My Bachelor’s degree is in Psychology and when I was going to school behaviorism was all the rage. B.F. Skinner was our guru and he taught us that in order to understand behavior, you must look at the causes and the consequences. I honestly did not think I would ever apply my knowledge of Skinner and his practices…until I became the parent of a toddler.
I really cannot complain. My daughter is sweet, funny, and all-around good-natured. She is also nineteen months old and curious, too clever for her own good, and struggling to find her independence. I want her to be inquisitive and investigate her environment. It is important for her to be creative, use her imagination, and make messes.
I do not want her to injure herself in the process. I learned that just telling her “no” does not work. In fact, she thinks my mere utterance of the word “no” is nothing short of hilarious.
To prevent my daughter from injuring herself or others, I turned to my old pal, Skinner, and found some behavior modification strategies that actually work!
Easy Behavior Strategies for Toddler Troubles That Work!
First: Assess Your Child’s Basic Needs
I know this probably goes without saying, but when your child is having a meltdown, do a quick assessment of their basic needs. Is she hungry, thirsty, tired, hot, cold, sick, or in pain?
There have been occasions when my daughter has been doing her hungry cry and I think, “She can’t be hungry. She just ate.” I have learned that those tiny tummies have a clock all of their own and even if she just ate recently, she may actually be hungry again!
Sometimes she is not hungry; so much as she just needs to chew on something. I do not remember my own teething experience, but my daughter claims it is pretty miserable and to pass the ice chips, please. Try not to overlook a basic need as a potential cause for your child’s behavior. Doing a quick run down to eliminate a basic need as a cause for your child’s behavior may solve the problem the stop the meltdown instantaneously.
You know how they say communication is the key to any relationship? This statement definitely holds true for your relationship with your toddler.
I noticed my daughter was often frustrated because I did not understand what she was trying to communicate to me. Sometimes she wanted to tell me she was hungry or thirsty and sometimes she just wanted to tell me that she discovered something new and interesting.
For this, I turned to baby sign language and it made all of the difference in the world. My daughter and I are now able to carry on entire conversations in sign language. She is able to tell me what is bothering her in sign language, thus eliminating the meltdown before it ensues.
If you have not tried baby sign language yet, do not underestimate the value of the other ways in which we communicate with our toddlers using our bodies. If your toddler is frustrated and the melting is beginning, start by making eye contact. Let your toddler know that you are paying attention to what he is trying to communicate. Keep your voice even, as yelling will only cause your toddler to engage in contest of who can be louder (and your toddler will win!)
Use gestures and allow your child to point to the source of their distress. Try to relax your body. I know, I get it. When my daughter suddenly lets out an ear piercing shriek in the grocery store, I cringe. But if you can lower those shoulders and unfurrow those brows, your child will respond in kind. If you are stressed, they are stressed. If you relax, they will relax.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Our good friend, Mr. Skinner, provided us young psychology majors with the idea of positive reinforcement. Skinner claimed that we could strengthen the behaviors we want with the use of rewards. In our labs, we provided rats with food whenever they pushed the lever we desired. This ideology can be applied to modifying your toddler’s behavior.
The goal is to encourage your child to behave in the ways we deem as positive, so she will continue to behave in that manner. For example, every time my daughter pets our dog in a nice, gentle manner, I say, “Good job! Those are excellent and gentle pets!” followed by a hug and a kiss. I am rewarding her behavior with verbal praise, recognition, and affection.
Rewards do not have to be material. In fact, intrinsic rewards such as praise, positive attention, and affection tend to leave a more lasting impression. If you have children older than the toddler age, try offering a reward of spending time with you, over extra computer time, and you will be amazed at the results!
Although Skinner talked a great deal about negative reinforcement and punishment, I have found that rewarding my daughter’s exceptional behavior immediately and consistently has naturally curbed her less desirable behaviors. For example, when she would tug on our dog’s ear instead of giving nice pets, she did not receive the hoopla and fanfare and thus, stopped tugging. (I also have a very patient dog.)
As parents, we have a habit of focusing on our children’s negative behaviors that we would like to extinguish. If we can direct our attention instead to all of the many ways our children behave in positive and appropriate ways; the less desirable behaviors will naturally begin to taper off.
Tune Out and Tune In
Another one of my pals from my Psychology days was good ol’ Sigmund Freud. Freud introduced us to the concept of our personalities being composed of the id, ego, and superego. The id is what we are born with and it is pleasure seeking and avoids pain at all costs. The id is impulsive and demands immediate satisfaction. Sound familiar? When Freud was describing the id, he could have very well been describing a toddler.
What does a toddler seek after all basic needs have been met? That’s right…attention! It’s a toddler’s world and we are just living in it. Your toddler wants your attention and he wants it now. You know what happens if you do not feed your toddler’s id. You will be welcomed right into Meltdown City.
If you know the cause of your toddler’s misbehavior is the need for your attention, what can you do? Your toddler is the center of your universe, but you cannot bestow all of your attention onto your toddler all of the time. It is physically impossible. However, there are a few strategies that just may save your sanity and save your toddler’s necessitous id.
Tune Out and Tune In
Put down your electronic devices and turn off the television. Give your toddler your undivided attention. Read a story, play a game, or just snuggle. Even if it is only for a few minutes, it will make a huge difference in your child’s behavior. As a work from home mom, I have to stop and do exactly this at regular intervals throughout the day. The key is to tune in before the meltdown ensues and to be consistent.
Ask for Help
Yes, you can ask for another caregiver to chip in on the attention (grandparents work great), but I actually mean ask your toddler for help. Need to cook dinner? Set your toddler up with a bowl and a whisk. Need to clean the house? Give your toddler a dusting rag. Need to go to the grocery store? Ask your toddler to help you hold a few of the items. Your toddler will begin to realize that helping and gaining responsibility equals positive attention.
Acknowledge Their Need for Attention
I work from home and I am very dedicated to my job. My daughter may be too little to fully understand why my job is important, but I explain my plight regardless. Before she reaches the point of desperation, I make eye contact and let her know that I see that she wants my attention. I kiss her head or make the “I love you” sign in sign language, if I am otherwise occupied. Acknowledging her feelings and distress resulting from my divided attention helps her realize that I am here, I understand, and it is going to be okay.
When it comes to attention, it is important to realize that toddlers cannot differentiate between negative attention and positive attention.
Negative attention is still attention.
Skinner would tell you that you are actually rewarding your child when you scold your child for misbehavior. Of course, you must acknowledge and redirect misbehavior that may cause injury or harm to your child, but some misbehavior you can ignore. For example, my daughter attempted to climb atop our dining room table the other day. I had to acknowledge this behavior, explain that she could get hurt, and prevent her from attempting this feat again.
That same day, my daughter decided to let out an ear-piercing squeal every time she saw something she liked. While I applaud her excitement at this marvelous world, I would rather not suffer hearing loss. I explained that she could clap her hands instead and then ignored her squeals until she got the hint. When she began clapping and bringing her squeal down to a dull roar, I rewarded her with praise, hugs, and cheers at appropriate volume.
When it comes to your toddler’s behavior, remember to think positively. It is easy to focus on the misbehaviors and the tantrums, but think about all of the things your toddler can do that is nothing short of amazing. They have already learned so much in their short lives! Think positively about what a great job you are doing, as well. Nobody said parenting was going to be easy, but the rewards are endless.
Skinner would say that is what keeps us going on our toughest days. Freud would say your little ones are well on their way towards developing the super ego, the part of the psyche that has learned to control impulses and understand the morals and values passed down by parents and other role models.
I say, take a deep breath and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back!
This article was originally published on Creative Child. To read more of my articles for Creative Child Magazine, click here.
Are you struggling with your toddler’s behavior? Do you have any behavior strategies that work? Please leave any questions or comments below! I would love to hear from you.