Expert Opinion


  • My toddler hates getting in the car, and it always results in tantrums which makes it so hard to go anywhere. What can I do?

Moving from one activity to another demands that your toddler engages in rather intricate cognitive abilities. These include tasks such as shifting their focus between different activities and making preparations for what comes next. Since these skills are still in the process of development within your toddler’s brain, it adds an extra layer of challenge to the transition process. Why is this relevant? Getting in the car can be a really typical area of challenge for most toddlers and preschoolers because it involves transitioning from one thing to another.

My biggest tips here involve preparation, motivation and timing.

Preparation – ensure your child is aware that they’ll be getting into the car in the near future, and this might involve several ‘countdown’ warnings in the lead-up (i.e. “in 10 minutes we’ll be getting in the car”…. “5 more minutes until we get in the car” etc.). This way it won’t be a surprise!

Motivation – because this can be a super tricky task for many children, we need to find ways to make it motivating for them to change how they manage the situation. Motivating them with a promise of a favourite song in the car, or a sticker (or similar) from a stash you keep in the glove box can work as an absolute treat. Just make sure that the rewards are offered before any challenging behaviour starts (otherwise, if you offer a reward if your child stops the challenging behaviour, it is bribery and no one wins long term with bribery!).

Timing – potentially the more challenging aspect, this involves ensuring you are not rushing and you have enough time to calmly support your child to transition well into the car. Children feed off our emotions, and if we are stressed then they become stressed. However, their cognitive developmental stage makes it much harder for them to manage a transition when under stress than it is for us. So if you need to get up earlier or have most of your planning or packing of bags done the night before, please do so! Then you might have an extra minute to spare come transition time!

  • The grandparents do a lot of the babysitting in our family, how can I make sure this isn’t more of a hindrance than a help?

It is such a privilege to have grandparents around not only for the emotional connections they provide with our children but also for the help! A lot of parents worry that the grandparents don’t understand ‘new’ ways of parenting and handling tricky behaviours and as a result, I’m asked this question a lot.

As a parent myself, I feel the solution here comes down to communication. Ensure that the grandparents are clear on your expectations, and vice versa. Many times grandparents are afraid to do the wrong thing, so they avoid a response to difficult behaviour. Or, they do what comes naturally which may well be the complete opposite of what you’d prefer. So, sit down and chat with them. Write it down and stick it on the fridge. Yes, this will involve a confronting conversation for some, but nipping issues like this in the bud is certainly advisable.

I do however also recommend that you have some understanding for the unique situation of grandparents and that they may not be physically able to undertake certain tasks confidently – like bathtime if they have fears of slipping over on the wet tiles; or worries around not being able to run after an energetic toddler on a trip to the park if there are concerns of absconding.

Lastly, consider the relationship and connection benefits between grandparents and your children, and remember that this can sometimes outweigh the importance of sticking to a strict routine when the grandparents are in charge

  • Do you have any tips for helping my toddler cope with a babysitter?

When we remember that toddlers have brains that are still developing, it can help us to understand that new situations are pretty challenging for them. And babysitters certainly fall into this category. For this reason, preparation is key. Ensure you take a slow approach with a new babysitter – while some children will be fine with a new babysitter looking after them at night while you’re out, others will struggle considerably. Unfortunately, bad habits can be formed very easily in a situation like this, making it enormously difficult for you to rely on babysitters moving forward if your child shows significant behaviours.

A great idea is to have the babysitter come around a few times while you’re at home, allowing your child to get used to the person while they’re still feeling calm and secure with you around. Then, as you approach the time when you and your child feel confident with the babysitter alone, start with shorter time frames at times of the day when your child is most likely to be successful at separating from you and enjoying their time with the babysitter.

Finding some fun activities that are reserved only for times when the babysitter is around can also be a winner, making these moments more motivating and something to look forward to.

Lastly, remember that it is normal for your toddler or preschooler to show some emotion in these situations. So acknowledge and validate their experience, and provide a  helpful coping mechanism such as a regulating activity that they could do with the babysitter (blowing bubbles or jumping on the trampoline can be great choices).

  • How should I discipline my toddler?

Discipline is about teaching and guiding our children in a loving and kind way that provides safe and consistent boundaries. It should never be about shaming or threatening a child and we really want to focus on how we can best teach our children in any given situation, rather than focusing on punishment, so that they can learn to make more effective decisions in the future.

So, discipline actually starts with being aware and prepared as an adult – knowing the specific behaviours that are triggering to you and having a plan for responding in a way that is most beneficial for your child (not you – sorry!). Understanding why your child is engaging in a difficult behaviour will help you teach them (outside of the heated moment) better ways to manage the situation which results in fewer behaviours. Of course, in that heated moment, you need to have tools to use for responding to difficult behaviours and this requires you to be aware of your own emotional response and ensure that you are not reacting from that ‘place’. Instead, once you’ve acknowledged your own emotions, you need to change tack and try to ascertain which emotions your child is likely experiencing which are causing this behaviour. Lastly, provide acknowledgement and validation of their emotions and offer assistance with helping them regulate themselves before addressing the behaviour from a cognitive perspective. Addressing the behaviour cognitively may come hours or days later. This is because your child won’t be able to take on any new information (or learn!) when they’re heightened. So you need to help them get into a place where they’re ready to learn before you can effectively acknowledge the behaviour and talk about the consequences.

  • Is there anything my partner and I should be prioritising to make sure we manage behaviours properly?

Being on the same page is really important when there are two parents involved in child-rearing! And as much as we may have in common in other areas of our lives, we really need to respect that having grown up in two different households with different sets of parents, means we come to parenting with vastly different experiences and expectations. For instance, things that will come naturally to you, sometimes won’t make sense to your partner. Or behaviours that trigger a big reaction in your partner may seem completely normal to you, causing you to find their reaction too extreme.

Consequently, the most important thing you can prioritise is dedicating time together to talk about parenting. There are numerous online courses and books you can refer to that will help address specific concerns, but it is most important that the lines of communication are open between the two of you so that you not only have an understanding of each other’s inherent parenting beliefs, but also so that you can work together to approach parenting in a consistent way that makes sense to parents and children alike.

Writing down a plan for how to respond to particular behaviours and situations will be really helpful – some parents even find it helps to jot down some helpful phrases so that they can be more consistent. When parents are consistent and predictable, children benefit because they feel safer and more secure – they know where the boundaries are so they won’t try to ‘push’ (or find) the boundaries as much.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by Alexander Grey