Menu

Toddler acting up? Relax, mama—she’s normal

The early years are about teaching, not punishing.

Toddler acting up? Relax, mama—she’s normal

Your two-year-old refuses to share his toy with your friend’s child. He snatches back his Thomas train. You are embarrassed, he get’s a time out and you ask him to apologize. He then throws a full-fledged tantrum, complete with loud crying and kicking the wall. Now he’s really in trouble. But—were your original expectations fair?


According to a recently published survey of parents of young children conducted by ZERO TO THREE and the Bezos Family Foundation, the answer is no. The study reveals there is a sizable expectation gap between what child development experts know to be true and what parents assume their very young children can do. And the consequence is great frustration for parents and too much punishment for children.

FEATURED VIDEO

Sharing

Many parents and even some preschool educators often have unrealistic expectations that young children should be able to share and take turns. As an early childhood educator, I often observed a negotiation that goes something like this. The adult tells the child she may use the toy for a certain amount of time (often, a timer is used) and then she must “share” and give another child a turn.

The most common result is for the child to refuse to relinquish the toy when time is up, followed by tears and consequences. For this reason, early childhood programs have multiple copies of the same toy in their youngest classrooms.

Because 43 percent of parents think children can share and take turns with other children before age two, however, many of young children are punished or labeled as selfish. In fact, this skill develops between 3 to 4 years, so what is interpreted as bad behavior is really a matter of development.

Impulse control

As a preschool director, I often talked to parents who were angry with their little ones for not following rules. Some tried positive reinforcement techniques like sticker charts or resorted to bribes. Unfortunately, most relied on some form of punishment, most commonly putting their children in time outs for infractions. To their dismay, their children often repeatedly broke the rules regardless of the parents’ disciplinary technique and warnings.

Brain science research teaches that for children under age three, it is developmentally appropriate for them to be unable to control their impulses. Yet 56 percent of parents believe two-to-three year olds are being defiant when they break rules, and 36 percent believe this to be true for their children under age two. The truth is that children just start to develop the ability to control their impulses between 3.5 to 4 years, without it being consistent until much later.

Controlling emotions

Crying and tantrums drive most parents up the wall. This often leads to lectures, yelling and punishment such as the traditional time out. While leaving a child alone in a safe environment until he calms down may work, tantrums often happens in public where there is no place to do this. Becoming angry in this state is like pouring fuel on the fire.

What parents often don’t understand is that it is unrealistic to expect children younger than 3.5 to 4 years old to control their emotions. 24 percent of all parents of one-year-olds believe that children have the capacity to control their emotions, and 42 percent of parents believe their children should have this ability by two years. Thus, according to the survey, the majority of parents of very young children think they should not have tantrums and emotional outbursts. Once again, I suspect many kids are punished for something they can’t control.

Assume most parents love their children

According to the study, the good news is that most parents (91 percent), regardless of race, ethnicity, income and education level, believe their children are their greatest joy. They think they are adequate parents but also want to improve their parenting skills. The parents surveyed felt if they knew more about child development and appropriate expectations, they would be better parents. They wished they had more positive parenting strategies in their arsenal. And they understood the importance of the first five years of life.

The majority of those surveyed are really “good enough” parents, but they shared these important goals for improving their parenting skills—

—Manage their own emotions as a model for their children

—Have more patience

—Not losing their temper or yelling at their kids

In order to achieve these goals, there needs to be a greater understanding of how expectations are often at odds with developmental ability. Perhaps this disconnect between what we want children to do and what they are actually capable of is fueled by the growing expectations we as a society have for very young children. The increasingly academic orientation of our early childhood and lower elementary classrooms is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Matthew Melmed, Executive Director of ZERO TO THREE and an internationally recognized expert on and advocate for the health and development of infants and toddlers, has some words of wisdom for parents struggling with their expectations for their young children—

“The early years are about teaching, not punishing. When parents have realistic expectations about their child’s capabilities, they can guide behavior in very sensitive and effective ways.”


A version of this article was originally published on Huffington Post.

Join Motherly

In This Article

    These challenges from Nike PLAYlist are exactly what my child needs to stay active

    Plus a fall family bucket list to keep everyone moving all season long.

    While it's hard to name anything that the pandemic hasn't affected, one thing that is constantly on my mind is how to keep my family active despite spending more time indoors. Normally, this time of year would be spent at dance and gymnastics lessons, meeting up with friends for games and field trips, and long afternoon playdates where we can all let off a little steam. Instead, we find ourselves inside more often than ever before—and facing down a long winter of a lot more of the same.

    I started to search for an outlet that would get my girls moving safely while we social distance, but at first I didn't find a lot of solutions. Online videos either weren't terribly engaging for my active kids, or the messaging wasn't as positive around the power of movement as I would like. Then I found the Nike PLAYlist.

    I always knew that Nike could get me moving, but I was so impressed to discover this simple resource for parents. PLAYlist is an episodic sports show on YouTube that's made for kids and designed to teach them the power of expressing themselves through movement. The enthusiastic kid hosts immediately captured my daughter's attention, and I love how the physical activity is organically incorporated in fun activities without ever being specifically called out as anything other than play. For example, this segment where the kids turn yoga into a game of Paper Scissors Rock? Totally genius. The challenges from #TheReplays even get my husband and me moving more when our daughter turns it into a friendly family competition. (Plus, I love the play-inspired sportswear made just for kids!)

    My daughter loves the simple Shake Ups at the beginning of the episode and is usually hopping off the couch to jump, dance and play within seconds. One of her favorites is this Sock Flinger Shake Up activity from the Nike PLAYlist that's easy for me to get in on too. Even after we've put away the tablet, the show inspires her to create her own challenges throughout the day.

    The best part? The episodes are all under 5 minutes, so they're easy to sprinkle throughout the day whenever we need to work out some wiggles (without adding a lot of screen time to our schedule).

    Whether you're looking for simple alternatives to P.E. and sports or simply need fun ways to help your child burn off energy after a day of socially distanced school, Nike's PLAYlist is a fun, kid-friendly way to get everyone moving.

    Need more movement inspiration for fall? Here are 5 ways my family is getting up and getting active this season:

    1. Go apple picking.

    Truly, it doesn't really feel like fall until we've picked our first apple. (Or had our first bite of apple cider donut!) Need to burn off that extra cinnamon-sugar energy? Declare a quick relay race up the orchard aisle—winner gets first to pick of apples at home.

    To wear: These Printed Training Tights are perfect for when even a casual walk turns into a race (and they help my daughter scurry up a branch for the big apples).

    2. Visit a pumpkin patch.

    We love to pick up a few locally grown pumpkins to decorate or cook with each year. Challenge your child to a "strongman" contest and see who can lift the heaviest pumpkin while you're there.

    To wear: Suit up your little one in comfort with this Baby Full Zip Coverall so you're ready for whatever adventures the day brings.

    3. Have a nature scavenger hunt.

    Scavenger hunts are one of my favorite ways to keep my daughter preoccupied all year long. We love to get outside and search for acorns, leaves and pinecones as part of our homeschool, but it's also just a great way to get her exercising those gross motor skills whenever the wiggles start to build up.

    To wear: It's not truly fall until you break out a hoodie. This cozy Therma Elite Kids Hoodie features a mesh overlay to release heat while your child plays.

    4. Have a touch-football game.

    Tip for parents with very little kids: It doesn't have to last as long as a real football game. 😂 In fact, staging our own mini-games is one of our favorite ways to get everyone up and moving in between quarters during Sunday football, and I promise we all sleep better that night.

    To wear: From impromptu games of tag to running through our favorite trails, these kids' Nike Air Zoom Speed running shoes are made to cover ground all season long.

    5. Create an indoor obstacle course.

    Pretending the floor is lava was just the beginning. See how elaborate your personal course can get, from jumping on the couch to rolling under the coffee table to hopping down the hallway on one foot.

    To wear: These ready-for-any-activity Dri-FIT Tempo Shorts are perfect for crawling, hopping and racing—and cuddling up when it's time to rest.

    This article was sponsored by Nike. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

    Our Partners

    Here are the self-care items you desperately need right now

    Self care is not enough, but with the news, the ongoing pandemic and just life, it can't hurt to self-pamper to make the world feel less heavy.

    @stefiakti/Twenty20

    This week has felt like a month. Between the debate, Chrissy Teigen's heartbreaking news and now with President Trump tweeting that he and Melania have tested positive for COVID-19 it's hard to not feel overwhelmed. On top of that, we are still in a never ending historical pandemic, people are still losing their jobs and moms, well, we are at the end of our rope.

    Yes, motherhood is political, and no, self care is not enough to fix burn out, but if all you need right now is to turn off your phone and cozy up to a soft blanket because you've had enough, I hear you. Hard same. So we picked some stuff for you to buy and pamper yourself. No regrets, we all deserve some self-love right now.

    Here are things that will make you feel hugged:

    Keep reading Show less
    Shop

    If the feeling you get when you snuggle a baby could be bottled and sold, this world would probably be a better place—research basically proves. Between the way those snuggles release heartwarming oxytocin to the benefits they have on babies’ growing brains, let’s all agree there really is no such thing as loving on your baby too much.

    Keep reading Show less
    News