I’d done everything in my power to stave off a toddler meltdown. Both my young boys had been well-fed. I’d planned the outing well before naptime. I’d even let them run around outside to help them burn off extra energy. Despite all my efforts, it still happened: a massive toddler meltdown in the middle of the grocery store.
Sometimes toddlers will act out. No matter how proactive and positive you are, your little one will look right at you and do the exact opposite of what’s appropriate. Here is how I have responded:
Label the behavior, not the child. Step in immediately and use short, simple words to identify the defiant behavior. Avoid saying things like, “What a bad boy!” or “You should have known better.” Yes, your child likely should’ve known better, but he didn’t choose to act better. So identify the specific decision.
For example, my youngest son had a difficult time learning not to spit when he was angry. Time and time again, I would tell him, “Spitting is rude and spreads germs. I know you can make a better choice.” These words clearly identified the behavior as bad, concisely explained why and reassured him that I had faith in him. Even though he was making a poor choice at the time, I was confident that in the future he would make a better one.
Let the punishment fit the crime. Children, especially little children, are concrete thinkers. You can encourage better choices for your child if you ensure that the consequences directly relate to the act of disobedience. Did your child sneak a treat when he shouldn’t have? Explain that he won’t get dessert at lunch. Did your child keep a toy to herself after you asked her to share it? Take the toy and explain that she will have to show that she can share her other toys before she earns this one back.
Let natural consequences be the teacher. My toddler refused to listen when I said it was too cold outside to wear his favorite shorts. He even thought he was fooling me when he quickly pulled his winter coat across his body. I had the time to let the consequences play themselves out and prompt him to toward a better decision. Needless to say, we hadn’t even reached the car before he recognized his poor choice. His defiance had given him cold legs.
The key to natural consequences for young children is to let them experience the results of their choice firsthand. But once realized, you can provide an opportunity for your toddler to immediately correct and change his behavior. In my son’s case, it only took about two minutes for him to realize what he needed, and when we returned for a change to pants, he also learned that it’s OK to stop and make a better choice.
Consistently hold your child responsible for his actions. Your child may kick and scream. He may call you names. There may even be times that you have to abandon a half-full shopping cart and leave a store immediately. But remember that your child’s bad behavior is not your bad behavior so commit to being consistent despite your child’s reaction. When he is disobedient, he has made a choice. Though you would like something better for him, your job is to help him see the error of his ways so that in the future he understands how to make better choices.