Forever saying ‘no’ to your toddler? How to get out of a negative discipline cycle

toddlers are natural explorers

Toddlers are great explorers…well that’s a nice way of putting it :)

It’s a tricky job isn’t it, finding the right balance between freedom and appropriate boundaries?

“No! Don’t do that! You can’t jump on that! Get down from there! Stop Climbing/hitting/____fill in the blank!” Some days you may feel like ‘the wheels on the bus are going round and round’ but all you want to do is get off.

Depending on the age and temperament of your little one, just the hint of “no” in the tone of your voice may send them flying into an uncontrollable display of emotion.

Constantly saying ‘no’ can wear you down too and create that feeling of endlessly doing battle. It can also quickly become ineffective.

So how can we avoid getting into this negative cycle in the first place and make our attempts at boundaries more effective?

Pause before you say no. Not everything necessarily needs a ‘no’ response. The old expression of ‘pick your battles’ applies here, although I would challenge the choice of words. Consistency is important, especially with young children, so deciding that one day a particular behaviour is ok and the next they are not allowed to do it will be confusing for them and hard work for you. But if no precident has been set then ask yourself, do I really need to veto this?

Ask for what you want, not what you don’t want. When you do need to direct behaviour, be specific. Name the behaviour you want to see and avoid using the word ‘don’t’. For example rather than ‘don’t jump on the furniture’, consider the request, ‘please sit on your bottom’.

Your little one’s brain finds it hard to process “don’ts”, in fact, we all do. If I say don’t think of a pink bicycle…oooops there it is right there in your mind. No really, don’t think of a pink bicycle, I meant it, and especially don’t think of a pink bicycle being ridden by a monkey wearing a red fez. Stop it, stop thinking about that pink bicycle right now, the monkey is having so much fun I know but just stop thinking about it..!

You get my point. The human brain finds it very hard to process negative commands and by using words like ‘don’t’ you are likely to be programming your child to keep doing the very things you want them to avoid.

Let’s look at it another way, imagine going to your favourite cafe. You stand at the counter with the barista eager to take your order “Well” you say “I don’t fancy a latte today and it’s too cold for a smoothie, those pastries look nice but I don’t want almonds, I am hungry but I really don’t want any of the carrot cake today thank you, oh no, not a croissant that’s way too messy, some kind of tea would be nice but caffeine isn’t my thing and nothing with syrup in it, I prefer milk….” what are the chances your barista will be able to correctly intuit that which you really want?  But then you wouldn’t order that way would you? You would simply ask for a decaf tea with milk and a lovely slice of homemade flap-jack slightly warmed please.

Check your tone of voice, facial expression and body language. Regardless of what we say, most of our message is delivered non-verbally. If you are getting a confrontational or unco-operative response from your child, check that your body positioning isn’t overly dominating or aggressive. Get down to their level, lower the tone of your voice, make good eye contact. We all know that shouting requests from a distance or the next room is rarely effective and just creates a heated atmosphere.

Short and sweet is a treat. No-one likes a lecture and most young people will quickly tune out from a rambling sermon chastising their latest excapade. Instead keep requests very short and simple and avoid getting into debate or long winded explanation. It will also help reduce the anger you might feel at being ignored.

Set expectations before you go to places, don’t overwhelm very young toddlers with this. For older children, clarifying one or two specific behaviours that you may like to see can provide positive opportunities for self discipline and praise. This should be delivered very carefully though to avoid it being a list of don’ts and putting undue pressure on a child to ‘perform’.

Have realistic expectations. Expecting an 18 month old to occupy themselves without getting into trouble while you are on a 45 minute phone call, is probably not realistic. Equally expecting young very children to be able to control their impulses all of the time is just setting you up for frustration. Children live in the moment. They may need repetition for things to sink in, but they will get it eventually. Having age-appropriate expectations will reduce your stress and the need for constant confrontation.

Shift your focus. Negativity can quickly become habitual and we create more of the things that we focus on. To shift out of a nitpicking mindset it helps to start paying more attention to the good stuff. What delights you about your child? What do they do well? Actively seek out opportunities for praise and encouragement. This has the added bonus of creating more of the desired behaviour in a non-directive and relaxed way.

Become a spin doctor, avoid negative labels, and acknowledge positive motivations for behaviour. Most events not only have a silver lining but can be looked at in a way that actually makes them positive and most behaviours can be re-labelled more helpfully for both parent and child. Mastering this skill is so useful as a parent, even a trip to the dentist can seem like a treat when given the right set up.

Adopting inherently negative labels isn’t helpful to us or our children. Phrases like the “terrible two’s” or “troublesome teenager” for example just set up an unfair expectation that our children can’t help but live into. It also clouds and twists our perception of their actions in a wholly unhelpful way.

When your teenager leaves their dirty PE kit crumpled up on their school bag or struggles to get up in the morning, they aren’t deliberately being lazy, the inner chaos created by the hormone surge and this stage of development is challenging for them and means they have a completely different set of priorities.

When your toddler pulls out the contents of the larder and leaves behind them a trail of crushed cornflakes and open boxes, they are not being willfully destructive, they are exploring,  living in the moment, moving from one exciting event to the next, or perhaps just trying to reduce the painful feeling of boredom.

When we trust that our child’s motivations are inherently good and part of their natural process, rather than an attempt to sabotage the happiness and sanity of their parents, our world is transformed into a much less stressful place for all concerned.

Respond with a yes first. Very quickly children learn to recognise the tone of voice that comes before a ‘no’ and many tantrums can be avoided using a ‘yes but later’ kind of approach. This way your child feels that their request has been heard and acknowledged but you are able to direct behaviour to an appropriate time or place.

cj shoes

Take a walk in their shoes. Constantly having to react to situations as they arise is exhausting. Be proactive and remove hazards before your child ‘gets into’ something they shouldn’t and reduce the need to say no in the first place. Get down to their level and take a walk in their shoes around your home. What you notice from a child’s perspective may be quite different from what we see from our higher vantage point. A quick scan of a room as you enter it will tell you if there are coffee cups, trip hazards, chocolate biscuits, felt tips…any number of things that your child can easily create havoc with.

It can help also to remember that your child isn’t deliberately trying to make your life a misery (despite outward appearances). It’s very challenging, confusing and sometimes frightening being a small person in a big persons world. The chances are if your child is ‘acting up’ there is a genuine reason for it. Check out this post for a further look at motivations for perceived ‘mis-behaviour’.

There will inevitably be times when “No” is the only appropriate response, particularly where safety is concerned. If our children know us to be reasonable, people with their best interests at heart, then their response to these boundaries will be less dramatic and our efforts more effective.
With a conscious and compassionate approach we will create an atmosphere of freedom and respect where our children feel safe and supported. With this foundation they can go out into the world and confidently explore, feeling safe to make necessary mistakes assured in the unconditional nature of our love for them. And we won’t feel like we have to strap on the combat gear just to get through the day.

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