11 - 12 Months

Positive Discipline: More On Toddler Tantrums & Power Struggles

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“The idea behind positive discipline is collaborative problem solving and finding solutions together in a way that benefits everybody.”

Jody Malterre, Montessori educator and positive discipline trainer

Opinions vary wildly when it comes to managing tantrums. From waiting out the storm, to taking a hard line. Whatever you do, be consistent! With so much advice, it’s easy to understand why parents panic when the tears start flying.

Regular listeners of My New Life will remember a recent episode with Dr. Laura Markham. She helped us navigate the thorny path of parenting a toddler through a tantrum. Well, this topic was so popular with parents that we’re revisiting it.

Here to bring a much-needed measure of calm to the situation is Positive Discipline Coach Jody Malterre, our guest on this episode of My New Life. Jody is a Montessori teacher-trainer at Westminster College with over 30 years’ experience in Montessori education. She also sits on the board of the Positive Discipline Association.

Key Takeaways:

[1:39] What is Positive Parenting?

[3:02] Why do toddlers have tantrums?

[5:05] Why empathy works wonders — for children and adults. 

[6:50] Other strategies to help your toddler move beyond the tantrum.

[9:52] How do you give your toddler a sense agency in their world?

[14:30] Jody shares tips for toddlers who stall with bedtime.

[16:00] Why routine and tools like bedtime cards work so well.

[18:08] Jody talks more broadly about positive discipline and how to shift into a positive discipline mindset.

[19:45] Jessica shares the highlights of a valuable conversation with Jody.

Mentioned in this episode:

Listen to Peaceful Parenting: Dealing with Tantrums 

The Lovevery Helper Play Kit with Routine Cards


What Is Positive Discipline?

Jessica: So, Jody, a lot of us are really new to this concept of positive discipline. Can you explain what it is?

Jody: Yeah. I think that it takes quite a mindset shift to get into this idea of really what our job is, is to train our children, right? To be their coach, and coach them in social norms and social settings. And when we hear the word discipline, a lot of times we associate that with punishment, and punishment’s really in this mindset of consequences and you kind of have… You have to suffer a little bit, and it tends to really keep us stuck in the past.

It keeps us stuck in this place of shame. And people, not just kids, but people in general don’t tend to do better when they feel worse. And instead we want to get out of this murky place of shame and guilt and get into this place of, “Hey, I’m not going to make you do something, I’m going to make you want to do something.” And that’s more about training and guiding. The idea of discipline is being more about collaborative problem solving and finding solutions together in a way that everybody benefits, you’re going to get longer term results.

Why Do Toddlers Have Tantrums?

Jessica: I can’t wait, it sounds so good. I can’t wait to get into the specifics of how this really works. Can we talk about tantrums? Jody, why do toddlers have tantrums? Can you tell us a little bit more about the brain science of what’s happening in their little minds?

Jody: Yes, thanks to the great work of Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson, they have done such an exceptional job of helping paint a picture of what’s going on neurologically in our brains when we have tantrums. So all of us get stressed, all of us come under distress of some kind anyway, and to use their term, we flip our lid. 

And what that really means is we stop using our cortex, and we start using our default, more primitive part of our brain, which is our brain stem, which is our fight-flight-freeze, which are all automatic responses. And we’re using our limbic area, which is where we store our emotions and our memories. So that’s the perfect storm, if you think about when we flip our lid, we’re not using our cortex. 

Now the only tools of the brain that we’re using at that moment, because we’re not getting our way or we’re really tired or something triggered us of some kind, we’ve been told what to do all day long and one too many directives comes our way, and the only thing we’re really operating from is this fight, flight, freeze and emotion. And that basically is the equation for a tantrum, and that’s the brain science behind it. 

The goal for us is to get into the feeling part of that tantrum, so that the fight-flight-freeze can calm down, and the emotions can change to, “Oh! I’m going to be okay.” This feeling of safety, this feeling of being understood and validated.

And then as soon as we can connect to that first, then we can connect to the logic of, “Oh, gee, that was really hard when you didn’t get what you wanted, let’s think about how we can go about that another way.” But if we jump to logic, we’re just not going to have them yet.

Jessica: Yeah, so this is why trying to reason with the toddler who’s having a tantrum to get them out of the tantrum just doesn’t seem to work. So is it that you really just wait it out patiently in connection? Can you tell me a little bit more about what it looks like when they’re actually having the tantrum? And then we’ll talk a little bit about some tools to get them out.

Jody: Okay. So let me liken this to you having a really tough time in your life, and maybe you call a friend and you sit over a cup of tea, and you sort of spill out your heart. And a really good friend is probably not going to try to fix it, and they’re not going to try to tell you what you should have done, or even what you should do now. A really good friend usually will just stay there and feel with you, and help you feel understood, like, “Oh, that is such a bummer.” “Oh, are you kidding me? Did that really happen?” An authentic friendship will just feel with you. And I want you to think about the toddler in that tantrum needs that coffee shop friend that’s going to get down there eye to eye, reach out with a hand, maybe a little pat on the back even when they’re flailing.

Maybe it’s not a pat on the back, but it’s some degree of touch or presence where we validate, “Wow, this is really hard right now, isn’t it? I can see that you really wanted something that didn’t go your way.” Or, “Oh, you really wanted that candy in the grocery store? And we had to leave and you didn’t get what you wanted? And that’s rough.” To just stay in that feeling place, that’s what that’s going to look like. And I’m not going to try to fix it, and I’m not going to try to talk ’em out of that feeling, or tell them how they should have felt, or tell them what to do.

I’m just going to stay there for the moment, physically with my body and with my voice, or at least with my energy of, “I have your back. I’m going to feel this with you, I get it.”

Jessica: Even if they’re pushing you away, I think just staying in connection with them is what I remember hearing from you in all the parenting classes I took from you.

Jody: Yeah, that’s right.

Tips for Dealing With Toddler Tantrums

Jessica: What are some other tricks? So, you talked before about distraction as being a tool, what are some other things that you can do to get your toddler out of that tantrum?

Jody: Yeah, so just staying present for a moment, and sometimes a moment feels like about a hundred moments, but staying present. A few things that you can do in addition to that would be to do the unexpected, it might be if you’re home and the tantrum’s happening, you’re on the kitchen floor, you might literally just turn to the first closest drawer and open it up and maybe it’s all the measuring cups, and just pull them out and start laying out the measuring cups and maybe stacking them or collapsing them, or laying them in a line where suddenly playing with measuring cups is probably the most fun thing you could possibly doing in this moment. And the toddler is going to be watching this. 

You are not saying anything, you are just simply captivated by the measuring cups. And the toddler is most likely going to look at this, and they’ll want to join you because they want to be connected with you, or they might not. And if they don’t, it’s okay, because either way you’re modeling calm. And part of that brain science is that their mirror neurons will pick up on what you’re doing, and if you model calm, their mirror neurons will eventually start mirroring back calm as well.

That’s one thing that’s like this doing the unexpected or really distracting them with behavior they’re not expecting you to do. Another thing you could do is after sitting there for a short while you might model self-regulation. So you might say, “You know what? I think I need a glass of water, I think that will help me feel better.” So you’re not telling them what they need or what they should do, you’re simply saying what you think might be helpful for you, and if you want, you can invite them. 

“Could I get you a glass of water? Would you like to come with me?” Adults are very much into telling what kids need to do, “You need to do this”, and nobody likes to be told what they need to do. So again, this is always just an invitation about, “I think I need a glass of water”, or, “I’m thinking about going outside and taking a couple breaths of air, care to join me?” So that’s a self-regulation strategy.

Another strategy you could use, which would be using a few more words so you’d want them to be starting to calm down or be at least calm, calmer, and that would be to provide a choice. “Hey, it seems like you’re having a hard time, would you like to go read a book, or would you like to go outside and play on the swing set? Or maybe you have another choice.” And you just kind of give them a choice. 

With young toddlers I like two choices, when they are maybe three I like to offer, “Or maybe you have a third choice that would work for both of us.” I think that’s kind of nice because it gets them thinking. By reviewing those, and doing the unexpected, which is a bit of a distraction, you can self-regulate, model that, or you could give them a choice.

How To Handle Toddler Power Struggles

Jessica: I love that. And how do we think about power struggles? How do you consciously give your toddler a sense of power, a sense of agency in their world?

Because it’s so hard when you’re a little person, there are so many choices that are made for you. Can you explain how this works in your everyday day and give us some tips?

Jody: Yeah. If we can actually step into the shoes of a toddler, they are actually directed what to do, they’re told what to do, even if it’s in a nice sing-songy voice, the reality is they’re told what to do a few hundred times a day, and then we wonder why they push back with power. So we do want our children to be empowered, and we don’t want to make power a dirty word, we want power to be shared power, collaborative power. 

And so when we’re in a power struggle with our child, I would even consider, hey, maybe what if we let go of the idea of power struggle and get into more of a mindset of, “Oh, my child’s really trying to tell me something right now”? Which is, “Hey, I don’t want you to be the boss of me. I want some choices and I want to feel capable.”

And rather than seeing that as a struggle, see it as a coded message of what they’re really trying to say. And what an opportunity for us to give them this power, to share some power in a way that gives them voice and gives them agency, just like you said? And when we share power we invite collaboration. So, a couple of ideas. Number one is let’s maybe reframe, “Time to put your coat on, and time to get in the car, please drink your juice”, all the things that we’re telling them to do all day. And let’s just reframe those as questions. So, “Hey, we’ll be leaving soon. What do you need to do to be ready?” And even if they’re younger, you might even be more specific, “What do you need to put on your feet to be ready?” [chuckle]

Which is such a leading question, but the reality is at that point we’re not telling them what to do. We’re inviting them and we’re giving them an opportunity to think for themselves. So those would be motivational questions. So, it’s asking versus directing, or asking versus telling what to do. Young children are very responsive to that because it’s almost like life is just a series of mysteries to solve. “Ooh, what do I need on my feet? Or what do I need to have in my hand before I walk out the door?” 

The other type of strategy you might use is just giving a choice. Even though for you and I, we probably don’t care whether our plate is purple or red, or whether we’re going to use the green toothbrush or the purple one, kids love choices and it gives them a strong sense of agency. So, go ahead and give them as many choices throughout their day as you can. 

And for young children, you don’t want to overwhelm them with too many at one time, but simple things like, “Hey, for lunch today, would you like grapes or bananas? Would you like to have spinach or broccoli? Would you like to have the purple cup or the yellow cup? When we walk from the car to the grocery store, would you like to walk like robots or would you like to walk like ballerinas?” Simple, simple things like that.

Jessica: Yeah, so fun.

Jody: It makes life so fun. And that works great when it’s time to leave the park and you know they don’t want to leave the park but you just turn that into this really fun game, “Hey, we’ll be headed back to the car in two minutes. When we go, do you want to run backwards or run forwards?” And suddenly they’re not going to push back, “I don’t want to leave”, because they’re thinking about how fun it would be to run backwards. So, giving choices. And then the third thing is, you can use something called curiosity questions. And of course your child needs to have some verbal skills here, but this would be another questioning strategy but it’s much more open-ended. 

So it starts something like, “Hey, I noticed that it’s hard when you see candy and it’s not an option for you. How can we make this easier for you right now?” And it’s much more open-ended. Now that might be hard to do in a tantrum moment, but at least…

Jessica: They might say something you’re not prepared for them to say. [chuckle]

Jody: That’s right. So we can’t use curiosity questions when we’re both fired up, and we can’t use them if we can’t live with their answer. So these are just nuances that you can try and see how they go.

Toddler Bedtime Tips

Jessica: That’s a great tip. A lot of times we struggle with bedtime. I have had so many issues with bedtime with my kids. It seems like bedtime just gets longer and longer and there are more steps and there’s more nuances to the steps. Can you give us some tips for toddlers who stall with bedtime?

Create a Fun Bedtime Routine for You and Your Toddler

Jody: I am asked this question quite a bit, and a lot of times people ask me questions and there’s 100 answers I could give, but often this is just going to come down to having a really nice bedtime routine. And the more buy-in that you can get from your toddler around what this routine is going to look like, the better it is likely to go. So I love the idea of using routine charts or routine cards. And all they are is just pictures of your child or a child doing the action that is needed. And you can have so much fun about having your bedtime cards, and pause for a minute and maybe let your child pick the order they want to do that night. Maybe they want to do good night kisses before they brush their teeth, and of course, you guys can laugh about that. But let them, again, bring choice into the matter.

And then they can lay out these cards, you can tape them up with little painter’s tape on the wall, whatever you think is most helpful. But now the routine becomes the boss. So rather than you saying, “It’s time now to go brush your teeth”, you could go back to the cards and say, “Oh, what do the cards say to do next?” It’s kind of hard for a child to have a power struggle with a card, right? So really what you’re doing is you’re letting the cards do your job.

Jessica: So what if your toddler is really protesting, and they’re just ignoring the routine chart? Do you have any other tips of how to get them moving?

Jody: Yeah. So remember, we can’t make them do stuff, we want to make them want to do stuff. And what they want to do is do life together. So, I would encourage you in those stalling moments to be fully engaged yourself. During the times of training, do the routine and make the routine look like an awful lot of fun. So, you would go to the routine chart, and again, you’re not telling them what to do, you’re letting the cards tell you what to do, and say, “Oh, it looks like it’s pajama time.” And you go get your pajamas on, and make it look entertaining. And they’re going to be a little confused because they’re not used to seeing you get your pyjamas on at 6:45 PM. 

And then you go back to the routine chart, and it says next to brush your teeth, and you say, “Oh, looks like I’m going to go brush my teeth now.” And you go brush your teeth, and you go through the whole… All their cards. And the last card’s probably a bedtime book. So you crawl into their room, their bed, whatever they are sleeping with, probably not their crib, and you start reading the book to yourself.

So again, all you’re doing is modeling the routine. And your child’s going to look at you and by now they want to go read with you. And at that point, that’s an opportunity for them to really hustle and catch up, and the moment they have those pajamas on and the teeth brushed and it’s not 7:15 PM yet with lights out time, go ahead and read with them for the last three minutes that they make up, and not pay attention or lecture about what just happened, just be glad that they finally joined you.

Jessica: It’s so fun. And you could also even… I think I was imagining them helping you with your pajamas too. So you could even make it a game like, “I’ll help you with your pajamas if you help me with mine”, and then you could really do that together too, if that doesn’t work to do it alone.

Jody: Absolutely, “I’ll brush your teeth, if you brush mine.” What fun that could be?

Jessica: My little girl loves to brush my teeth.

Jody: Does she?

Jessica: It’s her favorite thing. [laughter] But she gags me when she does it, but it’s really cute. 

How To Integrate Positive Discipline Into Parenting

Jessica: Jody, you’ve given us some great tips today and we love it. And can you just elevate us, again, into thinking a little bit more broadly, like we opened with, but a little bit more broadly about positive discipline and what the parent mindset is around positive discipline?

Jody: Yeah, I think it sort of begs us to pause for a minute and think about, “Am I going to react right now, am I going to respond?” And if we have our wits about us enough to take a deep breath and say, “I want to respond not react”, then in that split moment what we’re going to think about is, “Can I respond right now in a way that will be kind and firm so it’s mutually respectful to both of us?” Right? Secondly, “Am I going to think about this response as being helpful to not just stopping the behavior, but stopping it in a way that my child’s going to learn a life skill?” And then thinking about, “Yeah, probably, I could do something that would be a short-term parent response, but if we’re in it for the long haul, how can I respond that would be more effective, long-term?”

Jessica: Parenting is such a long game.

Jody: It sure is.

Jessica: Thank you for reminding. [chuckle] I will say that we have lots of chances to try this out, to try all this stuff out. I always feel when I learn new perspectives on how to care for my children or how to think about their discipline, for example, I sometimes feel bad because I reflect on all the times that I haven’t done it the way that my new thinking has shown me could be a better way. And so I just want to remind us all that we get a new chance every single day, our toddler gets a new chance. And it’s this is one approach, and sometimes this stuff works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but hopefully we’ve given you some nuggets today. Thank you, Jody, loved having you here.

Jody: You bet. Looking forward to talking again soon.

3 Episode Takeaways for Parents

Even with the best of intentions, we all lose our cool sometimes. So give yourself grace when things take a less positive turn. Here are some of my takeaways from my conversation with Jody:

1. Look for Opportunities To Model Self-Regulation

You might say, “You know what? I think I need a glass of water; I think that will help me feel better.” Rather than telling your child what they need or what they should do, you are modeling strategies that help bring the prefrontal cortex back online!

2. Reframing Demands as Questions

Asking questions instead of giving orders is great way to give your toddler a sense of autonomy. Some examples are: “We’ll be leaving the house soon. What do you need to do to be ready?” or “When we leave the park, do you want to run backwards or run forwards to the car?”

3. Develop and Stick To a Routine

Set your toddler up for success by describing what is happening next and sticking to a routine, whenever possible. Routines help promote calm. A great tool for bedtime is the Lovevery routine cards — seeing the cards laid out in front of them and deciding in what order to complete each step, helps your child to feel empowered.


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Posted in: 11 - 12 Months, 13 - 15 Months, 16 - 18 Months, 18 - 48 Months+

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