Toddlers are adorable, hilarious and can be so sweet. So why is it that they get such a bad wrap? They're also strong-willed, resist anyone trying to control them and can throw the most epic tantrums (almost as if they don't care that everyone in the grocery store is staring at you).
These tantrums are frequently about the basics—they're hungry, tired or sick, but are unable to identify, much less express, what they need at that moment.
If those basic needs are met, though, tantrums are often about control. Making some simple tweaks to your home can give your child more of a sense of control and autonomy that can extend away from home.
This takes some time up front, but so much less time and energy than daily power struggles and the resulting tantrums.
Here are some simple home changes to try.
1. Place two outfit choices on a low closet shelf
Getting dressed is a common trigger for tantrums. This is sometimes because a child feels rushed or senses that the parent wants them to get dressed quickly, so naturally, they take as long as possible, questioning and fighting each step of the process.
Tantrums also arise around getting dressed though because toddlers want to feel a sense of choice and autonomy around their bodies, and this includes what they wear. However, allowing your child to fully select their own outfit each morning through could take forever. Instead, set up a low shelf in his closet where you place two outfit choices the night before.
Explain that they can always choose from these selections, but if they refuse to choose, you'll have to help. Limited choice gives toddlers a sense of empowerment, without being overwhelming. Placing the choices in the same place each day helps your little one understand the limits around the process.
2. Create a guide for routines
Power struggles sometimes arise because toddlers are simply tired of being told what to do. No one likes feeling bossed around, but this is a problem when we need our young children to complete basic tasks in order for our lives and family to function.
Try creating a picture guide for your basic daily routines, perhaps one for getting ready for school and one for getting ready for bed. Take a photo representing each step that needs to happen, from getting dressed to brushing teeth.
Explain the guide and show your child how to use it a few times. Then, when they're stalling, direct them to the guide, saying something like, "Hmm, you seem stuck. Let's go check your picture guide to see what needs to happen next."
This creates the sense that you're working together toward a common goal, rather than continually asking your child to do what you want.
3. Have cleaning supplies readily accessible
Toddlers come with lots of messes. Part of this is because they aren't fully coordinated yet and tend to create a lot of spills, and partly because they are still in the depths of sensory exploration and are truly curious as to what will happen if they cover their bodies in paint or dump their cheerios on the floor. What will it sound like? How far will the spill go?
While this is a natural part of toddlerhood, it is also reasonable to expect your toddler to participate in the cleanup process.
Instead of getting mad that you have to clean up yet another spill, tell your toddler what you observed, and direct them to their own cleaning supplies, which could be kept on a shelf in the kitchen, in their room or in a closet that they know how to open.
You might say, "I see lots of paint on the floor. Are you going to use your mop or your spray bottle and towel to clean it up?" They will still need help with the mess but will be much more likely to participate in the clean up if they feel some ownership over the process and supplies.
4. Place their own dishes on a low kitchen shelf
Get rid of the battle over which cup they get for milk once and for all by putting the dishes where your child can reach them. If you have space, designate a low shelf or drawer in the kitchen to hold their plates, cups and napkins. If they have quite a few dishes, put a manageable selection on the shelf.
Ask them to choose their own dishes and bring them to their spot at the table. Then, ask for help to empty the dishwasher and put their own dishes away on the shelf.
Taking yourself out of the equation can be a powerful way to mitigate power struggles and this can often be done by simply putting the things your child needs within their reach.
5. Provide fewer toys, each with a clear place
When toys shift from teethers and rattles to baskets of blocks with so many pieces, the mess can get a little out of control and parents can become frustrated picking up the same toys each day.
It's reasonable, and beneficial, to expect your toddler to help pick up their own things, but this can only be successful if there is a clear sense of order they can follow. If they are struggling to clean up, try cutting back on the toys in their room. Put some away in a closet and rotate them every month or so.
Make sure everything has a clear place where it belongs, then model putting things away each and every time they're done playing with them.
You may ask them to help you or you could let them watch as you clean up. Either way, they will get used to the lack of chaos, become accustomed to how their room looks and feels when everything is in its place, and will soon follow your lead.
Consider other solutions
Montessori wrote a lot about how you can't change the child, but you can change the environment. These simple tweaks can make any home more toddler-friendly, but you can also apply this same principle to your unique situation.
Take some time to think about the most common power struggles in your home. When are the tantrums occurring?
Is it when you need to make dinner and desperately want your toddler to entertain themselves?
Try setting up a little table by the kitchen where they can play next to you and save certain fun activities, like play dough or stickers, that only come out when you're working in the kitchen.
Is it when it's time for a nap, but they just needs one more book?
Try designating a special spot like a comfy pillow where you sit together to read books—the same number each day. Lay out the books on the pillow ahead of time so the limit is very clear.
Is it when you finally convinced them to get in the bathtub and now they refuse to get out?
Use a set of visual cues each night when the end of bath time is near. Lay out a towel on the bath mat, let the water start to drain. Set out the bottle of lotion you'll put on when they're dry. These steps give them a warning that bath time is almost over.
No matter what the power struggle or tantrum is about, it is always worth looking at your home environment to determine if there's anything you can tweak to make things easier, for both you and your toddler. Often really small changes can lead to a much more peaceful day with your little one.