Training Wheels for Toddler Negotiations

As an additional part to the previous posts on the subject, I wanted to spend a little time discussing how to handle avoiding praise, punishment, and other coercive methods with little ones who are not yet developmentally capable of carrying on a full-fledged discussion about what they are feeling or needing, or a studied negotiation of solutions to the issues that inevitably arise. I work with lots of parents who get stuck on the idea that discussing things, and listening to what their children have to say doesn’t apply to them because they are dealing with a pre-verbal 2 year old. And I think it is true enough that between the “delicate distractions” which are regularly used with babies (whether or not they are preferable) and honest negotiations which are more appropriate for fully verbal children, there is a transitional void through the fledgling ego of the pre/early-verbal toddler.

The age is a difficult one for numerous reasons all of which seem to center around the child’s moving from one version of existence into another radically different one. All at once, there is a flurry of motor skill development, language development, psychological development, and emotional development, and all straddling a fresh, tender, and often hyper-active new ego. Add on hormonal changes and you’ve got the infant version of a teenager. But the toddler period is a unique one in that all of the other progress the body and mind are making is set against the backdrop of becoming an individual for the first time in this little person’s life. Until this period, the child literally thinks of himself as a part of the mother. Then, quite suddenly, the child becomes aware that he is his own being, and as a gifted imitator, he then wants to do exactly what he sees all the other, bigger humans doing — from eating solid food right from the parent’s fork and using the scissors, to staying up late and driving the car. And yet, the majority of the urges far out measure the toddler’s abilities for at least a few years (and with some things even decades).

This is a perfect recipe for some serious frustration. The parents are often caught in the middle with these wee tornados, and life can seem completely out of control. The most common parental reaction is to “tighten down”, try to “reestablish authority”, “define boundaries”, “teach discipline”, and generally speaking, kick ass and take names. This is actually considered the most appropriate response to the toddler’s confusing developmental leap and the equally confusing urges and actions that sometimes come out of it. Another one is to try and continue using the same methods that succeeded with the same toddler when she was a baby. Both generally result in further frustration on the part of the toddler and the parents. Eventually we have no choice but to make the leap from parenting infants to parenting kids (and again later with parenting our teens and adult children), but how we do that may not be so obvious.

I suggest that one place to start is considering where we want to end up. Do we want to be in adversarial relationships with our teens, or our adult children? Or would we rather have warm, mutually respectful, trusting relationships with them? Relationships that thrive and flourish as we age together? Relationships we cherish and celebrate?

If you are hoping for the former, then you may as well stop reading now… If, however, you are headed toward the latter versions, or want to be, then consider the following: How do we get from surviving “toddler tantrums” to celebrating the relationship we have with our adult child? Here’s a hint — it isn’t by clamping down with punishments, or ramping up the praise and rewards, or treating the toddler like an infant… If we really want to do more than just survive toddlerhood, if we really really want to develop powerful relationships with our children that will grow and last throughout our lives together, then we would do well to make use of every minute teaching our young children how we want to be able to interact with them when they are older. Sound confusing? I just mean this — if we want to be able to stand living with them as they age, we have to work with our children now, model what we want, and offer them what we expect.

To begin with, you should know that what I am suggesting is less of a formula for toddler parenting, and more of a way of being a toddler’s parent. Keeping the goal in mind is essential. If you’re inclined, though, here are some of the things you might consider doing:

  • Use sign language with your baby — I suggest this in almost every general advice post I write because it’s that important. You’ll avoid whole hours of toddler frustration while simultaneously increasing his communication skills and strengthening your bond with him. He’ll also grow into a toddler who is better able to tell you what is going on for him and what he wants and needs, which will be extremely helpful to you both (and the world at large).
  • Give your toddler lots of information. Let her know what is going on in your head, with immediately upcoming plans, with your expectations, with things that went awry, and with the universe in general. Tell her why you don’t want her to throw the banana peel at the window. And more importantly, tell her why you do want the peel in the appropriate receptacle. Tell her how things work, and how people work. And tell her in your own language — don’t water it down too much, or try to translate it into baby-speak — remembering that you are teaching her how to communicate as well as teaching her about what you are communicating. Next to nurturing, informing is your most important task as a parent so take it seriously.
  • Leave yourself plenty of time. Nothing changes parent-child interactions like time pressure. If you’ve got to be somewhere at a specific time, then start getting things moving at least an hour before you would otherwise leave. This goes for individual interactions as well — don’t try to rush your toddler, let him respond at his pace, and process all the numerous things going on for him in every moment. Remember, he’s dealing with you at the same time as building a brain, a body, and an entirely new world view from the ground up. Cut the kid (and yourself) some slack by not packing too much into your day, or waiting until the last minute to initiate changes. And in line with the above, when you are planning to leave you current locale or change the current activity, give him plenty of information about where, when, and even why you’re doing it.
  • Reconsider your requests. Make sure you want/need to be asking for what you are asking the toddler to do — is it age appropriate, does it make sense, is it necessary — question your assumptions and motives. Is your way really the only right way, or is there a way to accommodate the toddler’s preference(s) as well. Remember, you are growing a future decider and negotiator, not an automaton — and one who is currently taking notes on everything you say and do.
  • Find out what the need is. Though it will certainly occasionally seem like it, your toddler isn’t insane. She is just beginning to have serious ideas about what matters to her — both, at any given moment, and even generally. Respect that as much as you are able. When things go haywire, see if you can detect the need your toddler is having. It may only be loosely related to what she was trying to do, or it may be obvious, but try to hone in on it with (or even for) her. And if she isn’t able to talk much about it, make guesses, and ask questions. Even year old babes can indicate something resembling affirmation if you guess right.
  • Address needs. Sometimes you don’t want your child to do the thing he’s currently doing (right?). Well, if you can figure out the underlying need to his taking a hammer to your kitchen floor, you can help him address that need without damaging the house. The point is, there are ways to help your toddler fulfill his current needs and drives that are mutually agreeable to you both. You don’t have to run into the kitchen and yell “NOOOO!” at him and yank the hammer out of his hand. You could set him up in the yard with a hammer and a piece of wood. Notice how this not only communicates the message that hammers aren’t for kitchen floors, but also helps him explore relatively safely, express his natural urge in a meaningful way, and still allows him the feeling of being supported, cared for, and loved. He’s also less likely to feel thwarted, or have continuing anger toward you for not letting him do stuff.
  • Maintain the respect. I think respect is one of those weird things that you have to give in order to get. Some people seem to think of it, especially as it relates to children, as something you just deserve automatically by virtue of your state or status — “I am the parent and you must respect me!”. Few of us, however, would respect a person that we found disrespectful (especially to us). It follows then, that if we want our children to respect us, and our wishes, and the things we use, or anything else then we ought to model the same toward them. Remember that emerging ego? It’s what you are bouncing off of, when your kid scowls or laughs at you and runs off with the thing you are telling her to put down. So, when asking your toddler to stop doing something, or more appropriately to do something else, think of her as a tiny, teenage foreigner. She can’t explain it all to you exactly, but she has definite opinions about what is going on, and she’s formulating an understanding of how to work in your “country” and get what she wants. How do you want her to see you in this scenario, as the border police, or the diplomatic ambassador? (Hint: she’ll almost always run from one and to the other when things get hairy).
  • Remember that you are your toddler’s main model for “appropriate behavior”. As intimated above, the toddler is absolutely “putting things together”. In every interaction, he is learning how to be, and how to do this life. If he takes off with the pen you were using, and you run after him and yank it out of his hand, what do you think he records in his memory about that? Do you honestly think he’ll get: “Ok, so don’t take pens from people who are using them because they don’t like it.”? He just might, but it comes with: “…unless you are bigger and more powerful, and then you can take whatever you want for yourself and not let anyone use it,” and/or with: “…mom/dad scared me.” It is possible to show our kids what we want, even when they are doing something we don’t want. In the example above, you could follow the toddler and talk to him about it. You could also get another pen after this or simply wait if you decide it’s no big deal to let him use the pen — which, honestly, would likely last about 30 seconds to 1 minute if you just let the kid check it out. The bottom line is, show show show what you want him to know.
  • Empathize. In the likely event that you will actually have to stop your toddler from doing something she wants very desperately to do (or the opposite) — because regardless of your skill in all of the above, on occasion you will have to — then do so with care and tenderness and loads of empathy. She isn’t trying to piss you off by whacking the philodendron with her doll. If she can’t understand that you don’t want her to do that, or why, and she isn’t interested in whacking a pillow with the doll instead, and you aren’t willing to give up a portion of the plant’s leaves to this particular physics experiment, and you then decide to make her stop, or (as a very last resort) actually move her away — then do it gingerly. You can remove most any child from most any situation if you have to and still maintain a loving connection. And when you are offering her empathy about her feelings, be honest, and be genuine. If you’re sure she’s fuming, don’t patronize her by asking how she feels about it — instead you can ask, “Are you so frustrated? You really wanted to whack that plant didn’t you?” With a toddler, and even a bigger kid on occasion, you may have to stay in that place for awhile before she can move on. She may sit down and cry. She may scream. She may get stuck on the idea, “Want to!” and seem incapable of moving on. Stay with her. Keep reiterating your identification with her feelings. Keep offering her your love and affection. You’ll undoubtedly know when she has moved on.

The alternative to these ideas, of course, is to force our will, regardless, and leave our toddlers to wail it out on their own. Some will argue that this is faster, or more practical for pre/early-verbal kids than what I suggest above, and there may be occasions when that seems supported by the present moment’s experience. However, one might ask if the time you might save by shoving your toddler around instead of spending the time to teach him how to handle negotiations and/or disappointment, is really worth the relationship (and the teaching opportunities) you will be chucking in the process. And just so you know, in my experience and observation, being a strict disciplinarian, and ordering your toddler’s every move is, in the end, not any faster than working together to get everyone’s needs met. And further, I am of the firm opinion that the time saved isn’t really the issue so much as how we spend the time we have.


Be well.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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10 Responses to Training Wheels for Toddler Negotiations

  1. Pax says:

    Nathan – have you read Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn’s book,
    Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting? If not, I think you might like it!


  2. alyssa says:

    Thanks, it’s been a rough day in parenting land and I really needed to read about this very topic.

  3. I wrote this post 2 years ago, but brushed it off and tidied it up a bit, because I thought some of my toddler-wrangling friends out there who never got to see it, might find it helpful. Hope you enjoy.

  4. jo johnson says:

    hi nathan,

    great post! thank you! i love “think of her as a tiny teenage foreigner”! our culture teaches us such adversarial powerplay as the “right way” to parent…and i think it’s so ingrained that the relationship needs re-framing in exactly the way this description does.

    my 2 eldest boys had precisely one toddler tantrum between them. i hope it’s obvioys that i’m not saying that all my interactions with them from babyhood to fully-fledged childhood were smooth and harmonious. rather, i learnt from the traumatic experience of my eldest having that tantrum that i was never going there again! i remember very well observing him starting to freak out, thinking “oh, he’s having a tantrum”, and transposing onto the actual situation what i thought i was supposed to do as the mama of a tantrumming toddler. i stopped relating to him as a small boy; even as MY small boy, who i knew well by then. i remember it as a visceral feeling of clicking out of relationship with myself – and so with my boy, of course.

    one other thing – i do absolutely agree that it’s likely to cause further frustration if we just keep trying to address problems/issues with a toddler in the way that we did when he was a baby. however, for us, breastfeeding throughout the toddler years was a magic balm that rarely failed to diffuse a heated situation. although it did sometimes function as distraction, more often it provided us both with valuable coming-into-contact-with-our-bodies-and-each-other time, and that gave way to ease, communication, and feeling that we were a team again.

    love, jo (formerly

    • Hey Jo!

      Glad to hear from you again from across the big pond!

      I really love the way you describe the sensation (that I think so many of us are familiar with) of “clicking out of relationship” both with self and child. I think one really can feel that shift when it happens, and it’s worth noting that.

      And I will certainly acquiesce that nursing can be a “magic balm” both in infancy and beyond! I agree it is a primally connective activity and has as much value in that capacity as it does in providing sustenance. The opportunity to connect in that way during a period of upset could indeed be just the thing — even for a toddler — absolutely. I would only temper that by adding that, with a toddler (as opposed to an infant), nursing to restore connection and/or calm would be a move reserved for “later in the game” or for moments of “greater than average duress” — times when the toddler seems to have “regressed” (temporarily) to an earlier and/or less logical stage of development. That is, if negotiations have failed, working it out has been eclipsed as an immediate option, feelings have gotten too big for discussion, the process of working it out has overwrought the toddler, and/or after things have started to resolve and the toddler needs to be psycho-emotionally “realigned” in the relationship. In any case, if it occurs to Mom that nursing would help her toddler (for just about any reason) — then I will be the first to cheer her on! I think nursing is one of the single best things Moms can do for their babies. Period.

      Thanks agin, Jo, for sharing! I love the way you talk about parenting. So nice to have you in this virtual village!

      Be well.

  5. Narelle says:

    A really well considered post Nathan. Lots of good information for folks raising toddlers, or children of any age really.

    The toddler period is right at the time when the limbic system (the emotional centre) in the brain is firing up. Parents often fail at trying to reason with a child of this age because the pre frontal cortex which is responsible for logic and reasoning doesn’t start firing up until about the age of four years. It doesn’t finish developing until the age of 25, and goes into hibernation for a while during adolescence.

    Dan Siegel’s work on brain development and the role the amygdala plays in the stress response is good stuff. Acknowledging the child’s feelings and soothing, calming activities, where the parent applies empathy and understanding can feel like the wrong thing to do in our discipline/reward society but over time assist the child to develop emotional regulation.

    I’m going to link your article to one of mine, it is so well written.

  6. jo johnson says:

    hey nathan,

    yes, of course re bf’ing (uk acronym?) being applicable “later in the game” as the child grows. otherwise, attachment parenting, or whatever we wanna call it, leads to attachment-to-parenting! parenthood is a constant dance between providing that safety net and letting out the ropes on that net, isn’t it? – if that isn’t too much metaphor mixing! attachment to our roles within parenting as the all-powerful nurturer is unhealthy, i think; particularly for women, as that’s the template of parenting so many of us have been handed, plus of course a very warped and stereotypical view of female-ness.

    this reminds me so much of yoga practice (whuch for me is totally inextricable from my parenting and partnering). the whole point is the space that opens up as a result of trust, connection and communication. to close this gap when it begins to open up between ourselves as bf’ing mamas and our toddlers by imposing bf’ing when maybe, just maybe, a little more creativity and thinking around the issue is required, is to stomp upon that space. and that would be ridiculous, as there is so much freedom in that space and in the fact that it has appeared in the first place! and not just for our toddlers, but for us parents, too.

    happy solstice!x

  7. Pingback: Acknowledging feelings | Hands, Hearts and Minds


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