9 Best Ways to Stay (Mostly) Unruffled With Toddlers

Toddlers are experts at ruffling our feathers, but these tiny people mean no disrespect. Testing our limits (and patience) is impulsive behavior on their part and a developmentally appropriate way to seek answers to important questions like:

Am I safe and cared for?

Do I have confident leaders? 

Are they with me or against me? 

Is it okay to want what I want and feel what I’m feeling? 

Am I a bad kid?

While probing those larger questions, toddlers are also asking us to clarify (and re-clarify) our expectations – the ‘house rules’. For example:

    • What will my parents do if I… (hit the dog, push my sister, throw my food, put the brakes on when I’m supposed to be getting ready to leave the house)?
    • Is this decision mine or my parents’… (to go to bed, get into my car seat, hold my dad’s hand in the parking lot)?

If we don’t consistently give our toddlers the answers they need to feel guided, secure, and understood, they will usually need to continue “asking” through resistance and testing.

As parents we are not always able to ace these tests. We’re human, we get tired and triggered, and that means we’re going to lose our composure at least occasionally. That’s okay. If we remain at least somewhat consistent, composed and clear, we’ll get our messages across successfully. Here are some suggestions that have helped me and the parents I’ve worked with over the years stay unruffled:

      1. Gain perspective

Our attitude toward limit-pushing behavior is everything, and our perspective is what defines our attitude. Testing, limit-pushing, defiance and resistance are healthy signs that our toddlers are developing independence and autonomy. If we say “green”, toddlers are almost required to say “blue”, even if green is their favorite color, because if toddlers want what we want, they can’t assert themselves as individuals.

Add to these challenges a lack of impulse control and general emotional turbulence, and you’ll see why I recommend perceiving toddlers more like mental health patients than unruly kids. Toddlers need our help, not anger or punishments.

And when they are experiencing stress, fear or other strong emotions, impulsive behaviors intensify. It’s no surprise that the majority of the parents contacting me with behavior issues have a new baby, or are expecting one, or are dealing with some other major change that their child is reacting to. Unfortunately, our toddlers aren’t able to share their feelings about these situations on cue. Instead, they might share them by screaming “no!” in response to a direction, or melting down because we denied them one more cookie, or reacting melodramatically to some other seemingly insignificant disappointment. That’s why we mustn’t judge these overreactions, but rather try to understand and welcome them. Rather than getting offended when our child screams because we poured too much syrup on his pancakes, try to remember that this is really just an outlet for much deeper disappointments.

Perspective is such a crucial element to staying unruffled that I’ve written on this topic extensively, especially HERE and HERE and HERE.

      1. Perceive conflict and strong emotions positively (or at least a little less negatively)

Many of us received the message as children that strong displays of emotion are unacceptable and conflicts are to be feared. Unfortunately, this perspective makes it next to impossible to stay unruffled with toddlers, who (as I explained above) need to disagree with us and feel safe expressing their strong emotions. Shifting this paradigm is one of our biggest challenges as parents and yet, enormously freeing.

We gradually make this shift when we practice acknowledging our child’s point of view (for most of us the last thing we feel like doing when we are in conflict!). It needs to be perfectly okay for children to want what they want, even when we won’t give it to them. No matter how unfair or ridiculous our child’s stance seems, we don’t coerce, argue or judge.

      1. Have reasonable expectations

Gaining perspective helps us to know what to expect. Then we aren’t as inclined to set ourselves up to be surprised or offended when our child, for example, refuses to follow our most polite and reasonable directions, or won’t stop trying to annoy us when we’re making dinner, or demands more, more, more of whatever it is. What she actually needs is to explode.

During the toddler years, our most reasonable expectation is the unreasonable.  Expecting the madness makes it far easier to keep our cool.

      1. Be preventative, prepared, proactive

A bit more about expectations: our toddlers are naturally curious explorers, so placing them in situations in which this inclination is unwelcome is a set-up for mutual frustration. Also keep in mind that toddlers are easily overstimulated and fatigued and can seem to go from full to famished in no time flat.

Being prepared and proactive means recognizing there’s an excellent chance our toddlers are not going to follow our directions or agree to our limits. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t proceed with confidence (we need to project confidence). It means we won’t ask more than once (because that is a quick path to our annoyance and anger), and whenever the situation allows, we’ll ask in a manner that gives our children a choice and a bit of time so that they can save face. (Remember that toddlers need to disagree to own their new, more independent place in the world. In the toddler code book, compliance means weakness.)

Then there’s the back-up option: “Can you do this on your own, or will you need me to give you a helping hand?” This obviously isn’t about what children can or can’t do as much as what they are willing to do in that moment. If we are always ready for our toddlers to need a helping hand (no questions asked), we can remain unruffled, be firm and gentle rather than forceful and angry.

Don’t anticipate willingness and you won’t be disappointed.

And, by the way, toddlers aren’t great at clearing up their toys and will usually need a helping hand, or a special basket, or a gentle logical consequence like “we can’t take out more toys until we put these away”. 

      1. Act as if…

Integral to the approach I teach (Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach) is our authenticity as parents. But since handling our children’s behavior issues non-punitively is a hugely important and noble goal that does not seem to come naturally to many of us, acting as if can definitely help.

Acting as if we’re unruffled does not mean adopting stern expressions and voices or forcing laughter and games. It means imagining we’ve been handling these situations for so many years that we’re completely calm and comfortable, so it’s easy to be direct, definitive and physically follow through when that’s needed.

Once we begin to notice how effective we can be, we build the confidence we need to stop acting.

      1. Use imagery

Two images that have worked for me are the CEO (No Bad Kids) and my superhero shield (Tantrums and Meltdowns – My Secret for Staying Calm When My Kids Aren’t). Use one of these or find a personal image that is confidence-building and helps you to feel calm and create the bit of emotional distance you need.

      1. Practice, it gets easier

Each small success bolsters our confidence as parents, makes expressing our personal boundaries easier, and positively affects every relationship in our life.

      1. Recognize personal triggers, projections and weaknesses

Practicing self-reflection helps us to know our triggers (almost as well as our child does!), and then we can begin to understand them.  Recognition is the first step toward change, and changing old patterns of response for the sake of our children is profoundly healing.

      1. Find support

The toddler years are an intense time. To remain mostly unruffled, parents of toddlers need a shoulder to cry on and some may need the support of a coach, counselor or therapist. Let your children be the inspiration to get the help you need.

I share more about the tricky, yet terrific toddler years in

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by Tony Garcia on Flickr)

13 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you very much for this great article. It gave me a great perspective, especially with those simple questions: “Am I safe and cared for? Do I have confident leaders? Are they with me or against me? Is it okay to want what I want and feel what I’m feeling? Am I a bad kid?”

    I have a question about number 8: “Recognize personal triggers, projections and weaknesses” if you don’t mind me asking 🙂

    I am now able to “welcome” any feeling (anger, sadness…) without reacting firmly like in the past, i still feel stressed but the feeling of her having a hard time makes me want to understand her instead of making things OK or go away – which is a good sign 🙂

    my question is: i can now feel when i’m getting tired repeating stuff i want done, and can feel the frustration coming. So now, i am basically saying something like (translated) “i feel the anger coming, darling, i’m asking please do/go….”

    do you think that’s ok?
    I am now anticipating, telling her like, “am i now going to get dressed, and when i’m done, we’re going to get you dressed for daycare” but this doesn’t always work (especially with nappy change)
    I try to stay as calm as possible, even if it takes us 2 hours to get ready in the morning – but sometimes I just can’t. is there a good way to do that? (she’s 2.5 by the way)
    Thanks again for everything

  2. Thank you for your knowledge! I do pretty well at not losing my cool but these tips will keep me in check. I have conflicting feelings when my son (2 yrs) has a meltdown. When he gets mad he bites things, USUALLY not us but the baby gate, fridge handle, coffee table, etc. He will bite down hard and just scream and cry. Sometimes he draws blood from his lips. How do I handle this? I feel like i have to intervene and redirect so he’ll stop doing it. How do I let him express his feelings but get him to stop biting?

  3. Hi,

    Thanks for your valuable tips about Parenting. I am also a mother of 2 year old daughter and I know how naughty she is. Your tips is really helpful to calm in irritating situations as well.
    Really its not easy to handle toddlers.

  4. Maintaining perspective is particularly important. After my baby was born five months ago my eldest daughter (almost 3 now) really struggled. I couldn’t leave them alone together as the oldest would bite, hit, push, squash etc etc the baby (and its only just starting to ease now). I felt totally out of my depth and was so stressed until I changed my perspective. One night I went through many of your posts Janet and wrote down key sentences/themes that stood out to me (e.g. this is a phase and it will pass; I don’t need to buy into the drama; I need to be her calm and confident leader; She needs me to remain calm). If I feel myself starting to go crazy again then I come back to that piece of paper and it really helps to get my perspective back and ground me. Thanks so much for all your hard work Janet!

  5. avatar Melissa Laurel says:

    This is one of the most helpful articles I’ve read on raising a toddler…and I’ve read a LOT of them. It makes me sad to say it, but being prepared for the unreasonable and for the challenge of not getting triggered is stressful enough that I find myself dreading the days when my child isn’t in daycare and I’ll be with him all day. Even when I feel confident in the way I’ve handled his unwillingness, being on high alert all the time is exhausting. I wish it felt more joyful to be with him.

  6. Hi I really enjoy your blog. Do you know of any people running RIE classes in Melbourne Australia?
    Thanks, Caroline

  7. Another brilliant, thorough look at so many aspects of what it means to be human. Most of these same principles apply all the way up the chronological ladder of life and also all the way up to the top of the power pyramid of society.

  8. Awesome post with some excellent insights. Keep up the great work! I’ll need it as I raise my now 2 week old.

  9. avatar Tamrah Dehn says:

    This was so helpful thank you:)

  10. My soon-to-be 3 year old is extremely particular about what clothes she will wear. She does not want to wear long sleeves or long pants. The problem is, we live in Oregon and it is often too cold to be wearing minimal clothing. I have tried reasoning with her, but she kicks and screams and cries more times than not. Sometimes I have to force her clothes onto her flailing arms and legs, against her will, just so we can leave the house. I really hate having to do that. I know she is testing me (yes, she has a 5 month old “new” sibling), but I also wonder if she just really does not like to wear long sleeves and pants. It’s been going on for a couple of months now. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    1. I have found that letting my child wear less than i would put her in is the best way forward for us. She keeps telling me she likes the cold, and it seems she must as she will run about the house naked most of the time! But i decided i wouldnt make the “put your jacket on” into a thing as i have noticed that most teenagers will wear unsuitable clothing and i think its because they have now finally got the freedom to choose and will a) rebel just because and b) havent been given the opportunity before to figure out their own temperature needs, so have to experiment. I take more clothes with me, a jacket or whatnot (maybe you would need to take more as it sounds v cold, we are a bit middle ground in wales) and let her know that if she is cold i have it for her if she needs it. I then ignore the voice inside saying “but shes going to catch coooold!” and wait for her to ask me. Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesnt, but i dont have any coat arguments with her and honestly she doesnt have more colds than other kids. If i think shes cold i will ask her if she is and remind her i’ve got a coat but if she says she isnt i leave it be. I also try not to ask more than once in case i turn it into something to rebel against. If i know its a bit of a chilly day when im getting her dressed i will automatically give her the choice between different acceptable clothes – which trousers would you like to wear? shall i choose them or will you? Most of the time she wants to go out so if she starts mucking about i let her know that if she doesnt get dressed we cant go, and she tends to get on with it then. Its a lot harder when you NEED to go out so cant offer that consequence! I imagine yours might go out and be very cold for a while initially, if you were to allow her to wear less, but over time im sure she will learn when she is truly cold and ask you for that jacket! Hope things get easier for you guys 🙂

  11. I’m reading this post, and it keeps saying toddler. Is everything applicable to an older child also or should I handle a 6 year old differently then what you state? His acting out seems to be asking these questions over and over again, and I’m questioning now if he should be further along than a toddler developmentally? We’re going through a particularly challenging transition right now (new baby, and starting school again soon) so it seems that this might be complicating things? Academically he is a very smart child, but has always been very sensitive and feels emotions very strongly. Your words be preventative, prepared, and proactive, always seem to be in my mind. Have you by chance written an article for older children also? Thank you!

    1. Most of this advice would definitely apply… but might “look” slightly different with a 6 year old. For one thing, your child is more verbal than a toddler, so, much of his testing will be verbal (as in the repeated questions). Rather than allowing each question to bother you or make you feel responsible for responding each time, I would respond once and then let him go on and on… let this rolll off your back. After he asks the same question several times, you might acknowledge again (very calmly and comfortably), “Hmmm… you’re still wondering about the ____” I would not repeat your answer to his question, because he definitely heard that the first time (and probably even knew it before he asked). He is doing this because he has noticed it gets to you, and it is also an expression of some feelings he’s having (similar to whining, etc.). So, rise above this and let it flow!

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