Updated: May 31, 2020
Toddlers and early preschoolers are mighty capable little beings with big feelings, big emotions, and a zest of curiosity that often puts them in situations they are not able to navigate entirely on their own with grace. You’ve heard of the “Terrible Twos” and the “Threenager”. There’s a reason this age has been deemed “terrible”, but the good news is toddlers ARE NOT TERRIBLE! They are inquisitive, they are curious, they want to touch, explore, understand, communicate, and guess what?!!? That’s difficult to do when you haven’t quite learned the art of self regulation, impulse control and communicating with words. Toddlers thrive when they are given opportunities to succeed. They thrive when they are given clear boundaries. They are hungry for relationship with others, they just need guidance on how to do that appropriately. It is very common to hear that a toddler has pulled someone’s hair, bitten a classmate, or hit their caregiver. Why? Because, they want to be seen by the other person, they want to interact, they want the attention of another, they want to be in relationship with others. How do we navigate this behavior without punishing and shaming? First of all, these behaviors are not a child being terrible, they are a symptom of a greater need.
It can be very overwhelming when a toddler is interested in something and wants it now! They don’t yet have the tools to hold back on an impulse. They don’t yet have the verbal skills to ask first. They don’t yet have the ability to regulate themselves and their wants. So, we, as their caregivers need to set them up for success. This can be challenging, yes, however it is not impossible. In fact, the more consistent the caregivers in a child’s life can be, the more successful the child will become with navigating these challenging behaviors.
To begin with, a child needs to learn some basic skills to be able to self regulate. We as the adults in their life can teach simple statements that can work in most scenarios. For example, when a child wants a toy that another child is playing with, we can say, “busy” and “space please”. The idea is that the children then learn how to communicate with simple phrases on their own, while also learning that they don’t just get what they want, when they want it, because they want it. If the child does grab the toy and take it from another child, you simply and calmly, say, “Oh, I can see that toy is busy, give space please.” Then you can let them know that they can be next and offer something else while they wait. Once the other child is done with the toy, encourage them to offer it to the child that has been waiting. Always, circle back to celebrate the child’s patience and in the end, they get the toy they wanted while learning how to navigate the want with patience and grace.
Should the unthinkable happen, and a child is hurt by a bite or grabbing with force, of course immediately console the injured child, but the child who did the hurting needs to calmly be removed from the situation, told that hurting is not ok with a firm voice and reminded that teeth are for eating food or we keep our hands to our own bodies. Focusing on the positive ways we use our teeth or hands shifts the focus away from the unwanted behavior. Then, redirect the child and engage them with a different activity whilst keeping a close eye on them. Once a child has shown a behavior that is not okay, the adults need to shadow closely in order to intercede any further behavior. This is where you then start using the language described above. Now you can teach in the moments before anything happens and begin to avoid the negative behavior in the future.