How to deal with toddler misbehaviour

From telling lies and tantrums to saying no, being gross and being tactless, here's how solve those toddler misbehaviour issues and keep your sanity intact.

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messy toddler

But with a toddler bereft of much of that understanding, how do you deal with the offending behaviour?

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When your toddler’s telling lies

Lying is normal behaviour in younger children because the boundaries between fantasy and reality aren’t so clear. So how should you respond?

1. Look at the funny side.
There usually is one. “I didn’t mess my room up, it was Polly,” said my youngest, Henry, aged 2. Polly’s our cat and, clever though she is, she can’t trash a bedroom.

2. Point out that it’s unacceptable.
You need to be careful though, because a child can’t tell the difference between you saying to your plump friend, “No, of course you don’t look fat,” and little Jack saying, “I didn’t eat any chocolate,” when he’s covered in it from head to foot. White lies are too subtle for a child to understand, so use them with care.

When your toddler’s being tactless

“I hate you, mummy,” is what your toddler might say when she’s angry, simply because it’s the worst thing she can think of to express her anger. But she doesn’t really mean it; she’s just annoyed with you for that split second. Toddlers have a limited capacity for empathising with or anticipating other people’s feelings.

Learning how to be tactful comes with age and although there are certainly times when children can innocently offend, there are also moments when you know beyond a shadow of doubt that your little one is out to get you.

Ruth, mum to Lauren, 4, had one such experience. “My mother-in-law wears a wig and I confess that I have, on occasion, called her ‘Wiggy’ behind her back. Unfortunately, Lauren must have overheard because the next time we were all sitting at the dinner table, she piped up with, ‘Granny, did you know that mummy calls you Wiggy?’ I suppose the moral of that story is never slag off your relations unless you’re in a soundproof room!”

As for dealing with it, there are two core strategies:

1. Ignore the remarks.
In the hope that your toddler won’t register their impact so won’t waste her breath next time.

2. Take her to one side.
Remind her of how she feels when someone is rude to her, preferably using a real and recent example. It will sink in eventually.

Toddler perversity

Hands up anyone who can say, “Cross my heart and hope to die, I never, ever pick my nose.” Anyone? So let’s not confuse our children! What we need to do is teach them when behaviours are acceptable or appropriate.

1. Use a funny example to illustrate your point.
Your toddler wouldn’t pick her nose when she’s about to choose a slice of cake off Aunt Sandra’s tea tray, for example – would she?

2. Try reverse psychology.
Do this to counter that ‘contrary trait’ so many young children possess. You could try, “I want to see that finger up that nose right now.” You can see how it works in principle, but accept it’s a high-risk strategy that will sometimes backfire.

3. Bribery!
This isn’t to be used regularly but makes your toddler realise there are consequences and trade-offs for her actions. One tactic that works for me is to say, “If you’re to continue doing that, you won’t be getting any pudding” – on the grounds that she’s already eaten! From then on, if the offender were to be spotted, the finger would be withdrawn in haste.

Your toddler’s refusals

“Shan’t” runs a close second to “no” in many children’s vocabulary, whether it’s a refusal to wear a hat, leave the park or go to bed. My friend, Cathy, recalls one summer’s day when her 3-year-old refused to come inside unless her pet worms could come too. “No way was that happening, so she sat in the garden all afternoon and eventually fell asleep,” says Cathy. “When she woke up, the worms had gone.”

Protest is an early and crude form of self-assertiveness. Again, it’s just that your toddler needs to learn to apply it in appropriate measures and at suitable times. It’s not always that easy but the following can help:

1. Avoid making an issue unless it’s really important.
If your toddler wants to go shopping in a Batman outfit and sparkly slippers, why not just go along with it?

2. Choose your battles.
This applies to conflicts throughout your child’s (and eventually teenager’s) life, so it’s a principle worth mastering.

Your toddler’s tantrums

There are three things worth remembering about tantrums that will help you cope:

1. Anyone watching will be full of sympathy and understanding
And if they’re not, then they should be!

2. Don’t think of your child as a screaming heap of embarrassment
Think of her as a spirited, lively individual with bags of personality and a mind of her own. Imagine the opposite – a placid, unimaginative, lethargic conformist – how unnatural! It will help you to deal with her as a person rather than a behavioural problem.

3. Stand strong in the face of blackmail.
That’s what a tantrum is. Unsophisticated it might be, but it tugs and strains on your raw emotions, often when you’re tired and vulnerable too. So the temptation to give in is huge. Don’t – or the demands will continue and probably escalate. Remember that revenge is a dish best served cold, so make a mental note and store it away to use to embarrass your child at some later date – such as the first time she brings her boyfriend round for tea, or during a speech at her wedding!

All in all, remember that your toddler isn’t behaving unacceptably out of pure defiance, perversity or obstinacy. She’s an innocent too.

Mums’ stories

“When my little boy, Harry, was being toilet trained, he refused to do a poo in his potty. But unfortunately he also started refusing to poo in his nappy. My husband and I took it in turns to do ‘poo’ patrol, searching behind the settee, on the stairs – even in the toy box. A sort of follow-your-nose, treasure hunt!”
Nicky, mum to Harry, now 4.

“When my son, Sam, was 3, Muriel, our neighbour, gave him some money, so we went round to say thank you. At this particular time, bottom humour was a big thing and I made a point of telling him he mustn’t say anything rude in front of Muriel. Sam was beautifully behaved and polite. When it was time to go Muriel said, ‘And what are you going to do this afternoon, Sam?’ to which he replied, ‘I’m going to sit on Mummy’s knee and do lots of farting.”
Caroline, mum to Sam, nearly 4.

“It was Georgina’s first day at playschool and as were driving there in the morning, I heard a little voice at the back of the car singing, ‘White is shite’, ‘White is shite’. She must have liked saying it because it rhymed. I told her not to sing it any more because it was rude – big mistake! She refused to stop, and as I was already late for work, I had to drop her at playschool, apologise profusely and make a run for it!”
Joanne, mum to Georgina, now 10.

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“We were in a pub having dinner when I noticed Cooper’s hand was down his pants. Before I could ask him to remove it, he looked up with a big grin on his face and boomed: ‘HEY MUM! My willy feels red hot. Like LAVA!’ Of course it was the exact moment that everyone fell silent. There was nothing for it but to laugh! Needless to say, I’ll continue to dine out on this story for some time.”
Mara, mum to Cooper, 5, and Jayna, 7.

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