I’ve been through it three times and the thought of doing it again feels absolutely exhausting: parenting toddlers and preschoolers.
It’s true that the teen years present some emotionally exhausting issues (and I mean seriously exhausting), but those early years wore me out in all dimensions: physical, emotional, and cognitive. Why were my car keys in the refrigerator? Because I had two children under the age of 4, that’s why.
Years later when my children were 13, 10, and 6, I met my good friend for a picnic at the beach with her husband and two-year-old son. I only had to watch for a few minutes to feel the exhaustion all over again!
He ran toward the waves, threw sand in the food, screamed and refused to eat. An hour later, he melted down when he wasn’t allowed to throw his diaper into the ocean. My poor friend didn’t eat much and every conversation got cut short. Sound familiar?
While physical exhaustion during this phase of life is probably unavoidable, I have learned a few things about how to coax a bit more cooperation from one’s 2 to 6-year-old firecracker.
What follows are my Top 6 Favorite Positive Discipline tools for toddlers and preschoolers.
Distraction and Redirection
One excellent way to ward off a meltdown is distraction or redirection. If your child is fixated on that candy at the market, try redirecting her to the apple chips you just bought. If she can’t stop reaching for the stove while you’re cooking, excitedly lead her to some pots, pans and wooden spoons that she can play with instead (or try any of the other top 6 tools in this article!)
Allowing your child to choose among acceptable options is a great way to give your child a sense of autonomy which naturally increases a child’s desire to cooperate. E.g., “Would you like to wear the red pants or the blue pants?” Or, “Bath time is over. Would you like to blast off like a rocket, or leap like a frog out of the tub?”
When your child answers, “Neither! I want to stay in the tub!”, you can simply reply with both empathy and confidence, “You really want to stay in the tub! And that’s not one of your choices,” then offer the options again.
Sometimes my child would offer a third alternative; for example, when I offered the choice to blast off or leap out of the tub, she answered, “Neither! I want to slime out like a worm!” I replied, “Sounds fun! Let’s do it!” If it’s acceptable to you, then by all means, go with it!
All children crave control over their lives so, giving them power whenever you can will curb their desire to seek it during unproductive moments.
When you give your child a hug, his brain releases oxytocin, a neurochemical that calms the body and the brain and makes him feel better. When you ask for a hug, you are letting your child help you, which empowers him and makes him feel needed. Note: when your child is really upset, he may not be ready for a hug . . . model respect by asking first or simply say, “I need a hug! I’ll wait right here until you’re ready.”
Read here for two things that help children want to cooperate (hint: “I need a hug” hits both).
Routines (and even better: Routine Charts)
Visual routines ease transitions, improve cooperation, and help your child to build independence and develop self-discipline. When you invite your child to help create the routine (e.g., by brainstorming steps, or coloring pictures, or choosing the order of events) her sense of belonging and significance increases, as does her desire to follow through. Now, the routine is the boss instead of you!
Watch this 1 minute HOW TO video on making a routine chart as Sproutable’s expert Julietta Skoog takes us through the steps with her two year old. (Warning: Footage is extremely cute!)
Take Time to Teach (and re-teach) What To Do
Often we are so focused on teaching our children what not to do, we forget to model and teach the behavior we want to see instead. Instead of “Don’t run!” we could say and model, “We walk at the pool.” Instead of “Stop bouncing the ball in the house!” we could say, “You may bounce the ball outside or in the garage. What do you pick?”
Don’t forget that learning what to do takes a lot of time and practice! Here’s a 4-step process you can use to teach your child new skills. Some skills can be learned quickly; others will take months to get through the 4 steps.
1. Child watches you do it (you pick up toys and put away)
2. Child helps you do it (child puts toys in bin; you put bin away)
3. You help child do it (ask, “How can I help?” then let the child lead)
4. You watch child do it (you wipe table while child puts toys away)
Supervision, Supervision, Supervision
I admit that “supervision” as a parenting tool sounds underwhelming. However, one really just can’t get around it because young children have not yet developed the ability to temper their urges.
Between the ages of 2 and 6, children’s brains are neurologically programmed to explore, experiment, and be impulsive. The part of the brain that controls impulses, regulates emotions, and can remain flexible is only just starting to come on-line at around 2.5 (and takes 25 years to fully develop). The directions coming from their brains are stronger than your warnings or words. So save your breath (and frustration) and watch instead!
Read more about how understanding brain science can make us better parents here.
How to put these tools (and more) into practice
We’ll practice these tools and learn many more at any of the upcoming Positive Discipline series:
1. In San Francisco specifically for parents of children ages 2 – 6: Peaceful Parents, Cooperative Preschoolers. It starts March 17, 2020 and runs for 6 weeks at Mission Montessori. Participant ratings of this series are consistently high with an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars.
2. Join me in Oakland for a 6-week Parenting with Positive Discipline series aimed at parents of preschoolers – middle schoolers. This one starts Feb 5, 2020.
3. Not in the SF Bay Area? BeSproutable offers an online class, How To Grow Remarkable Kids that you can watch from anywhere in the world on your own time. Complete with live action videos like the one featured above about routines.
Want a 1-page handout summarizing these 6 tools? Click here
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