10 tips to handle a challenging tot
What to do when your little angel turns into a tantrum-throwing demon? Naomi Reilly (who has lived through the pain) reveals the tactics that really work
Essentially, you have two options when dealing with a child who tends towards the rebellious. Sit it out and wait for things to get better on their own. Or start learning and developing key skills so you can manage your relationship. Realistically, the first option might never happen, but what you stand to gain from the second option is the power to completely transform the dynamics between you and your child. So here goes...
1. Accept your child's personality
Dr Laura Markham, author of Calm Parents, Happy Kids: The Secrets of Stress-free Parenting (£12.99, Vermilion) believes one of the first things you need to do is to accept your child as they are. 'Your baby/toddler has a certain personality, and you can't change that.' she says. 'You can only make things better or worse by how you respond to them.' It's not always easy. Kurcinka confesses that it's especially tough because we often form an image of what our child will be like, and the type of interactions we will have with them, before they're born.
'When the reality is very different from that image, parents may experience a deep sense of loss, and even question why they had a child.' she says. 'It is Ok to grieve. Ultimately however, you will find the joy you hoped for when you open yourself to unearthing who this child is and how she pulls you into experiences you had never imagined before.'
2. When to let it go
My friend Jess is a great believer in not sweating the small stuff with her daughters, aged two and four, and her family seem all the happier for it. If her daughters are intent on wearing fairy dresses to nursery one day, she asks, is that really a problem? And if they only eat half their macaroni cheese at lunch, will they really die of hunger? Of course not.
Dr Markham sees this as a good thing. 'If it doesn't matter to you, why not say yes? Of course, every family needs a few basic rules, such as, "We treat each other with kindness." These are the things to stand firm about – how we treat people.'
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka has a similar outlook. 'If something is unsafe, hurtful or disrespectful to self, others or to the environment, it has to be stopped,' she says. 'When you use this as a guideline, it's easy to know when to step in and redirect behaviour or teach a more appropriate response.'
3. Don't take it so personally
There have been many times when I've taken my daughter's tantrums as a personal attack. Once, when she was kicking and screaming on a street corner because she'd decided she didn't want to wear shoes, I burst into tears because I was convinced she was driven by hatred of me. Of course, she wasn't. She was just being two. But I had a child I loved to the ends of the earth, who wouldn't listen to a word I said, and I found it difficult to keep my emotions in check. Dr Markham puts it plainly, 'Your child isn't doing things to drive you crazy. It's part of a toddler's job description to figure out how things work.'
4. Tap into your child
Getting tots to co-operate may seem impossible, but it can just involve being a bit clever. 'If you have a strong-willed child,' Dr Markham says, 'he'll view it as a compromise to his integrity to do something just because you want him to. He has to choose to want to. If you try to break his will, or get in a power struggle, he'll fight back and get more defiant.'
The worst thing you can do is bully your child into certain behaviour, she says. 'When you feel pushed around, do you feel like co-operating? But if someone figures out a win/win solution, aren't you happy to co-operate?'
5. Laugh together
My friend Clare is having a tough time with her 20-month-old son. 'He gets into rages over the slightest thing,' she says. My advice would be to play on his sense of humour. My daughter finds pig impersonations hilarious, so if I thought she was about to blow up about me cutting her toast in triangles, not squares, I'd do my best oink. As Dr Markham says, 'Laughing releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone, so when you laugh with your child, you're bonding with each other.'
6. Don't be too busy
My most difficult period with my daughter was when she was two and a half and dropping her daytime naps. She was constantly overtired and having meltdowns all over the place. She couldn't keep up with the busy lifestyle we'd grown accustomed to and in the end I realised that dropping her swimming lessons and a few other activities was a better bet all round.
Dr Markham approves of this strategy. 'Babies and toddlers have basic needs,' she says. 'If we don't meet them, we can't expect them to co-operate.' Mary Sheedy Kurcinka agrees, saying, 'Rushing triggers the stress reaction for everyone. Vowing to stop rushing, stay present and not double-task helps us to truly connect and enjoy one another.'
7. Sibling stress
It can be hard to feel you're giving older siblings the attention they deserve when you have a younger tot sapping all your energy. My friend Anna is so concerned about this that she has her mother come once a week, so she can have a few hours alone with her eldest. Ultimately though, Kurcinka believes attention evens out. 'I find that often one child hits a stage of development where they need more parental support,' she says. 'You can let siblings know that whatever needs they have, they will each get what they need too.'
8. Be consistant
Little ones need to know how the land lies; if it changes from one day to the next, expect chaos. 'Children must know they can trust you to do what you say,' Kurcinka says. 'That's why it's important to think before making threats or promises. They must also be able to trust how you'll respond. If one day you blow up because they got their shoes wet, but the next time join them splashing in puddles, it creates anxiety.'
Many parenting manuals put emphasis on everyone acting and reacting in the Dr Markham adds, 'Children like to test for themselves. Some test three times. Some test 100 times. If just one of those times they got what they wanted, they will keep testing.'
9. Be united
Many parenting manuals put emphasis on everyone acting and reacting in the same way around a child. But, says Dr Markham, 'It's not always realistic. Or essential. Children quickly learn that each person is different. However, if the child feels one of their adults is sharp with them, doesn't listen to them, doesn't let them express their needs and feelings, they are not likely to show that person when they are hurting inside.
10. If in doubt, seek help
If you feel stuck with your child, it can be hard to see a way out. What to do if you feel you're not coping? First off, Dr Markham recommends giving yourself as much support as possible so you can stay calm and find ways to reconnect positively with your child. It can be something as simple as a good night's sleep to make you feel more balanced. If this doesn't work, however, then get help. 'If you've had a hard childhood yourself, or if you have an especially challenging child, don't count on things getting better by themselves,' she says. So go to see your GP or health visitor.