The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” doesn’t apply to young children who tend to take everything you say literally. That’s why what’s said in the heat of the moment when you’re at the end of your tether may confuse, humiliate and even terrify your little one.
No one said parenting is easy, but take a deep breath and respond rather than react before you blurt out these:
You’re a selfish brat!
While children may display a host of behaviours that come across as selfish, hearing they’re selfish from a parent – especially on an ongoing basis – can have some damaging effects in the long run, according to clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde. “Remember, as a toddler or young child, anything coming from you as their parent is more significant than what others say. If you tell a child she’s selfish, she’ll believe it to be an unfixable character flaw, rather than a behaviour she’s exhibiting at the moment.”
Try working on her sharing skills and discuss how other people may feel in response to her allegedly “selfish” behaviour. For example, “When a friend or sibling shares a toy, sweet or game, how do you feel?” and, “How would you feel if the other person never shared?”
If you hit your brother again, I’m going to hit you!
“Toddlers are, by nature, physical – so when there are two or more in one space, sooner or later there’s going to be some sort of conflict,” explains Colinda. “The typical behaviour you’ll see is hitting as an expression of pure frustration or self-defence. Patience only stretches so far,” she concedes, “especially when your child is a ‘repeat offender’ and doesn’t seem to learn that lashing out when upset is not OK. It’s at times like these when you’re also fed up that these words tend to pop out in sheer frustration, too. The problem is, you’re trying to solve violence with more violence, and this mixed message can be very confusing for your child: “I can’t hit, but mom or dad can, so is it allowed or not?”
Gently and calmly remove his arm from whoever he’s hitting, so he can’t hit again. You can let him try, especially if he’s really frustrated or angry, but prevent his arm from landing. In a moderate tone, use words such as, “No, that doesn’t feel good,” or, “I can’t let you do that” are far more helpful than threats of hitting the child yourself.
Stop crying, can’t you see that everyone is laughing at you?
The tactic of getting children to stop crying with social humiliation can be effective when toddlers start becoming aware of others around them. But, ridicule is not discipline and is often ineffective in the long run, says clinical psychologist Candice Cowen. “During this developmental stage, children generally experience a range of emotions as they’re exposed to the excitement of play, the stimulation of social engagement and the learning of social rules and norms. It’s also a time of self-esteem as well as social building, which are crucial to the formation of identity and confidence. So when you try to correct your child’s behaviour by humiliating her, think again, because it could leave a long-lasting impact on her self esteem, confidence and identity.”
Aim to acknowledge her emotions by helping her identify her feelings and empathise with her. Give her a hug or hold her hand and use words such as, “I can see that you’re upset and it’s OK to cry if things make you feel sad” and, “Let mommy help you figure out what we can do to make it better.”
If you don’t get dressed right now, you’re going to school with nothing on!
For most young children, the “threat” of leaving home in PJs (or naked) is not actually a threat at all, says Colinda. “They also don’t understand time urgency around routines and leaving home timeously in order to avoid traffic.”
Choose your battles, and preferably not during a high-pressure time like the morning routine. Give her two options: “Do you feel like wearing your red top or the blue one?” Or, “Are you getting dressed first or eating first?” For the older child, you could ask a question that gets her thinking, because if she’s thinking she’s not arguing. For example:
- “Would you like me to help you pack up or would you like to do it by yourself?”
- “Shall we go out in the morning or in the afternoon?”
- “What’s next on your list to get ready this morning?”
If you don’t listen to me, I’m going to phone the police!
While resorting to this scare tactic may seem like the only solution in those frustrating times when you’re trying to discipline a difficult toddler, she has no idea how to distinguish whether you’re being serious or not, says Candice. “This form of consequential disciplining may not be the most appropriate or effective way to discipline your little one as her inability to think abstractly can limit her understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. It may also leave her in a state of fear about the police actually coming for her.”
Get down to her level and use simple words to clearly explain exactly what you’re asking. Give calm but firm warnings and make the consequences concrete, for example, “Mommy can see that you are upset. I would like you to stop throwing your toys or they will be packed away until you are calmer.” Assist her in achieving the desired behaviour by offering support and guidance, making sure that you follow through and remain consistent.
Come on, say hello!
We live in a society where social norms like social engagement, greeting people and conversing is accepted and desired and parents often teach these social norms to their children from a young age. “Some parents find it frustrating or embarrassing when their little one doesn’t greet other people and will say things such as ‘Stop being shy’ or ‘You’re not being a very nice boy/girl now’,” says Candice. “However, the fact is that toddlers and young children are only starting to develop the awareness of others at this age and may feel unsure, confused or afraid about interacting with strangers or even people they know. It’s not because they’re being naughty or rude but because they’re trying to figure things out for themselves which is why being punitive about their emotions during these interactions won’t help to achieve the desired interaction.”
Assist your little one by introducing the person to her and if she’s apprehensive, acknowledge this by comforting her, then give her the space to warm up to that person at her own pace.
A freelance journalist and content writer with a passion for people and health. She has worked in the magazine industry for many years and is a regular contributor to Living and Loving.