Gentle Parenting| Sarah Ockwell Smith on how to handle a toddler

A little about you

I have four children, three boys (13, 15 and 16) and a girl (11). I have a degree in psychology and am a qualified antenatal teacher, doula and homeopath. I have also trained in hypnotherapy, infant massage and psychotherapy. Prior to having children I used to work in pharmaceutical research and development, but I left my job when my firstborn arrived. I found his birth incredibly traumatic and so decided that I wanted to learn as much about birth and the psychological after effects as I could. This led me to train to work with other new parents, and back in 2005 I became one of the first hypnobirthing practitioners in the UK.  I worked with over a thousand couples antenatally and was lucky enough to attend many of their births as a doula. My birth work led me to realise how little support and information there was for parents in the postnatal period and so I started running parenting support classes in 2006, while I don’t run groups anymore, I still run regular parenting workshops all over the UK, and sometimes internationally. I wrote my first book in 2010 and now nearly 9 years later am just about to release my ninth book

What are your tips for dealing with toddlers? 

I specialise in ‘gentle parenting’. It sounds a bit ‘woo’ (but really isn’t!); the simplest way to describe gentle parenting is treating children with respect, in the same way you would like to be treated yourself. Gentle parenting focuses on having an understanding of the child’s behaviour through knowledge of their brain development and encourages parents to have empathy with what the child is feeling.

Toddlers are so misunderstood. In our society we tend to view them as master manipulators who thrive on deliberately winding up parents and scheming and plotting to get their own way. In truth, toddlers aren’t capable of any of these behaviours. Toddlers are not simply ‘mini adults’, their brains are nothing like ours. They are hugely underdeveloped. Many skills that adults have and take for granted, such as the ability to control our own emotions and impulses, consider how others think and feel and the ability to predict the consequences of our actions just aren’t shared by toddlers. They literally don’t understand how their behaviour impacts others and they have zero ability to control themselves, or ‘self-soothe’ any upset. Tantrums are a great example of this, they don’t tantrum because they enjoy it (far from it), they tantrum because they can’t help it. Imagine a toddler is like a pot of water on a stove top, where the pot is their brain and the water is all of the emotions and feelings in it and the stove flame is the influence of the outside world. When the water starts to boil they don’t have the ability to put a lid on, or turn down the gas (or in real world speak; put a lid on their emotions or get away from difficult triggers), so they literally explode and boil over. That’s a tantrum. As an adult, we can put our own lids on (control our emotions) and turn down the gas (avoid triggers), toddlers just don’t have these mature skills yet, that’s why toddler tantrums, explosions and meltdowns are so common, but so normal!

As adults we really need to understand that young children don’t deliberately misbehave, they misbehave because they can’t behave otherwise. Most of the things that parents find frustrating about toddlers – such as picky eating, night waking and bedtime resistance, ignoring instructions, defiance and violent behaviour and so on, are totally normal toddler behaviours. You can’t speed up their brain development (especially not by punishing them!). If parents change their expectations of their toddler’s behaviour and work with them, with respect and empathy, to get through difficult situations, then everything is different!

The other thing parents need to understand is that toddlers learn best from us. From who we are and what we do. We are their biggest role model. Parents who shout, raise children who shout. Parents who hit, raise children who hit. Parents who punish raise children who get good at lying. and parents who exclude their children (perhaps by sending them to their room, sitting them on the naughty step or in time out) raise children who hold in and conceal their emotions and don’t share their big feelings with their parents. This might seem a good thing with toddlers, but it can be incredibly destructive with teens who internalise their difficult feelings and become more prone to anxiety and depression, self-harm and substance abuse. If we want to raise kind, respectful kids who have a great relationship with us whatever age they are, we have to start by modelling all of these behaviours ourselves.

What should we do when our toddler is having a melt down in public? (Does that differ if they do it at home?)

It really doesn’t matter where you are, the best way to handle a toddler tantrum is to try to zone in to your toddler and zone out from the world. That means taking a big deep breath and trying to not care what others may think of you! I use an acronym called ‘SENSE’ to help parents to know what to do in this situation:

S is for Safety – wherever you are, your first job is to keep everyone and everything safe – move your toddler away from anything dangerous, make sure they can’t break things, or hurt anybody else. This often means lifting them up to a quieter area.

E is for Empathise – now’s time for that deep breath. Remind yourself your toddler is not doing this on purpose to spite you. They simply can’t do any better because of their underdeveloped brain! Try not to get angry with them.

N is for Name – help your toddler to know you’re on their side by naming their emotions – e.g: “I can see you are really sad we have to leave the park”.This is a great way to teach your toddler names of emotions and help them with their emotional intelligence as they grow. Don’t talk to them immediately though, allow them to calm a little first. When they’re in full on tantrum mode their body has too much adrenaline and they simply can’t listen to you!

S is for Support – When your toddler has calmed a little, try to help them with their big feelings. Some toddlers will benefit from a hug, others do better being left alone. Whatever your toddler prefers, just let them know that you’re there for them. Sit close by and say “I’m here if you need me”.

E is for Explain – When your child has calmed down fully, now’s the time to explain to them – e.g: why what they did was unacceptable. As with the above, there is no point talking with them when they are in fight or flight mode, they have to be calm first. You can’t reason with anybody when they’re angry!

I try to follow this as much as possible, but obviously sometimes it’s not possible – e:g on a plane, or in a funeral. For times when it’s not possible to ‘allow’ your toddler to tantrum, then I distract the tantrum however I can – BUT – do this as little as possible, no more than 30% of tantrums, because when you distract your toddler doesn’t learn anything. They don’t learn about how to better manage emotions, they don’t learn how to calm down and they don’t learn how to do things differently. If you distract from all tantrums then it’s not great discipline, you’re avoiding discipline.

Any tips on coping with a toddler who says no to everything?

The average toddler hears the word “no” 70-90 times every day. If you were told “no” that much, you’d probably repeat it a lot too! Remembering that we are our children’s role modelling, we have to start with saying “no” less ourselves. I call this mindful discipline. The next time you feel yourself saying “no” to your child, stop and ask yourself “what’s the worst that would happen if I said yes?”. You’ll probably be quite suprised. A lot of us discipline unconsciously – that is, we say “no” a lot, because that’s what was said to us as a child. Creating an environment where “no” becomes “yes” as much as possible is the first step here. Second, is in really thinking about what we’re asking the child to do and how we would respond in their shoes. For instance, if you’re engrossed in writing a social media post, or reading a book and your partner said “put your shoes on now!” – what would do? Probably say “in a minute, hold on, or simply – no”. Why is it different for toddlers? Thinking about respecting what they’re doing as important (and yes, play is very important!), giving them time to do something, allowing them to do as much as possible themselves and making it as fun as possible is key. Also, you’ve got to start with respect. Toddlers who feel respected by their parents are more likely to respect them back and do what is asked because it feels good to help somebody you love. Finally, we need to think about control. Toddlers have almost no control over their lives. We choose almost every element of their day. Saying “no” is often their way of saying they need more control, so think about age appropriate ways you can give more control to their lives (in as many areas of their lives as possible).

Should you reward a toddler for good behaviour?

I am really not a fan of rewards. Research has consistently shown the more you reward a child for doing something, the less likely they are to repeat the task, unless there is an equal – or often bigger – reward on offer. Simply put, if you want a child do something, they need to do it because they want to, not because they’re being bribed to do it. This concept is known as intrinsic motivation (or internal motivation). Rewards create extrinsic (external) motivation. We know extrinsic motivation seriously damages intrinsic motivation, or that innate drive to want to do things because it feels good (to help yourself or others).

If you reward toddlers for good behaviour you create an “if, then child”. A child who grows and says “if I do X, then what will you give me?” – or children, whose intrinsic motivation has become so damaged that they need constant bribery to do things. When they’re little a reward can be a simple sticker, star or sweet. When they’re teenagers they’re only interested in cash (and big amounts at that). I always say to be very, very careful of rewards with this in mind!

There are two areas of parenting where rewards are more damaging than normal: eating and potty training. Rewarding children for eating (whether that’s with praise, stickers, or giving a desert) has been shown by research to reduce the likelihood of the child eating the same food again in the future (ie it makes them pickier!) and alarmingly, it can make the child prone to overeating and obesity as they grow. If we make children feel good for eating it can make them emotional eaters later in life – ie they eat to feel good and cope with difficult emotions. Rewarding for potty training importantly doesn’t help children to notice and manage their bodily sensations (which is what potty training is all about), what it does do is to teach them to override their body sensations in order to get a treat, this can and sadly does lead to withholding, which can create urinary tract infections and chronic constipation.

Unfortunately, despite their popularity in our society, rewards really are best avoided.

Tips on teaching your toddler to share

Toddlers don’t share and they don’t understand sharing. This is a good example where the problem actually belongs to the adults, not the toddlers. In order to share, toddlers have to have a really good sense of empathy. They don’t have this until around four years of age plus. Before that they really can’t grasp how others feel and the impact of their behaviour on others’ feelings. Forcing them to share before they understand is totally pointless and incredibly stressful! The other thing we need to think of here is that actually, most adults are terrible at sharing. Imagine you’d just brought a brand new iPhone home from the shop today and your neighbour came round and said “can I borrow your phone?”. You would probably say “no” wouldn’t you? Now imagine you buy your toddler a 10p metal car from the charity shop. You go on a playdate and you tell your toddler to share with their friend. They don’t want to and you chastise them for it. The thing is, this is no different to your refusal to share your new iPhone. Sure, your phone may have cost £1000 and their car 10p. but they love their car as much as you love your new phone. To them the money is irrelevant, it’s their most precious new possession. If you wouldn’t share, why should they? As with most things, toddlers learn to share, not by being forced to share (or rewarded or praised if they do), but by copying you. If you share with them and others (and show a good degree of empathy towards them), they will witness this and pick up on your social skills as they grow and their brain develops!

No matter how your toddler is behaving, the chances are their behaviour is totally normal and age appropriate. It tends to be our expectations that are the problem. It’s so powerful for parents to really understand what their toddlers are capable of and adjusting their own behaviour, realising that the best way to teach toddlers is to behave in the way you want them to act.

This of course is bloody hard! It means you need endless patience and self-control (something none of us have!), and a lot of self-care to be able to cope with the constant demands. Really though, the best parenting happens when parents control their own behaviour, not try to control that of their children!

You can find Sarah’s book The Gentle Discipline Book on Amazon 

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