Toddlerhood, or the ages between 2 and 5 years old, is a notoriously difficult time of life. As children start to gain some greater skills with their language, mobility, and adaptive skills, they try to further assert their independence by rebelling against their parents. This can result in a lot of frustration for both parents and toddlers as power struggles and tantrums rise to the forefront of the relationship. However, there are plenty of ways parents can try to manage their out-of-control 2-5 years old children to reign in their troubling behavior and turn toddlerhood into a magical stage of childhood for everyone.
1. Provide autonomy
One of the main sources of the struggle between 2 – 5 years old children and their parents is the struggle for independence. Toddlers, freshly out of infancy, want to establish themselves as their own person. Of course, this desire for autonomy conflicts directly with the simple fact that they still rely on their parents for most of their everyday needs, with parents managing everything from what they eat to when they go to bed.
The best way to help a toddler respect your decisions and authority is to allow them selective autonomy. If they go through their entire day without feeling like they have any control, that will build resentment and insecurity that will lead to them dragging their feet, kicking, and screaming at every decision made for them. Instead, allow them to establish their own autonomy over certain choices that are safe for them to make on their own, with options curated by a parent. When they get a chance to pick out their outfit from a few weather-appropriate choices laid out before them, they’ll be much happier to get dressed in the morning. If you give them a chance to pick out their lunch for the day, they’ll be much more likely to happily eat the food that’s put in front of them.
Autonomy can also be given by assigning your toddler a job or helper task so they can feel productive and capable. Maybe you can have your child water the plants each morning, or scoop kibble into the cat’s dish each day. Some older 4 – 5 years old children might even be great to have as a helper in the kitchen making dinner, or carrying the groceries in from the car. If they feel like they are active and involved in the day’s activities, they’ll feel much more secure and capable and be less likely to rebel.
2. Validate feelings
As adults, it’s all too easy to look at the wild and out-of-control emotions of 2-5 years old children and dismiss them. After all, toddlers tend to get upset over the simplest or most ridiculous of situations. When your toddler is throwing a maximum-volume tantrum at the park because the bird they were chasing flew away, it’s difficult to see their tantrum as anything but silly.
However, 2-5 years old children are brand new to complex emotions and their language skills are minimal at best. They’re also new to the world, and often don’t know what to expect. They’re likely to have strong emotions about the simplest of things and have very little way to express what they’re feeling other than to scream and cry. To them, the bird flying away is extremely upsetting, even though it might be hard to see it that way from an adult perspective.
Rather than dismissing their feelings or punishing them for tantrumming at the park, take a moment to offer validation for their feelings. Offer some physical comfort, like a hug, and narrate for them the feelings they’re having. Saying something like “I can see that you’re really upset, the bird flying away was really disappointing.” can both assure them that you understand their feelings while also providing them with a great model of emotional communication for them to learn from.
Responding to strong emotions by dismissing their feelings or punishing their outburst could make them more frustrated and resentful. It also doesn’t help the root of the problem, which is their own difficulty with identifying, expressing, and coping with emotions.
3. Follow their interest
2-5 years old children are bright and curious children. They’re quite likely to get very focused on new activities, be drawn towards interesting sensations, and spend a lot of time exploring new subjects. However, their focus is often wild and unpredictable, and it can be very hard to direct their attention towards what you want them to be paying attention to. Trying to force a toddler to direct their focus onto something they don’t want can feel like pulling teeth, and lead to a lot of confrontation and frustration.
Rather than making your toddler focus on the activity you’d like them to do, spend some time following their lead. Let their interest and engagement guide your decisions, and inform the choices you make. By showing that they can choose what they’re interested in, they’re going to be much more excited and engaged with the activity.
For example, rather than sitting your toddler down to do an academic activity or worksheet, ask what kind of toys or activities interest them. Once they’ve chosen something that they’re more interested in playing with, you can find a way to enrich that activity to make it more educational or enriching. If your child is most interested in playing with Legos, show them how to build various geometric shapes. If your child is most interested in splashing around in a tub of water, add in some water toys like measuring cups so they can learn about measurement and volume.
4. Hold firm boundaries
Equally as important as giving your child freedom is knowing where to draw your boundaries. 2-5 years old children are smart, and they recognize patterns easily. If they start to notice that you’ll go back on your word when you categorize something as off-limits, they’ll be much less likely to respect those directions in the future.
It can be hard to stick to your guns when dealing with a screaming, crying toddler. That’s why it’s important to start with only drawing hard boundaries around the things that are very important. Great hard boundaries to start with are that your toddler must wear their seatbelt in the car, or brush their teeth before they go to bed.
When there’s a firm restriction on an activity, start by making it very clear with your child and phrasing it positively but clearly with them, such as “Your feet need to go on the floor. It isn’t safe to climb on the bookshelf.” From then on, you have to be immovable on that boundary. If your child learns that by kicking, screaming, pushing, or crying your boundaries will be moved, it will be their first go-to strategy from now on.
If your child does start to scream or cry in response to being told no, you can stay firm in your boundary while still staying calm. Comfort your child and speak to them with the same emotionally validating language that you would whenever they have a tantrum at any other time. Calmly repeat the boundary as many times as you need to for your child to understand it.
Having your toddler respect boundaries may take time, and you may have to suffer through a good number of screaming tantrums before they start to subside. However, it’s far better than the alternative of teaching them that they only need to start screaming and crying to get whatever they want.
5. Build a positive foundation
When you have an out-of-control 2-3 years old toddler or 4-5 years old preschooler, it can feel like the behavioral issues dominate your relationship with your child. You can wind up spending much of your interactions feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. That kind of interaction makes it hard to spend much time building up a positive relationship with your toddler or develop much of a bond as they continue to grow.
However, being able to form a positive baseline relationship with one another is critical to being able to foster respect and trust between the two of you. If your child feels like their relationship with a parent is mostly spent being punished, corrected, and controlled, they’re not going to be likely to relax enough to listen to what you have to say.
Try to carve some time out each day to spend together doing whatever your toddler loves the most, where they are most likely to be well behaved. This could vary widely, from running around after each other at the park, reading a few stories together, or coloring together at the kitchen table. Whatever it is, make time each day to have relaxed, happy quality time with one another. Then even if the rest of the day is frustrating, you will still have a chance to build that positive relationship together and preserve your bond through the hard times.