“Go to your happy place” and other stuff parents of toddlers need to hear.

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In the last week, I had both a friend and my sister, desperately, plead with me for my best advice for handling a difficult toddler…. Both women, like me, have totally stubborn spirited and determined two-year olds.

Hmmm…. What’s my best advice for managing the kid and keeping your cool? Other than a cage and duct tape across the mouth? (For you, not the kid)??

How about this:

1) Manage your expectations and choose your battles. As in, only try to control the stuff you can and should control. Is your kid screaming his head off in the car, and he’s two, so there’s not a damn thing you can do about it that doesn’t involve a ball-gag and a car accident? Ignore it. Is your kid throwing knives at his sister and trying to crawl in the oven? Maybe ignoring is not so much the best strategy.

Also, consider what is realistic vs. unrealistic to teach your kid at this age: Basic behaviors, like don’t throw rocks and sit at mealtime for 5 minutes at a time? Sure. The ability to sustain disappointment without getting upset while not having sophisticated emotional regulation or language skills? Aka a toddler’s ability to remain calm when he doesn’t get the correct color sippy cup? Not so much.

2). Keep your kid regulated. Make sure he is nutritionally fed and well-rested, with consistent naps and bedtimes. As in, do these things as best as is actually possible in actual real life. Have a tough sleeper ? Consult as many websites, books, and pediatricians as you need in order to find something that works to sleep train that kid. His stability, and yours, depends on it.

And if there’s no getting around your kid not being regulated- he was just not having nap today or he has an ear infection- just lay low, watch some Elmo, and don’t expect to be bringing him to any restaurants.

3) The two “duhs” of child-rearing that everyone knows but are sometimes just so damn hard to adhere-to: consistency and follow- through. Whatever you decide is your preferred method of behavioral modification, use it and use it every time your kid does the behavior.

4) Use the uh-oh song and time out for punishment. Young two year olds don’t understand lecturing and reasoning; they only respond to actual consequences and rewards.

Of course the therapist in me likes the idea of staying calm and empathizing before you give a punishment, but most of the time, sweetly saying “I know you are so sad that you can’t play slip and slide with the ketchup” isn’t the first statement that comes to mind when you walk into a sticky ketchup puddle in the kitchen. So after you’ve probably said something a normal person would say such as “what the hell are you doing!!??,” the “Uh-oh song” is a fun little song that you can sing. And, bonus, you can sing it to the tune of this up-beat Lily Allen song, and vent your anger while remaining, as far as your toddler perceives, a calm and loving parent.

Basically, If my kid either acts aggressively or doesn’t listen after I give him two verbal requests (“stop squirting ketchup everywhere and give mommy the bottle.”), and no adult witnesses are around to hear me, I sing the uh-oh song and bring my son to one of three places for a two-minute time-out.

These are my three designated time-out places: 1) a booster chair in the kitchen, where I can strap him in and make him face the boring wall 2) the toddler seat part of a shopping cart (again, he’s strapped in) which is not moving and facing something very boring and not engaging 3) the car seat in the car while it’s running and I’m sitting with him (like if we are at the park or his brothers’ t-ball game).

5) Use something your child loves (and only gets when he earns it. As in NEVER gets it “just because”) for a reward. Want him to sit still at a restaurant or go pee on the potty or pick up his toys or clear his plate? Give him an m&m or a sticker every time he does. Make sure he doesn’t EVER get this reward on occasions when he doesn’t earn it, or the reward will lose it’s effect.

6) Go to go to your happy place. You know that expression of dull, la-la-land that you commonly see on Michelle Duggar, even though she is surrounded by a loud, zoo-army? Channel it. (I wonder what that woman is thinking about sometimes. Probably Jesus frolicking in an open field while wearing a floral dress, but whatever works.) This taking-your-mind-out-of-the-situation skill will be necessary when you are ignoring your kid whining to play with the steak knife set or because you won’t let him lick the floor at the mall.

And with that, I leave you, brave mothers of strong- willed and energetic toddlers; And I leave you, actually, because at this moment my kid is the only kid on the playground that is making a beeline for the poison-ivy woods….(so maybe #7 should be something about keeping tabs on him and interacting with him instead of just sitting there typing on the phone? Hmmm….)

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