Expert Opinion

Effective Parenting Strategies for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Q: How can I effectively manage tantrums in my toddler? 

A: While incredibly painful for us parents, tantrums are a normal part of toddler development as they learn to express their emotions. When a tantrum occurs, stay calm and offer comfort, but also set clear boundaries. It’s important to validate their feelings, such as saying, “I see you’re upset because you can’t have the toy.” Distraction and redirection can also be effective. If tantrums are frequent or severe, consider if there are underlying needs or frustrations that require addressing. The biggest tip I can give you though is to have consistent routines and clear expectations as these really can help prevent tantrums during this period of time when your toddler is still developing the skills to manage tricky situations/ 

Q: What are some ways to encourage good behaviour in preschoolers? 

A: When parents see me to ask about how to improve their child’s behaviour, my first recommendation is to start noticing the positives.  

Why? Because positive reinforcement is key. You can do this by praising specific good behaviours, such as sharing or following instructions. Reward systems, like sticker charts, can also be effective for this age group as long as the rewards are motivating and paired with social reinforcement such as praise. It’s also crucial to set clear and consistent rules so your child knows what they need to do to ‘do the right thing’.  Regular routines and giving choices within boundaries can also empower preschoolers and encourage cooperation. 

But remember that your children are always watching you and learning from you, so encourage good behaviour by being a role model and demonstrating the behaviour you want to see more of. 

Q: How can I help my toddler develop good sleeping habits? 

A: Establishing a consistent bedtime routine is crucial if you want some peace at night. In most houses (including my own when we were in the younger years!) the nighttime routine tends to include a bath, reading a story, and then bedtime. 

Along with the routine, you can set your child up for success by ensuring the sleeping environment is conducive to sleep – quiet, dark, cool and comfortable. Be consistent with bedtimes and wake-up times, even on weekends. If your child resists bedtime, calmly reinforce that it’s time to sleep. There are many resources available online if you require further assistance – it is best to nip bedtime difficulties in the bud so they don’t become problematic behaviours.  

Q: My preschooler is a picky eater. How can I encourage them to try new foods? 

A: While there’s a big difference between picky eaters and ‘problem’ feeders, let’s focus on picky eaters who tend to have around 20 foods in their repertoire (problem feeders generally have less).  

There are many things you can do to help expand the food range of your child, but one of the easiest is to introduce new foods gradually, without pressure. Present opportunities casually and frequently for your child to interact with new foods – and this doesn’t always mean eating the foods. Simply touching the food to place it in the bin with their hands will increase the chances of your child eating that food in the future. 

Remember to keep mealtimes calm and avoid turning it into a power struggle. If picky eating is severe or leads to nutritional concerns, I strongly recommend seeking help from a trained professional.  

Q: How do I teach my toddler to share and take turns? 

A: Being a toddler is tough! Not only are they having all these new experiences, but the grown-ups expect them to SHARE! Firstly its important to note that these behaviours are tough for your toddler because their brain is still developing, and sharing and turn-taking are skills that develop over time. So patience is needed from parents, as well as lots of support and teaching. The easiest tools are to model these behaviours yourself and praise your child when they share or wait their turn. Use play to teach these concepts, like taking turns during a board game. If conflicts arise with other children, guide them through the process of taking turns or finding a solution. Remember, it’s normal for toddlers and preschoolers to struggle with these concepts, and patience and consistent reinforcement are key.  

Q: How can I stay calm when my child is having a meltdown? 

A: Staying calm yourself is a key aspect of effective parenting. Try deep breathing or counting to ten to manage your own emotions. Remember, your child’s meltdown is a result of their still-developing emotional regulation skills – and sometimes our expectations can be too high. Simply reminding ourselves of this can be incredibly helpful. Approach the situation with empathy, acknowledging their feelings and offering comfort. The bonus of approaching situations this way, you are modelling calm behaviour, and as such teaching your child how to handle strong emotions. 

Q: What are some gentle parenting strategies for handling disobedience? 

A: Gentle parenting involves understanding the reasons behind difficult behaviours, or disobedience. So look for what’s going on for your child and communicate with them to understand their perspective. My most helpful tip is to offer your child the perception of choice by offering choices instead of direct requests. So instead of “put your toys away” which is often followed with defiance and/or a tantrum, offer your child a sense of control in this situation. You could say “Would you like to put your toys away before or after your snack?” which allows them to have some input.  

Q: How can I encourage my child to cooperate without using threats or bribes? 

A: Threats and bribes will never work as an effective parenting strategy in the long term, so it’s great to hear you asking for alternatives. If we want our toddlers to cooperate, we need to make it worthwhile for them which can involve us as parents really considering our toddler’s perspective. We need to think about why they might not be cooperating but also on the flip side, which situations are they more likely to cooperate? When we isolate these situations and praise our child for their cooperation, we start to notice an increase in this behaviour. 

I also suggest you focus on building a cooperative relationship. Involve your child in setting routines and rules so they feel a sense of ownership – this empowers them and makes them feel good about themselves.  

Q: What’s a quick way to reconnect with my child after a hectic day? 

A: It can be so hard to switch our headspace to ‘connection mode’ after a busy day. However, quality, focused time, even if it’s brief, is incredibly valuable. I like to recommend parents spend a few minutes doing something with their child that the child enjoys, like reading a book or playing a short game. LEGO and Duplo were big hits in our house!  Use this time for physical closeness and eye contact. Ask them about their day and share something about yours. These moments of connection reinforce your bond and provide a sense of security for your child. 

Q: How can I set limits gently but effectively? 

A: Boundaries are such crucial aspect of any relationship, and it is no different in parenting. So setting limits is essential if we want our children to develop healthy relationships with us and others. The key is to set limits with empathy and respect, a key feature of gentle parenting. You can briefly explain the reasons behind the limits in a way your child can understand if this is appropriate (but be mindful that too much language can just complicate and confuse!). Offering choices within those limits to provide a sense of control is also helpful. For example, “You can choose to play inside or in the backyard, but we’re not going to the park today.” Be consistent and follow through with established boundaries so that your child knows what to expect and that your limits are genuine. 

 

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 Photo by Tatiana Syrikova