The first three years of your child’s life are a time of rapid growth and development. Toddlers crave independence and autonomy in their little lives, so they begin to seek out ways of doing things for themselves. The problem is they are still developing the skills to do this! Their need for independence is often confused by their need to stay safe with mum and dad. This leads to big confusing emotions. Emotions they don’t understand, can’t cope with and don’t know how to verbalise. The result? Some pretty big tantrums! Or as I prefer to think of them – meltdowns! If your toddler is going through this phase right now, then please keep reading to learn my top ten gentle parenting strategies for coping with toddler behaviour.
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Mind your Language
Before we get started I wanted to explain why I prefer the term ‘meltdowns’. We are all familiar with the description ‘toddler tantrum’ but it tends to have negative connotations. It suggests that the toddler ‘knows what they are doing’ that they are ‘doing it on purpose’ and doing it to ‘get what they want’. Other similar explanations of toddler behaviours include ‘attention seeking’ and ‘spoiled’.
I’d like you to take a minute and consider a 2 year old. Keep them in mind while you answer these questions:
- What are their needs and wants?
- How do they ensure these needs and wants are met?
- What tools do they have to communicate their needs and wants?
- What abilities do they have to fulfil the needs and wants themselves?
- And finally, how do you know what your child needs at any given moment?
The answers to these questions would be a whole blog post (heck a whole training course!) entirely in its own right, but I want to highlight them now just to get you thinking.
So let’s get back to that word ‘tantrum’. I believe it is essential to carefully consider the type of language you are using to describe your child. Even if these words are only in your own thoughts.
When you change the language you are using, you also change your perspective. Labelling your child’s behaviour as a ‘toddler tantrum’ makes it likely that you will see the behaviour as unnecessary, meaningless, irritating and even naughty. But when you label it as a ‘meltdown’ instead, the perspective will shift and hopefully you see the behaviour differently!
How will your perspective change?
Instead of seeing a child misbehaving, you might see a child in need of support. So pay close attention to the language I am using throughout this post, and next time your child’s behaviour challenges your patience try to consider what language you are using to narrate the situation in your own head.
Speaking of language choices did you notice the very important one in the title of this blog post? There are so many different tips, tricks, methods and approaches in parenting literature these days – attachment parenting, kangaroo mums, helicopter parents, tiger mums and so many more! You don’t have to pick a category. In fact, I think it’s important you find your own identity and style as a parent, because after all you are unique! However, I wanted to distinguish the strategies in this post from more authoritarian parenting approaches. So I have chosen ‘gentle parenting’ as the label.
Why GENTLE parenting?
So why gentle parenting? Well, I believe that children deserve the same respect and dignity that we give to adults. That’s why I prefer to parent in a gentle way, that focuses on what my child is learning, experiencing and feeling. Of course, children often challenge their parents through unwanted behaviours. But as a wise person once said, “all behaviour is communication.”
So let’s try to understand, support and offer alternatives to our toddler’s unwanted behaviour in a kind, gentle and respectful way. After all, the key to any effective form of discipline is communicating clear boundaries to your child. And I think that is the perfect place to start! Because number 1 on my list of gentle parenting strategies for coping with toddler behaviour is Communication.
Prevention is always better than a cure and that’s where communication comes in! So make sure your child can communicate their wants and needs before they get to meltdown point. Babies can learn to sign from 5 months old, so it is never too early to teach communication skills. Teaching your child ways to ask for their basic needs is essential to preventing meltdowns. If your child begins to cry or whine, you can remind them to use their signs or their words to tell an adult what is wrong.
Ensure you are consistent in responding to the signs or words that you teach your child to use. This will help your child to know that these strategies are useful and effective. Babies’ first signs are often things like ‘mummy’ or ‘milk’ but they can rapidly progress to asking for a snack, the toilet and even particular toys. The Makaton website is a great place to find free resources for learning a few key signs. We love our Tiny Talk classes and have been attending them since Joseph was only 6 months old.
communicating a need – ask for help
Make sure you also give your child a way to ask for help. This is a more general type of request that can cover a variety of situations. It should be an appropriate method of getting your attention when something is overwhelming or difficult. It might be saying the word or signing ‘help’, or you could even demonstrate tapping on an appropriate place on your own body, such as your arm or leg. This may be useful for those times when you are busy and not picking up on subtler cues right away. For example, when you are washing dishes.
TIME TO TALK
Along with teaching your child signs and key words, make sure you are also communicating TO them as much as possible. No one likes to be pushed around, forced into stressful situations or feel generally unprepared for every day life. Toddlers in particular have very little control over their daily routine, so it is important we explain to them what we are doing, where we are going and what is going to happen.
communicate the routine
It has been well documented that children feel happier and safer when they have consistent routines in their life. No one is saying you need to do the exact same thing every day, but a general pattern or flow to your morning, afternoon and evening will make the world of difference. It’s also important to remember that children learn communication tools by imitating their parents. So remember to demonstrate top notch communication skills in your own adult interactions too!
Number 2 is Role Modelling
So that leads us neatly on to the second gentle parenting strategy on my list, Role Modelling. If you want to change your child’s behaviour you need to look at your own first. As humans we are social beings and therefore we always look to others for clues on how to behave. Role Modelling is in everything we do. From queuing in a shop, to wearing a mask, to deciding what to order at a restaurant (is everyone having a starter?). So why should we expect our children and family life to be any different?
role modelling social skills
For toddlers, Role Modelling is even more important. Parents are the centre of their child’s world and children learn everything they need to know to survive from their parents. It’s not just about poisoned berries and avoiding potholes, toddlers learn their social behaviour from their parents too. Pre-school children are only just learning about emotions, problem solving and social interactions. They need clear guidance on what to do, how to cope and whether or not they are doing a good job. So as a parent, think about how you cope with your own emotions. Because this will be a big deal in addressing your toddler’s behaviour too!
top tips for role modelling
My top tip for Role Modelling is to talk out loud. Describe what you are doing to keep yourself calm. State the steps you are taking to solve a problem or consider your daily schedule and the tasks you need to accomplish out loud!
Describe your feelings and what you need to make you feel better.
And remember that even when you are not directly interacting with your child, your behaviour is still setting an example. Whether you are on the phone to a work colleague, laughing with your husband at a private joke, or even getting irritated on the road when a driver cuts you up – you are setting an example!
Demonstrating your best behaviour is the best way to teach your child. So if you want your child to speak to you with respect, use kind and gentle behaviours, and share with others – then you need to demonstrate these behaviours too!
being good enough
No one is saying you need to be perfect. In fact, the importance of being a ‘good enough parent’ is well established in psychological research. Children learn resilience and use their initiative when parents aren’t able to meet all of their needs. But to really equip your child with social skills they need, you have to be demonstrating the best of yours (most of the time at least!).
Number 3 Sports casting
So we’ve talked about the underlying fundamentals, but I know some of you are still thinking, “well all this is well and good but what do I do when my toddler is having a meltdown in the middle of the road?” If you need to help your toddler stay safe then Simone Davie’s Sports Casting method is a fantastic approach for gentle parenting.
what is sports casting?
Sports commentators or ‘casters’ are those professionals on radio, tv and you tube videos who are describing what they are seeing during a football match, basketball game or round of golf. They tell you what is happening while it is happening. And that is exactly what you are going to do when your toddler needs hands on input.
So what do you actually say?
So what are you actually saying? Well here’s an example – “I am moving you off of the road now to keep you safe.” I just described exactly what I was doing as I was doing it. This is a super simple idea that actually works wonders. Not only are you explaining to your toddler what is happening and treating them with respect, you are also reminding yourself of what you are doing and more importantly why you are doing it.
Providing a reason for enforcing rules, and especially using physical interventions, is important. We need to consider whether we are responding to our child’s behaviour with sensible, necessary, and kind behaviours OR if we are just reacting to them out of stress and irritation. Remember that role modelling? What do you want to see your toddler do? Pause, think, respond (and sport cast!).
Number 4 123 Gentle Hands
Another gentle strategy from Davie’s book is to use ‘gentle hands’. I now use this with a count of 3 and Sports Cast at the same time. I know that sounds a lot so let me explain.
When you need to provide hands on support to keep your toddler safe or cope with a time limited situation, it is important that you do so gently and with a warning. Simone Davies from The Montessori Notebook recommends including the ‘gentle hands’ description within your Sports Casting as a reminder to yourself and your child that physical touch needs to be gentle. This is a really nice way of reminding yourself as a parent to respond instead of react. It’s also important to communicate to yourself that hands on parenting is necessary in specific situations and it always carried out with love.
WARN, COUNT, SPORTS CAST – then use your gentle hands
I combine the phrase ‘gentle hands’ with a warning. When my toddler is refusing to do something, like get dressed or put down the ornament, then I warn him with a count of three that I will need to use my gentle hands to help if he doesn’t do it himself. For example:
“Joseph you need to put the ornament down. Okay, I will count to three and then I will use my gentle hands to take the ornament from you. One, two, three. Okay I am using my gentle hands to take the ornament away now.”
Again, this gives me a clear strategy to use in difficult situations so that I can respond instead of react. Are there situations you find more difficult to parent? Does your child’s behaviour challenge you more when it is out in public? Recognising your own stressors and having a pre-prepared script or strategy can really make coping with your toddler’s tantrums much easier.
Number 5 love & comfort
Toddler tantrums aren’t always about wild, happy, reckless play. Sometimes a toddler is simply melting down because their own emotions are overwhelming. In these situations, it’s important to offer comfort even when the answer is no. A screaming, hysterical toddler gasping for breath might recoil at your attempts to cuddle or soothe them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need your comfort. They may just need a moment to feel what they are feeling.
As a parent your job is containment. This means it is your responsibility to be present, witness the emotion and provide calm feedback that will help your child to process their feelings. Next time your child is having a meltdown, don’t rush in right away. Use your Sports Casting method to describe the emotions you are seeing and then tell them you are available when THEY are ready (for a hug, breastfeed, song or whatever the activity is that your child usually prefers).
If there needs to be a teaching moment to explore the situation that has just passed, wait to do this until after your child is recovered. You might even try to find a more creative or positive approach to help your child learn the rule or boundary at another time. To understand why this delay is important, you can read all about the Behaviour Arousal Curve here.
Number 6 BREATHING
Number 6 on my list of gentle parenting strategies to cope with toddler behaviour is Breathing. Breathing techniques are important no matter what age you are. Whether you are struggling with anxiety, coping with chronic pain, or preparing to give birth, breathing techniques can keep you calm, relax your body and refocus your mind.
Teach your toddler to breathe
Teach your toddler deep breathing with this fab YouTube video. My son loves the character Blippi and this episode explores emotions and breathing techniques that help us cope with them. Another great way to teach your toddler breathing techniques is to play ‘blow the candle out’. You can either pretend your hand is a candle with a flame or, if this is unfamiliar, just ask your child to blow your hand away. The goal is simply to get your toddler to take big, deep breaths until they calm down. My wee boy will often say “I feel angry. I need to take deep breathes‘. It’s lovely watching him learn to use skills that I am still perfecting as an adult!
Co-regulation between parent and child
Breathing techniques are important for you too! Not only do they matter because of Role Modelling, but there is a physiological interaction between a parent and their child’s body. It’s been documented that infants use their parent’s bodies to help them regulate their own. So the more relaxed, calm and stress free you are – the calmer your child will be too!
Number 7 KEEP CALM prompts
Breathing techniques aren’t the only activity you can use to teach your toddler to cope with their emotions. That’s why Number 7 on my list of gentle parenting strategies for coping with toddler behaviour is ‘Keep Calm Prompts’. You don’t need anything fancy to make your own Keep Calm Prompts. Just draw a picture and write a few words underneath. Better yet, have your toddler help you draw them! It might be a card that says ‘I keep calm by dancing’ or maybe you could draw a picture of their favourite teddy to cuddle when they feel upset. But if you do prefer a pre-made resource, you can download my FREE Keep Calm Prompt Cards here.
Include the Keep Calm Prompts in your daily routine. You could put them on the wall, use them when you read stories, or set up an activity with the Keep Calm Prompts as the main focus. These fab prompts can be kept around the home as reminders for your toddler about how they can react to their emotions in different situations. Teaching a different, appropriate behaviour to replace the unwanted, challenging behaviour, is called providing a ‘functional alternative’. You can read all about Functional Behaviour Analysis here.
Number 8 emotions flashcards
It’s not just coping strategies that toddlers need to learn, they need to know what emotions are too! Why not help your toddler to learn about their own feelings with these Emotions Flashcards? Toddlers can learn about emotions through play by matching, labelling, rescuing and sorting Emotions Flashcards. Use them to talk about what someone might be feeling, name the emotions, learn the signs and then use that knowledge in your day to day interactions.
How do Emotions Flashcards help?
You can use the Emotions Flashcards to demonstrate how to name the emotion you are feeling. Talk your toddler through how you decide on a technique to cope with the emotion and then Role Model the technique. You can also start to use this information to actively help your toddler through a tantrum or meltdown. Remember the Sports Casting method? Next time your toddler is finding something hard, name the emotion and help them brainstorm what might have caused it. Then you can talk about ways to cope with that emotion. For example:
“You seem frustrated. Do you feel like you can’t do the thing you want to do? That’s frustrating. When I feel frustrated, I make my hands into fists like this. Sometimes I stamp my feet too. Can you do that? Taking deep breaths helps when I feel frustrated too. Do you want to try it? That’s great breathing. I know you are frustrated that you can’t do that, but we can come up with other ideas of things that we can do. Let’s write some of our ideas down.”
You might be surprised that I have encouraged the toddler in the example to stamp their feet and make fists. But actually it’s really helpful to get out pent up energy and avoid more problematic behaviours like hitting. Each parent has to decide for themselves where their boundaries lie. Not everyone finds the same behaviours tolerable and challenging in equal measure. Take some time to brainstorm your own bug bears and decide what you can and can’t tolerate from your own child. You can then make a plan for high risk situations when those behaviours might occur.
Number 9 stories and social skills
You may be getting the idea now that parenting gently, and parenting well, relies on prevention rather than cure. A quick reaction in the heat of the moment will never compare to calm, considered responses and time spent teaching your child the skills they need to navigate the world. That’s why Number 9 on my list of gentle parenting strategies for coping with toddler behaviour is ‘Stories and Social Skills’. Communication is only one social skill. You also need to understand the rules and have the ability to cope with interactions. There are so many great ways to practice these skills with your toddler, but stories are my favourite!
Stories and Social Skills go hand in hand. When you read together, you are having a social interaction. The stories you read are describing social interactions. And the conversations you can have afterwards help your child to develop their understanding even further. Don’t forget the turn taking when your toddler wants to read to you! That’s a social skill too! So why not make a point of focusing on social skills the next time you read a story?
For example, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is one of my son’s favourites. And it’s a great one for focussing on social skills!
- You can ask your child who lives in the house and what belongings do they have?
- You can ask whether Goldilocks is allowed to go into the house?
- What rules do we normally follow when we want to visit someone else’s house?
- You can point out the emotions all of the characters are expressing.
- Talk to your toddler about how you can recognise the emotions, how that must feel for each character and what they do to cope with those feelings.
- Can you come up with another way they might have responded to the situation?
Not only are you focussing on social skills in your activity, but you are also practicing ‘serve and return’ with your own child. This is a two-way interaction that you try and keep going for as long as possible. You will need to help and prompt your toddler, but these practice conversations will help develop their speech and language skills, turn taking abilities and learnt responses.
You can make exploring social skills even more fun by creating a Story Station. This is an area in your home where you place a few items that relate to the story you have been reading. It could be toys, kitchen utensils, fabrics, natural materials from the garden, even clothing! Keep the book nearby and when your child begins to play with the items reinforce the ideas you already learnt together during story time. Emotions flashcards, dolls or even pictures of the characters stuck to wooden blocks can make this kind of play even more exciting!
If there is a particular time when your child is at a higher risk of having a meltdown, why not look for some books that demonstrate how other people have coped with similar emotions. Later when you are responding to your child in that situation, you can refer back and use the character’s behaviour as an example.
Number 10 visuals
Finally, number 10 on my list of gentle parenting strategies for coping with toddler behaviour is Visuals. I have mentioned Visuals already, but I really want to drive the point home. Visual information is particularly salient for young children. Toddlers utilise visual clues before they can make use of a lot of other types of information. Visual aids are also good prompts for adults who are caring for toddlers. It reminds them to stick to a routine, provide information about what is happening that day and most importantly, it can remind them to offer their child a choice.
Why is choice important?
Toddler’s don’t get a lot of control in their day, so offering a choice between two acceptable options is a great way to avoid refusal of what you have chosen for them. Why not offer two choices of t-shirt each morning? Or open the cupboard and ask your toddler to help you choose the cereal they want for breakfast? These kind of techniques are simple, require very little effort and can make the world of difference.
Where do visuals fit in?
When you offer a concrete object that a child can see, you make it easier for them to process the verbal information. You can take this a step further by using visual aids like flashcards, timetables and ‘now and next’ prompt cards. A visual timetable can be as simple or complex as you like. It just needs to detail what is happening that day.
How can I use visual aids with my toddler?
For toddlers it is best to keep it minimal. For example, a morning routine timetable might have three spaces. One for breakfast, one for an activity and then one for a nap. For some children this might be more than enough, but for others they might like reminders at each transition too. In that case, we can use a ‘Now and Next’ prompt. This is an A4 piece of paper that shows what is happening ‘NOW’ and what is happening ‘NEXT‘. You probably already sussed that out though right? Grab my Daily Visuals Bundle for FREE below!
Visuals are super simple but can really improve family communication
Use them out and about by collecting your pictures into a plastic pocket or putting them onto a keyring. Visual aids can help to prevent tantrums as well as calm things down during the meltdown itself. They can help you explain boundaries and remind your child what is expected in each situation. This is helpful if, for example, your toddler doesn’t want to leave the park or a friend’s house. You can remind them visually where they are going and why they can’t stay longer.
Personalise your visual aids
Visuals can also be made into a personalised picture book for difficult situations. I recently made my son a picture book about starting playgroup. It had real photographs of the people he already knows, people he will meet and places he will be going to. For example:
“I am Joseph. I live at home with my Mummy and Daddy. This is my new playgroup. It looks like this on the outside, and like this on the inside. Mummy will drop me off at playgroup and say goodbye. She will pick me up again after I have played with the other boys and girls. If I need help at playgroup, the workers will look after me. They can sing me a song or help me choose a story to read. I am excited to make friends at playgroup.
Visual countdowns to big events can help too. It’s sort of like a reverse advent calendar. Instead of opening number 1 and having 23 days to go. You open number 24 and have 23 sleeps left. I am really passionate about alternative and augmentative styles of communication and I really hope you try some of these ideas with you toddler!
What will you try first?
So there we have it. Ten gentle parenting strategies for coping with toddler behaviour. I know it’s a lot of information to take on in one go, but if you need a handy reminder then don’t forget to grab my Toddler Behaviour Checker here. Do you have a great parenting strategy that wasn’t included in this post? Or perhaps you are really struggling with something and need some fresh ideas? You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our AHWMB Community Group on Facebook where you can connect with other parents too!