The art of negotiating with a stubborn toddler

Dealing with a toddler can be tricky at times. There is a lot going on developmentally at this age including things like separation anxiety, which can cause them to be a little more stubborn or difficult than when they were babies. If it’s been a pretty easy going baby’s then this can be a shock to the system!

When toddlers have these developmental changes, sleep is one of the things that can be affected negatively. So, you may have had a child who was sleeping brilliantly but suddenly they need you with them when they go off to sleep. They may also start waking overnight and coming to find you or yelling out for you.

Changes in sleep and behaviour are big indicators that something BIG is going on in your toddler’s brain and we need to understand that this can be extremely overwhelming for little ones, so rather than be cross or angry with them, try to be empathetic to what they are experiencing.

By nature, toddlers are inquisitive, active and designed to push back. They are exploring their world and this can be exciting but also sometimes overwhelming to them. We need to support and guide them through this time with effective methods of setting boundaries and discipline while allowing them to develop a sense of themselves. This helps create independence and security.

As I mentioned, all these changes can mean your toddler might become tricky at bedtime as they can have some increased separation anxiety. They might ask you to stay with them when falling asleep and then call out for you when they wake overnight.

Here are my 5 best tips to help deal with sleep disturbances.

  • Ensure you have a good ritual around bedtime
  • Toddlers need lots of good deep sleep so they need to be asleep by 7/7.30pm at the latest.
  • Rather than sit with them till they are asleep, go in and out reassuring them that you will be back. Say something like “I am just going out to prepare dinner, I will be back in 5 minutes to check on you.”
  • Use a night light.
  • Give your toddler a comforter and include that in the bedtime ritual.

As well as sleep time, meal times can become a battle ground with toddlers as they start to decide what they do and don’t like. Try not to fight or turn it into a huge production. Remember toddlers are on the go all the time and so they can eat on the run. They also can eat non-stop one day and then nothing the next. That is normal. Trust that they will know what they need.

Here are my 7 tips to help you get through mealtimes without tears!

  • Keep mealtimes to 30 minutes
  • Don’t offer too much choice as your child will be confused.
  • Ensure they know that this is all there is once the meal is served.
  • Don’t make dessert a reward, it should just be part of the meal.
  • Vegetables should be on the plate every day.
  • Ask that they taste new foods, just once.
  • Try and make mealtimes before your child gets too tired.

Toddlerhood is the age of tantrums and telling you “NO!” When dealing with a stubborn toddler, try not to take this behaviour personally. Your child is discovering themselves as little individuals, separate from you, so they are just testing out ways of being independent.

Here are my 6 tips to help you navigate this trying phase, but remember it is okay to have boundaries and for them to not like you for that moment!

  • Always use positive language when you’re asking them not to do something this puts the focus on what you DO want them to do and takes the focus off the thing that you don’t want them to do.
  • ‘No’ is an overused word that doesn’t give the child much information. It’s better to tell them what you do want to do, or if there is immediate danger, a better word is “stop” because it gives them information about what you want them to do.
  • Always speak calmly to your child when correcting them or asking them to do something. This shows them you are in-charge and confidant.
  • Try not to lecture – you child will switch-off after the first minute. Be matter-of-fact: “I won’t let you do that. If you throw that again, I will take it away”
  • Natural consequences: A toddler learns discipline best when he experiences natural consequences for his behaviour, rather than a disconnected punishment like time-out. If a child throws food, mealtime is over. If a child refuses to get dressed, we don’t go to the park today. These parental responses appeal to your child’s sense of fairness.
  • Personally, I think that smacking is counterproductive because it teaches children that hitting is ok, particularly if you’re angry, and that if you’re bigger and stronger, then you can use force to solve a problem. At the end of the day, we want our kids to use alternative strategies when they have a problem and so we need to model this for them.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.