Your toddler’s behaviour – your FAQ’s answered

Our health visitor helps you cope with the ups and downs of toddler behaviour

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Q: My toddler’s become scared of dogs for no reason, meaning we can’t go to the park. What can I do?

A: This can be tricky, as some degree of caution is always wise around dogs. The knack is striking a balance that allows your toddler to enjoy dogs safely. First, check your own response to dogs. Do you get more anxious, or unconsciously hold your tot’s hand more tightly? This is sensible in some situations, but may send a message to your little one that all dogs are scary.

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Find some books and DVDs that have dog themes as this gives you an opening to talk about what exactly worrying your tot. And learn how to behave around animals, such as not pulling tails. Take a trip to the park and stay in the car or café and just watch the dogs running around and comment on the fun things they do. Then build up to getting out with a dog that you know is child-friendly. Don’t force your tot to engage with dogs – it’s ok for him to not pet or talk to them until he chooses, but give him lots of reassurance that you’re looking after him and are not scared yourself.

Q: My 2 year old has started pulling other children’s hair and mine too. How can I stop her?

A: Hair pulling often gets a quick, loud response, which reinforces the behaviour, as it attracts attention – even if it’s negative. It’s best not to reward the behaviour by almost ignoring it.

If she pulls your hair while sitting on your knee or near you, put her down immediately or get up and walk away or go into another room for a few minutes. Say little, other than a calm but firm ‘No hair pulling’, so she learns hair pulling means she loses your focus rather than gains it.

If she pulls another child’s hair, remove the victim to another room and use the same response. Also praise and cuddle her every time she’s gentle with you or anyone else. By being consistent in your responses she’ll learn that being gentle gets more rewards.

Q: Any tips on persuading our 2 year old to stop using her dummy?

A: It all depends on your child and you. If you think you and she are up to it, then going cold turkey and stopping completely overnight may be suitable for you. Alternatively, a more gradual approach can be less traumatic. Whichever you opt for, she’s going to need plenty of extra cuddles and reassurance. Giving up a comforter is a big step for a toddler, so don’t change anything else for a while.

If cold turkey seems too extreme for you both, limiting the dummy’s use to three or four times a day is a good way to start. Then gradually work towards once a day, and then stopping.

Whatever regime you choose, stick to it. It won’t be fair on her if you keep changing the rules. Offer her an alternative, such as a hug or story. If she gets upset, distract her with a toy, drink or trip out. Taking time to think your strategy through – maybe even writing it down – can help if things get stressful and you find your resolve slipping.

Q: Whenever it’s time to leave a friend’s house or the park, my 3 year old has a major tantrum. What can I do to stop him?

A: This is a common scenario. Your son is testing his boundaries. Before you go out, tell him exactly what you expect of him, ie, to leave without fuss when you say. At home time, give him a 5 minute warning so he has time to finish his game.

Make sure that you’re prepared too – it’ll confuse him if he has to wait for you. Distract him if trouble starts. Have a snack or drink to offer on the way home. Reward his good behaviour with lots of praise.

If he still throws a wobbly, cancel the next trip out and make sure he knows why. This works best if the cancelled trip is a quick park outing that he’ll miss more than you. Be consistent and things should soon improve.

Q: Is it ok for my 3 year old daughter to have a night light? She gets scared when she goes to bed and this seems to help. But I’m worried it disturbs her sleep.

A: Your daughter is at an age where her imagination is developing fast. This is great for role play and story telling but not so good when the lights go out and she’s left on her own to sleep. Her fears are perfectly normal, and for her, they’re very real and vivid.

Pay special attention to what she watches on TV and sees in books as anything vaguely scary will play on in her mind. If the night light comforts her, keep using it until this stage passes. In the long run, her sleep will be less disturbed by a low light than by her fears.

Q: I have the bossiest 3 ½ year old imaginable! How can I control this embarrassing trait?

A: It can be shocking to overhear your child giving orders in military fashion, especially if it sounds too familiar! Lots of children sound bossy, but often they’re actually feeling anxious. Being bossy can be a way of controlling situations that they feel can get out of control.

If you see your child as needing reassurance and guidance, take a different approach. So, rather than correct her bossiness, work out what’s worrying her and acknowledge it. Reassure her, stay close for a few minutes until she calms down and praise her when she finds a different approach. You’re a great influence for her, so show her how to sort out difficulties diplomatically.

Q: How can I get my 3 year old to do more for herself? She always says she can’t do it, even something simple like putting on her coat. In the end we do it, but she starts nursery soon and has to be more independent.

A: After you’ve done such a great job meeting all your little one’s needs, it comes as a shock to her to have to start being more involved in looking after herself. Begin with things you feel confident she can master quickly – finding her shoes and coat are a start. Allow extra time for her to do these things in the morning. If she realises you’re in a hurry, she may give up. Be encouraging and positive, with plenty of clapping and smiling when she does something.

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Make sure she gets the message that things don’t have to be done perfectly at first. If her jumper is back to front, just congratulate her that she put it on! Telling friends and family about her achievements when you know she’s listening will help too. Once she realises that you have confidence in her, she’ll be more willing to undertake new challenges.

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