How to deal with temperamental and aggressive toddler behaviour

Our health visitor answers your questions about stressful toddler behaviour

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Does your toddler ignore what you say?

1) He refuses to behave

Q. My 3 year old won’t do anything I ask, which means continual stress for me, and tantrums from him. Can we break the cycle?

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A. Definitely! Try moving the focus away from getting him to comply for a while and instead have a think about how you spend time together. Write a list of three things you like about your child and two things you enjoy doing together. Whatever you find, build it in to your day, as often as possible

Next, have a think about how you communicate in general. Are your expectations reasonable? Tidying up messy toys is daunting for a 3 year old so try doing it together. Do you ask or tell him what to do? If you say, “Can you come here?” he has the option to say “No!”. “Come here, please” is more assertive and effective. Offer a choice if it’s feasible, e.g. “Time to go – who will open the door, you or me?”, and be clear about consequences, e.g. “Stop throwing the toy. If you don’t it will go away for the day,” and follow through.

2) Can I cure his grumpiness?

Q. My 2 year old whines and moans all the time, it seems nothing I do is right! How can I cheer him up?

A. First of all, you need to realise this isn’t a case of ‘cheering him up’ – it’s his behaviour, not his personality, so it is something you can address. Try these steps:

Keep a diary, noting what’s happening before the moaning starts. You’ll soon notice a pattern and can then begin to make gradual changes to his routine and your own behaviour.

Ignoring his moaning is the best way to reduce the severity of it. Remember to be consistent. If you say ‘No’, mean it. Otherwise he’ll learn that whining persuades you to change your mind.

Give plenty of praise when he doesn’t moan, saying things like ‘That was a nice voice!’ so he associates attention with positive behaviour.

3) How can I stop my child using and picking up bad language?

Q. My friend’s child uses bad language, which my 3 year old is now copying. Any tips on tackling my child and maybe my friend?

A. Most tots catch on quickly that using certain words gets a quick and interesting response from grown ups. They have no understanding that swear words are wrong, initially.

The best way to deal with bad language is to ignore it. So no raised eyebrows, intake of breath or stopping what you’re doing. This is easier said than done in certain company, but often a discreet word with visitors in advance to explain your strategy will help prepare them for slip-ups your toddler may make, and, more importantly, get them to ignore the behaviour too. Keep a family rule of no bad language so you limit as far as possible words you don’t want repeated.

Gently raising the subject with your friend, from the angle that you both have a problem, and taking a consistent approach to managing it for both children, will probably be most effective.

If you both have a no-swearing policy, and ignore any attempts by them, the children will quickly get bored and stop.

4) My toddler does the opposite of what I say – what can I do?

Q. My 3 year old continually does the opposite of what I say. I dread each day – how can we get along better?

A. Start by speaking to your health visitor and family and friends about how you’re feeling. It’s best not to keep things bottled up. Then focus on the things that go well for you and your child and include some of these every day. For example, bath time, reading together, having an ice cream.

Remind yourself of what you love about your son by making a list of the ways he makes you happy – and tell him. Also, giving him some choice in his daily routine may make him less likely to challenge other things. But keep them simple; for example, ‘This book or that one.’

You can help by bringing in clear and consistent boundaries about acceptable behaviour, but make sure any consequences are imposed.

5) My toddler makes herself sick by tantrum crying 

Q. My three year old is a highly strung character. Recently when she can’t get her own way she cries to the point of making herself sick. I find it really upsetting. What can we do?

A. Three year olds experience life with huge passion. Everything is either great fun or unbearably unfair. Your little one wears her heart on her sleeve and it’s one of parenting’s joys and one of its challenges. She’ll learn in time to control her reactions and responses, but in the meantime, she’ll have a period of overwhelming frustration when things don’t go her way. When she’s feeling out of control, it’s essential you stay calm. This will help her regulate her emotions and feel secure. If you can see an event getting out of control, try to head it off early. Distract her by moving to a new room, suggest a run outside or a different activity. Do something unpredictable and funny – sing, do a funny walk, anything to break the usual sequence of events.

If she does become upset, avoid paying too much attention. If she’s sick, make no comment, quietly clear it up, and distract her to something new. The less fuss made about this behaviour the less it will happen.

6) Biting problem

Q. My daughter’s developed a bit of a taste for biting. How can we stop her?

A. Biting is a common response for some toddlers who are overwhelmed and frustrated. Negotiating friendships demands a huge range of skills, like the ability to listen, share and take turns, and these are times when your tot probably feels things get out of control and biting often brings attention, even if it’s negative.

Stay close to your daughter when she’s playing with others so you can learn how to spot her triggers of frustration. These can include facial features and body language changing and her tone of voice rising, that show you when it’s time to step in before she bites. If she does lash out, immediately focus on the victim first and then on your daughter, with a firm, “Biting is not allowed, it hurts.”

7) How can I stop my child lying?

Q. My 3 year old is always exaggerating and fibbing. How can I stop this behaviour?

A. First, assess if he’s just using his imagination or whether he’s actually avoiding telling the truth. Your son’s imagination is developing rapidly, so declaring he’s just been to the moon is partly what he’d like to have done, and in his mind may well be feasible.

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If you know he’s fibbing about spilling something, for example, try to avoid over-reacting or apportioning blame. This will encourage truth-telling. Stay calm and keep things low key.

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