How much parental control is too much or too little? By parental control, I refer to our ability to be the final voice in a disagreement, our persuasive reasoning that permits us to outwit our toddlers and our physical superiority that enables us to whisk a misbehaving child away from the “scene of the crime” and place them in time-out.
By the end of their first year, babies are already savvy to the importance of control. The metamorphosis from baby to toddler grants young children new physical capabilities that aid their fight for control over their body, activities, food, etc… How should parents respond to these demands?
Research in the field of child development reveals that parents who dictate too many aspects of their child’s life (think Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother), even with loving intentions, inhibit healthy development and promote an unhealthy parental/child bond, among other things. Research also reveals that young children who successfully stage a toddler coup and assume complete control of their household can end up with a wide variety of emotional and behavioral disorders as well. Where can we, as parents, draw a line in the sand between being subject to every whim of our toddlers and being a ruthless monarch?
The topic of control came to mind after reviewing a few results of newly published studies this week, coupled with my husband and I meeting to redevelop our discipline strategy for our two-and-a-half year old who is currently staging a coup at home. Be comforted, Fellow Parent, you are not alone if your home is plagued by constant tears, tantrums and other negative behaviors. I am right in the battlefield with you!
Every toddler goes through a difficult, control phase. It is necessary and normal for a young child to grapple for control with authority, in fact never doing so can be a cause for concern. (Breathe a sigh of relief… your toddler’s huge meltdown at the market doesn’t make you a bad parent, despite others’ judgmental stares).
How can parents ameliorate the difficult controlling toddler phase? If you live with an opinionated toddler and desire sanity and domestic tranquility, try out the following three researched-based suggestions with me:
1) Play Therapy: Not the type of therapy that costs $150+ a session, rather the free and simple type of play that happens at home or at the park. Turn off your smart phones, sit and engage in 30 minutes of uninterrupted play with your toddler. Research suggests that parents should restrain their desire to direct the play (red paint verses blue, putting the doll in the buggy verses in the high chair, drawing a specific shape verses free flow, etc…). Playtime is one of the most, if not the most, important parts of a child’s day. Play allows children to process events and information and to work though their thoughts, fears and hopes. Scientific research suggests that just being near and responsive to your child (not washing dishes or typing an email) while they play can make a positive impact on your rapport and deepen the level of their play, thereby decreasing controlling, negative behavior.
2) Inundate with Choice: If a toddler is constantly exploding over situations like being handed the green bowl instead of the hard to reach red bowl, then he is crying out for choice, power and influence. Take the time to invest in offering inconsequential choices to him at every opportunity. Do you want to play with this ball first or the truck? Do you like green or yellow? Would you like to wear the sweater or the shirt? Instead of assuming control over most choices for your child (any other type-A parents out there who have to fight this urge?), inundate them with options. The novelty of choice will quickly wear off when your child is ready. As anyone who has ever built their own house or ordered from a restaurant with an enormous menu, like The Cheesecake Factory, can tell you, too many choices quickly becomes overwhelming. The brain will revert to a more expeditious way of thinking as it begins to value efficiency (trusting others’ decisions) over choice.
3) Pick Your Battles: A toddler who is in the midst of coup cannot be reasoned with, but it is important that the battle result with loving boundaries being affirmed and upheld. Of course, this means that you have to be ready to do so. It would be exhausting and defeating to affirm loving boundaries if you have too many. Perhaps your toddler is ready to pick out their own outfit, choose their own cereal and choose where to sit at the table. Research teaches that children need to operate within a consistent environment. How exhausting for a parent to have to have everything “just so”. It would be much easier and pleasant to relinquish some of the less important areas of control in an effort to focus on the more important points. For instance, save your time and energy to demand a polite “please” when your toddler asks for something, but be ready to look the other way then they choose to not put on socks with their shoes.
Essentially, in all three cases, your focus in winning the toddler coup is on relinquishing control over areas of life that really don’t matter while holding firm on areas that do. For instance, give your toddler more control over where you direct your time and attention (play therapy), but hold firm on the way they ask for attention (screaming for Daddy verses asking for Daddy). Choose your battles wisely, as having to wash your child’s jeans because they choose to jump in a mud puddle (inundate with choices) is much less relevant than ensuring your child holds your hand in the parking lot (toddlers just love to fight required hand holding!) to avoid being hit by a car.
The Intelligent Nest is proud of its parents and believes in your competence to choose how to parent and your deep, unmovable love for your children. Go out there Mom and Dad and fight the toddler coup with love. They’ll respect and adore you for not letting them win.