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Photographed by Mignon Hemsley

Survival Tips For The Toddler Years

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Mignon Hemsley

Toddlers—they’re oh so cute. Of course, they sort of need to be, given the grief they often put their parents through. From throwing temper tantrums to blatant defiance of house rules, these little people love to push our buttons. And it doesn’t stop with the so-called “terrible twos.” For some kids the “terrible threes” turn into what one friend of ours describes as the “f*ck it fours.” To help deal with these trying times, we tapped Brigette Maas, a Registered Play Therapist who works with children and their families in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Here, the mother of three fills our tool box full of possible solutions for common toddler/little “big kid” conundrums. Check out her toddler behavior tips below!

Help Them Describe Their Feelings. Children often whine when they can’t find the words to describe their emotions. Teaching a child what the words “frustration” and “anger” mean, among other feelings, will help you get to the root of their issue and hopefully halt the whines. To help your child get acquainted with their many feelings, Maas recommends the following children’s books: The Way I Feel, How Are You Peeling? Foods With Moods, Calm-Down Time, When I Feel Angry, and When I Feel Jealous.

Play Hard-of-Hearing. When your child is whining, nicely tell her that you can only hear her words when she uses her “big girl voice” or “regular Amelia voice.” Don’t tell her in an annoyed tone, which can give her the negative reaction she craves. Once she uses her big girl voice, be sure to praise her. Say, “I love to hear your big girl voice,” and give a high five.

Baby Them. Children in this age range still need a lot of nurturing and connectedness from adults. Instead of saying “you’re a big boy, act like it,” Maas suggests setting aside five minutes of time to let your child be a baby (i.e. feel nurtured). That means wrapping them in your arms, telling them what they were like as babies, singing a song, telling them what you love about them, etc. Once the five minutes are up, say, “Okay, now can Charlie come back? I love how he has grown up so much…” and point out things your child can now do that he is big, like help rinse dishes, jump, and play in the playroom. Chances are, your child will want to “grow up” right away, sometimes before his/her five minutes of baby time are up. If your child still needs more “baby time,” let him know he just needs to use his words and ask for it.

Get Them To Eat. When kids feel frustrated, they usually resort to needing to control something, which often happens around mealtime or going to the bathroom. If you know your child likes the meal you made, but is still refusing it, Maas suggests saying, “You are wanting to pick something you want for dinner. It’s fun to have choices. So, you can have (insert the choices you already made for dinner).” If your child still refuses, don’t make a big fuss about it (that’s what the child wants). Instead, say “It’s here when you are ready to eat it,” and act like it doesn’t bother you. Try to distract him from the battle by asking him other things, like what his favorite toy was today or who he played with, etc. Give your child lots of attention for trying everything. And if he won’t eat, keep his plate in the fridge and warm it up when he is ready.

Try Stickers & Song. Maas, who has sought help for her own son’s eating issues, says she was advised to start a sticker chart. “I printed out a plate and let him put food stickers on the plate when he tries new things,” she explains. She and her family also now sing a silly song in which each member picks up a piece of food and sings about it: “This is the way we smell our food (sniff sniff…smell the food), this is the way we kiss our food (so it has to touch their mouth), this is the way we chomp our food (act like an animal and be dramatic).” If your kid spits out his food? Maas says don’t sweat it. At least he tried it. (For more tips on dealing with picky eaters, click here!)

Focus on Connecting. “A lot of early childhood research shows kids act out when they have a need to connect with us, prove they are capable, need to be challenged/stimulated more, or they feel like things are too chaotic and need help soothing (a nap, a snack, taking deep breaths, taking space away from everyone, running, jumping, playing, listening to music, hugs, etc.),” says Maas. “I love this list of 30 Joyful Ways to Connect with Your Child in Under 10 Minutes by Sue Lively.”

Keep Reading. There are plenty of great books for parents that help them navigate this tricky time. Maas likes 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, 1-2-3 Magic For Kids, Parenting From The Inside Out, Discipline: The Brazelton Way, Touchpoints: Birth to Three, and Touchpoints: Three to Six.

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