Who’s the boss – you or your toddler?

Is it you or your toddler who rules the roost? If you feel you’re constantly battling to be in charge, don’t worry, you’re not alone

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Toddlers are a lethal mix of cute and headstrong. We want to please them and take care of them, but show any signs of weakness and they’ll take over the house.

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As Julia Hames, of BBC Online’s Mum’s The Word writes, ‘The thing about a toddler, or mine at least, is that in many ways he knows he’s the boss. He knows that if he cries at night I’ll be there like a rocket, albeit a bleary-eyed one. He’s aware that if he wants a cuddle, I’ll be there with arms outstretched.’ Of course we’re all happy to respond to cries, but it’s when their demands and behaviour become unreasonable that something needs to be done.

Role reversal

Once your toddler believes she’s the boss, it’s easy to start accepting it. But, according to Ros Jay, author of Kids & Co: Winning Business Tactics For Every Family , if you get the roles wrong at this early age it’s much harder to correct later on.

Jenny, 29, says her family literally has to tiptoe around 2-year-old Thomas: ‘If we give him a cup of juice, he’ll throw it across the room because he wants a bottle. If we move his plate a centimetre from the edge of the table, he’ll get upset and refuse to eat. We find ourselves automatically avoiding situations that may cause Thomas to “kick off”.’

Guilty as charged!

But why are we giving our children so much power? Parenting coach and founder of coachingmums.co.uk, Amanda Alexander, believes an overload of information may be responsible. ‘Advice can be great, but we sometimes forget that what works for one child may not work for another, and also that we know our own children best,’ she says. Amanda thinks guilt is the other big culprit, ‘We spend a lot of time feeling guilty – whether it’s about going out to work, not going to work, or a host of other issues – and then try to make up for it.’

Eat! Sleep! Please!

For most families the problems seem to centre on those two old favourites: eating and sleeping.Kerry, 34, says her 3-year-old, Becky, has always been a fussy eater. ‘If I try to give her the same meal as the rest of the family, she acts like she’s about to throw up. So I end up making her something she does like, usually chips.’

Angel, 23, has a similar problem. ‘I try not to give Leah, 2, processed food but all she ever asks for is chips,’ she explains. ‘I find myself giving in and cooking fish fingers, chips and sweetcorn for her every night.’ Leah also refuses to sleep in her bed. ‘Most of the time I admit defeat and let her sleep with me or I end up falling asleep in her room with her. I’ve been known to go to bed with her at 8.30pm to get her to sleep.’

Research shows that it takes parents today around 56 minutes to get their children off to sleep in the evening – double the time it took our own mums and dads. Around seven in 10 mums take their baby into their own bed. The average new mum gets three-and-a-half hours sleep each night, compared with the five hours our mothers enjoyed.

Zoe’s 16-month-old, Hayden, is happy in his bed at night, but not in the day. ‘I have to take him out in the car or pushchair,’ Zoe says. ‘He’s very specific about what time he needs a sleep and I have to drop everything and take him out or he gets crabby.’

Natalie’s son, Dylon-Thomas, who is 21 months, has never slept in his own bed. Natalie, 22, says, ‘We had to get him a bed when he started climbing out of his cot at 13 months, but he refuses to go near it. Instead he takes up most of our bed.’

‘If we try putting him down in his bed he screams, cries, throws things, bites – you name it. In the past he’s been up until 2am. By that time I’m so exhausted, I just give in. Both my partner and I work full-time so having him in bed with us seems like the easiest thing to do if we want to get any sleep at all.’

Giving in

According to Amanda, giving in is a major part of the problem. ‘A lot of parents say “no” nine times then, by the 10th time, they’re so tired they say “yes”. This is a crucial mistake, because one of the key things with a toddler is consistent boundaries.’

Ros agrees. ‘Toddlers test the boundaries not because they want to make your life hell, but because they are establishing their own identity, learning where you stop and they start,’ she says. ‘It’s important that the boundaries stay the same in order for the child to feel secure. Saying “no” will result in a tantrum because that’s their way of knowing that the boundary is firm.’

Ros recommends beginning a new regime when you can cope with disturbed sleep. ‘Start on Friday and by the end of the weekend the problem will be solved. If it works once, you’ll be less afraid to do it again because you know what you’re going to have to go through and that it will be successful.’

Of course, not all behaviour is equally objectionable to everyone. When Angel’s daughter, Leah, started eating with her hands, it didn’t bother Angel but, she says, ‘The nursery mentioned that I should encourage her to use cutlery, which she really doesn’t want to do.’

Now what do I do

To avoid needless meltdowns, Amanda recommends sitting down with your partner to decide what is important to you as a family: for example, what sort of behaviour you’d like to see and what doesn’t matter to you. Amanda stresses that the decisions should be made on the basis of your own values, not what you’ve seen on TV or read in books. She adds, ‘As a parent you’re never going to please everyone, so you may as well please yourself.’

Although toddlers act like they’re in charge, they know they’re not really – or at least that they shouldn’t be. As Ros says, ‘You’re not doing them any favours if you don’t let them know where the boundaries are.’

What’s important to remember is that although they may not like it – and aren’t shy about showing it – they need you to be the boss.

5 steps to staying in control

1) Decide what matters to your family What behaviour do you want to see – and not want to see – in your toddler? And what ones aren’t you bothered about?

2) Set clear boundaries and stick to them.

3) Be consistent. This means both you and your partner need to agree to play by the same ‘rules’ – it’s no good if one of you goes back on the other’s decision!

4) Don’t be scared to say ‘no’. You’re in charge, not your child.

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5) If your toddler decides to ‘kick off’ or throw a tantrum, ignore him.

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