The notion of parenting a toddler can frighten even the most tough-minded mompreneurs amongst us. This probably isn’t helped by terms such as ‘terrible two’s,’ and jokes like “Having a two-year-old is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it”
Sure, toddlers and preschoolers get a bad rap; but they do sometimes seem like tiny drunken creatures who topple everything in their path. Not to mention their tremendous noise and energy, mood swings, and growing need for independence.
While their lack of coordination and communication skills can be endearing and often hilarious; they are also quite capable of leaving moms in a frenzied state of frustration. For example, let’s consider the situation below.
The Grocery Store Blow-out
In this relatable example, mom and her cranky 3-year-old find themselves in a long line at a grocery store. The child decides she’s had enough shopping and proceeds to throw each item out of the cart while emitting a blood-curdling scream.
The busy mom, who really needs to get the shopping done, tells her to stop; perhaps by asking her nicely, or trying to reason with her – “people are looking!”.
When this doesn’t’ work, she might switch method to commanding, pleading, threatening, negotiating, or anything else mom can think of in her desperation. But the child is out of control and beyond reason. Mom wants an immediate end to the humiliation; but she may not realize that some quick fixes intended to placate his child, will only make her life worse in the long run.
So, what is she to do?
Before going into specific solutions for this situation, it is essential that moms understand this developmental stage. There are reasons for the child’s aggravating behaviors; reasons that are biologically programmed to ensure survival.
For example, kids aged two-to-three are beginning to understand that there are a lot of things that seem scary in the world. As such, they may become anxious about a variety of situations; like strangers, bad dreams, extreme weather, creepy images, doctor and dentist offices, monsters, certain animals, slivers or other minor medical issues, etc.
While these childhood fears make life more difficult for parents (i.e., when a child won’t stay in his/her room at night due to monsters and darkness, or when a child makes an enormous fuss when left with a babysitter), they are actually an indicator of maturity.
The child is reacting in a way that supports positive development by fearing and avoiding perceived dangers. While fear of monsters does not reflect a truly dangerous situation, avoidance of individuals who appear mean or aggressive is certainly in the child’s best interest.
Similarly, fear of strangers is an innate protective mechanism that prompts children to stay close to those adults who keep them healthy and safe. And some strangers indeed should be feared. Although a challenge for parents, young children who overestimate dangers with consistent false-positives are employing their survival instincts.
It’s important to respect a child’s fears and not punishing her/him for them. Talk to the child in a way that shows empathy and helps him/her to verbalize their feelings. One of the keys of effective discipline is to see short-term challenges as opportunities to work toward your long-term goals.
With this objective in mind, any steps a parent takes when dealing with a frightened or misbehaving child should always be taken with consideration of their potential long-term impact. Long-term goals may be hard to think about when a child is challenging and a frustrated parent simply wants the behavior to stop.
However, punishing types of behaviors such as yelling, are not likely to be in-line with long-term parenting goals. By visualizing their preschooler as a high school student or even an adult, it can help parents to ensure that their immediate responses are in-line with the kind, peaceful and responsible person they wish to see in 15 years or so. Examples of long-term parenting goals include”
- Maintaining a quality relationship with the parent
- Taking responsibility for actions
- Being respectful of others
- Knowing right from wrong
- Making wise decisions
- Being honest, loyal and trustworthy
Grocery Store Blow-out Solutions
Long-term parenting goals are highly relevant to the maddening grocery store example. If mom only thinks about the short-term goal of making her daughter’s behavior stop embarrassing her at the store, she might decide to tell her she can have a candy bar if she is quiet and stops throwing items from the cart.
This way, mom might reason, she can finish her shopping quickly and without humiliation. Sure, this might work as far as getting the child to behave on that day— at that moment; BUT here are some likely consequences:
- Next time they go shopping, she will do this again in order to receive the candy reward.
- Pretty much every time they go shopping, she will do the same thing; and the value of the reward is likely to escalate as she gets tired of the candy.
- She will learn that this behavior can get her rewards in all sorts of places beyond the grocery store, thus making her exhausted mom afraid to take her anywhere.
Moreover, the message she receives from the candy tactic will not reinforce the qualities mom likely wants to see in his daughter over time, such as:
- Being respectful of her parents
- Being respectful of others around her
- Being respectful of others’ property
- Being responsible for her behavior
- Being courteous and considerate
- Being helpful
- Knowing right from wrong
- Having good manners
- Having good social skills
Therefore, mom might instead deal with this situation by calmly telling her that she needs to stop or she will get a time-out. The time-out can take place somewhere in the store that is not reinforcing for her, such as a quiet corner with no people around (e.g., no audience). Or they can go sit in the car.
If the store is especially crowded, mom might also ask to place her cart in a safe place until she returns. After a brief time-out, she should give her daughter a hug and let her know the rules for the remainder of the shopping trip, as well as the consequences of not following them.
In some cases, it might be better for the parent to simply leave the store without the groceries and go home. Mom won’t have completed his shopping, but that will be a small price for having a child who learns a good lesson on how to behave.
Very importantly, however; if mom does take her home, this absolutely cannot be done in a way that is rewarding (i.e., she gets to go home and play, watch tv, or anything else she enjoys). She will need a time-out immediately upon arriving home, as well as perhaps the message that dinner won’t be her favorite tonight since the shopping was not done.
This is not meant to be punitive or sarcastic, more of a natural consequence for her to learn from (e.g., “If I act-out at the store, we won’t have my favorite foods in the house”). In fact, even though she may not feel like it, mom needs to speak to his daughter in a kind and loving way.
Regardless of whether the consequence is in the store or at home, mom absolutely must follow-through consistently. If she doesn’t, she will teach her that sometimes she can misbehave and still get what she wants; this is a pattern of reinforcement that is really difficult to break.
Of course, we cannot leave the store each time she misbehaves, as you won’t get anything done and moms also giving her too much control. Mom should prepare in advance for future shopping trips by making her aware of the shopping rules, expectations for her behavior, and the consequences if she breaks them.
Be specific about such things, as “I expect you to be good at the store” is not clear. Saying something more like “The rules for shopping are that you need to talk in your quiet voice, listen to mommy, sit still in the cart, help mommy give the items to the clerk, etc.”
Mom might also give her something to do while shopping, such as by bringing her favorite book or helping to put items in the cart. Giving the daughter choices will also help her feel a sense of control (i.e., “You can either help put the items in the cart or you can help give them to the clerk”).
And, finally, the little girl should be rewarded for her polite shopping behavior with a great deal of praise (i.e., “You were a very good girl at the store today. You really helped mommy and I enjoyed spending time with you”).
He might also reward her with a special experience (i.e., “You were so helpful at the store, that we saved enough time to go the park later” or “You were such a great helper today; can you also help mommy make dinner?”). Of course, the reward should not consist of food, since that can lead to various other problems.
It’s always wise to remember that your toddler or preschooler does not act the way he/she does in order to torture you— it’s not personal.
There are always underlying reasons for these behaviors. Just keep your cool, plan-ahead, think about your long-term goals, and remember that your adorable little monster will only be this age for a brief time!