Written by Dr. Helen Andrews, Child Psychologist It is important for your child to learn that they have a say and can influence the world, so we do need to listen to what our child is telling us about what they want. However, they also need to learn that there are limits to behaviour. We expect toddlers to have lots of physical energy, but they also have lots of emotional energy – when they find something funny they can’t stop giggling, and when they’re cross we really know about it! They are still developing the ability to regulate their feelings and can be overwhelmed by their emotions. This is also true about their behaviour. Not only are they still learning what the rules are, they also have to resist the impulse to act on their urges. Add to this their natural impulse to explore the world around them, and it’s no wonder that ‘toddlerhood’ can prove both a wonder and a challenge for parents. A toddler’s vocabulary often includes ‘mine’ and ‘want it’ and ‘no’ – when is the time to let them have what they want, and when do parents need to set limits and say ‘no’?
It is natural for parents to want their child to be happy. It is also only natural to want to avoid conflict with your child. So is there any harm in giving in and letting them have their own way? As with most elements of parenting, it’s complicated. It is important for your child to learn that they have a say and can influence the world, so we do need to listen to what our child is telling us about what they want. However, they also need to learn that there are limits to behaviour, that some things are acceptable and some things aren’t and that they can’t always have what they want. This prepares them for the social world they live in. So should you let them have another biscuit? Should you insist they tidy up? Unfortunately there’s no definitive answer - every situation is different. But there are a few guidelines I think are important… Children need to feel safe. When they always get what they want, this can actually feel quite scary to a child. They need boundaries around them, it helps them feel contained. Of course they will push against them - they need to know they are really there. They are actually looking for us to stand our ground. So it is okay to say no and stick to it. Just as important are the feelings you have as a parent when you feel your child is always fighting against you. It may just be little things but when it feels like it is all the time, you can end up feeling resentful or powerless to get your child to do anything you want. This is horrible for you and your child will pick up on it. I have a suggestion. It allows you to feel like you are in control and gives your child the same comforting thought. Imagine they are pushing for that second biscuit, you have said no and they are persevering. You’re tired and don’t want the battle, or you’ve realised it is an hour till dinner and they may need something to see them through – rather than saying, “Go on then, I give in, have another biscuit”, which surrenders the control and power to them, try instead, “I’ve thought about it and I have decided you can have another biscuit,” or, “Mummy says yes, you can”. The power and responsibility then stays with you. The end result is the same, but the proper hierarchy has been established – what you say goes. Of course I still want you to listen to your child, and as they get older, they will have more of a say in the decision making, but in these early years they need you to be the parent and them the child.
Dr Helen Andrews is on the Toddle About Panel of Experts. She is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working with children and young people. Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development. Contact Helen on 01564 795337 or find out more at www.familymattersinwarwickshire.co.uk