Staying calm in the face of a tantrum or even low-grade whining can trigger any parent’s frustration. The best practice is to stay armed with a host of positive parenting solutions. In this article, we’ll explain the positive parenting mindset and provide some concrete use cases.
First, let’s clarify what positive parenting means.
The fundamental assumptions of this parenting approach are:
- The parent or caregiver’s role is to teach the child, not to punish the child. When a child makes a mistake (spilling) or a poor choice (hitting), the adult uses the opportunity to demonstrate boundaries or consequences.
- Consequences should be related to the behavior. For example, if a child throws a cup, they should go pick up the cup. Taking away screentime for throwing is an example of an unrelated consequence. We’ll come back to that later.
- Undesirable behavior is communication. The role of the adult is to identify what unmet need is being communicated. The child might be anxious, tired, hungry, or overstimulated. Young children don’t have the ability to verbalize their needs, but parents will have more success with trying to meet a need than punishing a child for expressing their unhappiness.
- Feelings are valid. In the positive parenting framework, we accept that children have feelings and work to give them awareness and names of their feelings. As they grow, feeling that they have permission to say “This toy is so frustrating!” or “Grandpa’s loud voice is scaring me,” will help resolve conflicts and build trust between parents and children. When children know their parents accept their feelings, they can communicate more freely.
In the spur of the moment, amid tears and screams, it’s impossible to be discerning about everything you say–we’re parents, we get it! But when you can use them, these tactics will help.
Here are some ideas to keep in your toolbox. Use them in whatever way works for your unique family.
Positive Parenting Examples: Talking With Your Toddler
Remind rather than demand.
In place of “Sit down!” you might say “In our home, we sit at the table when we eat.” Using a phrase like this to remind children of the desired behaviors or rules can be more effective than issuing commands. It will help avoid power struggles between you and your child and will make them feel more independent and in control of their environment.
Tell your child what they can do.
Toddlers like to hear what they can do rather than what they can’t (just like adults!), and this adjustment will encourage self-confidence and independence. Instead of telling them, “Don’t get paint on the table!” you might say, “You can paint on the white paper.” Toddlers are infamous for expressing their will in many ways – very often with the word “no,” and for testing limits set in their environment. When they hear, “Don’t throw the ball from your tracker!” they want to test that boundary and its consistency. But if they hear, “You can throw your soccer ball,” there is no limit to test because permission was explicitly given.
Replace yes or no questions with a choice.
Toddlers often go through a phase where their response to almost every question is “No!” This is completely normal, and can be mitigated by phrasing things a certain way. For example, instead of saying, “Do you want lunch now?” you might say, “Do you want to have lunch inside or outside?” This gives them a feeling of agency, and less opportunity to reject anything that you offer. When toddlers feel like they have some control over different aspects of their lives, they will feel less compelled to challenge you and will feel more satisfied by exercising their power.
Model the desired behavior.
Instead of telling your child not to do something, show them how to do it correctly. If you notice your little one using a toy in a less-than-constructive way, you can say, “May I show you a different way?” This encourages dialogue around how we use toys and materials at home and how to keep them nice or beautiful. If our only way of trying to change a behavior is saying “no” or “please stop,” these phrases will become white noise to your little one. This can render them ineffective during the times you really need to use them, like in a parking lot or public space where your child is at immediate risk.
Just tell me what to say
In our fantasies, using these positive parenting techniques with our toddlers will prevent all difficult situations. But that’s just not real life!
Here are four scripts for common situations. (Remember, your goal is to teach your child what is okay, and learning takes repetition.)
When your child throws toys
Try saying: “I see the toy is getting damaged. If you would like to throw, you can throw your balls into the basket.”
When your child won’t listen
Try saying: “We can do it together.” (Pick up your child and calmly do the task together.)
When your child hits
Try saying: “That hurts my body! It’s okay to feel angry. It is not okay to hit.”
When your child is whining
Try saying: “I can understand you best when you speak in a calm voice like mine.”
“I can’t let you…” is another phrase that can help you protect boundaries.
If you need to pick your child up to help them leave the playground, you can say, “I can’t let you run away again because we will be late for our appointment.”
If your child is hitting you, your pet, or a sibling, you can say, “I can’t let you hit Cleo.”
Remember that consequences should be logical and related to correcting the behavior. These outcomes can be explained in a neutral, even positive, tone of voice because they are not punishments, they are simply the consequences of the action taken.
Natural consequences simply happen because of our actions. We don’t have to enforce them:
- Refusal to put on a coat means being cold.
- Leaving toys around the house means they won’t be in the right place when we look for them.
- Treating belongings carelessly means they will become damaged.
When we want to teach our children to make better choices, choosing logical consequences to correct their behavior supports their learning more than enforcing an unrelated punishment such as spending time in their room.
- Misuse of a toy or household item means that we will put away that item to keep it safe.
- Creating a mess means investing the time to put things back in order.
- Refusing to leave when asked means we won’t have time to do something else we enjoy, for example, walk independently or stop to pet a dog.
Note about screentime:
Taking away screentime is a solution many parents look to when they want to punish their child.
Think of it this way instead: Using a screen is a privilege that we may only have time for if other tasks are done in a timely fashion. So, ask yourself if your child’s choice is related to the use of the device before using it as a consequence.
If indeed there is no time for screens because of refusal to complete other tasks, it makes sense as a consequence. If putting down the screen when asked was met with rude protests, it makes sense as a consequence. Otherwise, taking a device away does not align with providing a logical consequence.
In observing that as soon as they can walk, our children want to walk and carry a heavy object at the same time, we know that they have a strong desire for power, independence, and control.
Fulfilling their need to be self-sufficient wards off tantrums, as a tantrum is usually coming from a place of feeling out of control. Look for opportunities to empower your child or to give them control throughout the day.
Ways to empower toddlers
- Ask them to help with household chores. “Can you hold this cup while I pour the milk?”
- Give them a job to do independently. “Papa left the door open. Can you push it closed?”
- Offer them choices. “We can have carrots or snap peas with our sandwich. Which do you pick?”
- Use a stool or learning tower so that they can access more spaces.
During a tantrum, speak calmly and offer validation. “You’re angry because you don’t want to leave the park. You’re having fun and it’s hard to stop playing.”
Naming emotions helps teach your child about the emotions themselves. Acknowledging your child’s perspective reinforces that you can see and understand how they are feeling. This will decrease their need to scream or flail to communicate with you.
When your child is not motivated to comply with your requests, try using a sentence that includes “when” and “then”.
- When you put your shoes on, then we can go to the park.
- When we put these toys away, then we can go play outside.
- When you get your pajamas on, then we can read the books you pick out.
Positive parenting builds emotionally intelligent children. It is aligned with the Montessori approach to learning because it supports a child’s independence.
Learn more about creating a home environment that will fulfill your child’s needs to explore and learn.