5 Tips for Taming the Toddler

Okay, I am not able to promise 100% full proof methods for gaining toddler compliance with nonnegotiable tasks. I do, however, have some ideas on the topic, gleaned from 19.5 years of parenting experience, along with the weekly observance of Josh’s speech and occupational therapy sessions. That said, I couldn’t get Josh to drink an electrolyte solution when he had the stomach flu last month. But well, that’s just Josh and food. Hence, the OT sessions. And why food-based rewards don’t work so well (although a M&M for voluntarily getting into his car seat is often a fair trade–only place where M&Ms are allowed). So, avoiding food-based reward systems, here is where I’ve had success in negotiating with a toddler.

1.   As a part of Josh’s OT treatment, we’ve had to “brush” Josh (it’s sort of like massage therapy) and compress his joints twice per day for almost a month now (and going forth into the future for a yet-undetermined length of time) Josh began resisting this past week and squirming like crazy to get out of the treatments. To get his willing compliance, I placed some dry beans (as in the legume kind of beans) in a larger plastic Ikea bowl with a cover. I hide a sticker in the beans for him to dig through and find at the completion of each brushing session. So far, this seems to be just the motivation he needs to sit still and allow the brushing and compression. Running one’s hands through dried beans also provides good sensory input to the tips of the fingers.

2.  For some reason, Toddler’s often enjoy helping with household chores (trust me, this enthusiasm typically dies by age six or seven). While it may slow parents down to allow them to help, it is still a good thing to do when you can spare the time. And it is amazing how it can even serve as a reward. I often can get Josh to lay still for me while I change his diaper (or some other task that momentarily restricts his freedom), if I tell him that he can help me get the laundry going or help put away the dishes (or “put up” the dishes as Chris says).

3. Hearing aids. People are always amazed that Josh leaves his hearing aids in. It amazes us too but it wasn’t always so. Josh used to pull his hearing aids out as fast as we could put them in. I think it really helped once we decided it was a nonnegotiable, like wearing a hat and mittens in the winter. (Getting ear molds that fit well really helped too). Now the only resistance we sometimes hit is Josh not wanting to put on his hearing aids in the morning or, more common, after a nap. As a solution, I found something he really liked that he couldn’t look at without a parent present. At present, this item consists of some small tools that came with an antique sewing machine that has been in my husband’s family for multiple generations. I keep this box of tools next to Josh’s hearing aids (along with all of the accompanying hearing aid paraphernalia — dry case, ear wax cleaning tools, blower thing, stethoscope-like apparatus for testing the aids etc.). I then allow Josh to look at the tools while I clean and test his aids and put them in. It really helps. And when his aids are in, we have to put the box away until the next time.

4. Sort of the same idea as number three, but I like to keep special art supplies on hand for rare usage. Something other than the run-of-the-mill crayons and markers that are always available for use. For example, I keep some non-toxic, washable stamp pads and alphabet stamps available for negotiating toddler transactions. And so, if I really need Josh to, for example, change his shirt after wearing it for two days straight, I maybe promise the playing of stamps for a while after the clothing change. Please don’t think I am an awful parent. This is what happens with kids with Sensory Processing Disorder–each transition to a new outfit is faced with major opposition. This is why Josh never wears pajamas and just wears the shirt from that day to bed or the shirt for the next day to bed, depending on his bath schedule. And don’t get me started on the bath and hair washing. I am still working on strategies for hair washing and am open to suggestions if you have any. 

5.  Finally, when all else is failing, I may ask Josh to help me accomplish the same task, with respect to myself, that I am asking him to do. Even if he is already well into a full-blown tantrum demonstrating his opposition to the task at hand, I can often diffuse some of the anxiety energy in him by bringing his attention away from his resistance towards the requested action and onto my own needs. Yes, this is indeed a move from his own ego-based aversion to an outward-focused empathic action. A skill that will serve him well in later life. So, if he is refusing to brush his teeth, I may ask him to help me make my teeth shiny and white. Or on those mornings where he is refusing his coat and jacket (happened at OT’s reception area last week–yes, I was the mom with the two-year old writhing and screaming on the floor), I might tell him I am having trouble getting my own hat on and ask if he can help me. By the time I’ve thanked him profusely for helping me out, he is usually in a much better mood and much more willing to put his own hat on. Amazing how helping others makes one feel better!

By the way, here is Josh’s first photography exhibit. Showing some talent with the camera (iPhone actually), I think.

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4 comments
  1. Those are all brilliant ideas – I love the sticker under the beans! I wish I had thought of that when my kids were little. Oddly enough, my six year old has a much harder time with transitions than Nolan. We use positive rewards to help him get through it, too (some might call them bribes, lol – we do what we need to do to help our children)!

    As for hair washing…that can be tough. My older son simply prefers a shower instead of a bath, so we do that for him. There are little converter kits to make a shorter shower for little kids. Nolan doesn’t like being tipped back into the tub, so he simply covers his face with a washcloth, leans forward, and I pour water over his head with a cup. I hope you find something that works for Josh – sensory issues are tough, particularly with something like hair washing!

    • Hydie said:

      Yes, these tips are all a bit like bribes, aren’t they? I was thinking about that last night while writing this list. And while raising my older two, I was absolutely opposed to such things. I was such a “purist” back then. I thought I was such a good parent. I had know idea that I simply had two really easy kids, one who is extremely laid back about life (still is–that would be child #2). In retrospect, had I been a little less “rigid” with my daughter, maybe she’d have less issues with perfectionism now (just got straight A’s her first semester of college so now she’ll feel pressure to maintain that). Anyway, I have to pick my battles with Josh. Bring it down to the nonnegotiables. I’ve learned that I cannot “make” Josh do anything. Sure, I can force him into his carseat, while holding him down with all of my strength and trying to fasten the straps with the other. And then he can scream the entire way to wherever we are going. Or I can bribe him with the M&M, which starts as early as getting dressed to leave in the morning (I get lots of mileage out of one M&M) and have a peaceful journey and no need for “force.”

      I have also learned that I cannot make Josh to eat anything, ever. But I am watching how the OT is gradually getting him to try new things. She uses food bribery all of the time. For instance, “if you will merely kiss the dried apricot, I’ll let you have this cracker that you like.”

      Finally, the bath. Does Nolan have vestibular issues at all? I guess these make it really hard to lay back. Josh hates to lay back as well so we use the washcloth and pour method. But he still screams and lately, has mini panic attacks about the bath. It occurred to me this week that he probably feels like he is spinning in circles when we cover his eyes. His balance comes only from his vision and the bottom’s of his feet and when he is sitting in the tub with his closed, he doesn’t have access to either. I guess that water in the eyes would cause the same problem. So maybe a shower would be better as he’d still have the bottoms of his feet.

  2. Nolan’s ENT thinks he has vestibular issues… so do I, though I don’t think it is a constant thing. He has had major falls while simply kneeling on the ground – out of nowhere he’ll fall over and hit his head (he’s four and a half, so it isn’t an age-related thing). And then in the ENT’s office once he was walking and started stumbling in an odd direction, falling to the floor. She watched that and said, “Vestibular. Definitely vestibular.” But then there are times that he can stand on a narrow beam with perfect balance. I wonder if there is such a thing as periodic vestibular issues?

    I’ve had two “hard” kids, and Matt is actually the harder of the two (Nolan will respond to incentives, but Matt doesn’t). It is exhausting, though at six we are finding our way out of the fog. We pick the battles and have the same realization -there is no forcing for certain things. Toilet training was a literal nightmare for Matt (I don’t write about it on my blog, but he is six and is still not entirely toilet trained).

  3. Sarah said:

    These are such good suggestions. I’d defintely use them if I still had a toddler in the house!

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