physical harm involved – for example, when she hits a friend or when she’s about to run into the parking lot. If we save the word no, kids learn that when we do use it, we really mean it.

Working through tough moments

It helps to have a plan in mind for how to get through difficult spots with your toddler. Here’s a 3-step approach for moments when you need to set a limit:

1. Acknowledge your toddler’s feelings: The first and most critical step in getting through a difficult moment is to let your little one know you see her struggle. If you skip this step, she may keep protesting because she hasn’t gotten through to you. When you let a child know you get what she’s going through first, it can take the charge out of the situation. And more importantly, one of our biggest jobs as parents is to help our kids learn about their feelings.

Examples:

I can see you really want to take that toy home.

I know, it’s so hard to leave the park when you’re having fun!

You really wanted cereal for breakfast!

2. State the limit: Once you’ve briefly let her know you get why she’s upset, state the rule or limit. If you can help it, this isn’t a time to get upset or frustrated – just state the facts. You’ll also be more effective if you avoid asking, Could you give mommy the ball? or Why did you hit your sister? This is the time for calmly presenting her with the reality.

Examples:

Today is a “looking” day at the store, not a “buying” day.

It’s time to leave now so we can pick up dad.

Today we’re having oatmeal.

3. Problem solve: Next, move on to a solution or alternative and see if you can get past the moment and on to the next. With young toddlers – creatures of the moment – distraction will be your best friend. When he’s mid-melt down over having to leave the playground, try a good old-fashioned Look at that 18-wheeler over there! Or when you’re struggling to put on PJs, ask, Hey, can I tell you a story about the airport for a sec? Think random and enticing – it helps pull your little one out the other side of the emotional struggle.

For an older toddler or young preschooler, your solutions might need to be more advanced.

Example:

Do you want to add that toy to our list of things we’re interested in buying?

How about we decide when our next park date with Jack will be?

Let’s write “cereal” on our schedule for tomorrow.

While communicating with your toddler can seem like an uphill battle some days, remember: You’re setting the groundwork for communication in their older years, and learning how to work through the frustration on both ends will make what’s to come a whole lot easier.

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