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Parenting toddlers: how to become a team and start working together as a family

Let’s talk about how to stop the power struggles, start working together as a family and actually enjoy parenting toddlers!

mother and son in woods smiling at each other, quote:your kids want to see you laughing, smiling and enjoying time with them just like they enjoy time with you
Photo by Jenn Bakos Photography

How parenting toddlers feels

If you are parenting toddlers or preschoolers, you are likely “on” every waking minute … much of this time can include yelling, complaining, and serving your toddlers every need. These types of interactions are hard! Even if we are able to stay calm and emotionally regulated, it is still draining. Often, our initial response is resistance, anger, digging our heels in or fleeing!  What are we supposed to do with these hundreds of interactions with our toddlers when all we want to do is run and hide until the yelling stops?

Things nobody likes: being yelled at, complained to, serving and sacrificing without being noticed…but that’s how it often feels when parenting toddlers. Why? Why is it a battle and power struggle with toddlers? Why can’t we just work together as a family? Where is the team??

My friends, there is a secret here to change the dynamic and start parenting toddlers with a little less struggle, replacing it with joy and fun! 

Secret #1: Parenting toddlers doesn’t have to be a battle

I learned from my mother and I relearn it everyday as I parent my own wild souls. My mom, when I was young, actually seemed to be having fun. I had the benefit of her strong example, but  even if your own childhood experience was a bit different, YOU can break that cycle and be the change. YOU can learn to enjoy parenting toddlers and preschoolers.

The truth about toddlers

Toddlers can be demanding, emotionally volatile, angry, and irrational … this is all normal!  Their little brains are still developing and these things are completely age appropriate. So good news, you aren’t doing anything wrong here, they are just still growing their brains! Plus, they are like sponges, they want to explore and have control over their environment and know, see and play with EVERYTHING!

The tantrums increase and the struggles grow when they lose that control or they aren’t allowed to explore, when they can’t make choices for themselves. Highly anxious kids crave even more control over their choices and environment (I have one of those and you can read about it in a future post!)

They have the brain power for so many activities and need these experiences, but toddlers don’t have the brain capacity to regulate their emotions, or reasonably think through all the day to day interactions.  So how do we make sure they have all the experiences they need to develop into capable 6, 8 and 10 year olds … and, equally important, STAY HEALTHY AND HAPPY as parents!? 

toddlers working as a team to squeeze oranges to make juice
my little teammates working together to squize some orange juice

Secret #2: your toddlers WANT to be on your team

Yes, thats right, your kids WANT to be on the same team as you, they WANT to help you. They want to keep you close to them … they are hard wired to keep you close.  You are the biggest part of their life, you are their world. They do not want each day to be a struggle either. In fact, they want to see you laughing, smiling and enjoying time with them just like they enjoy time with you!

Secret #3: create your own team

I always hear people talk about how important sports are to teach teamwork. But, we have a built in team in our own homes. A team that our toddlers see all day, every single day. How much more impactful would it be if that team mentality was taught and practiced daily in your own home. So let’s end these battles and start working together as a family! HALLELUJAH!

So, how do you parent your toddlers and preschoolers to decrease the battles? The answer: You become a cooperative team. As you do this, it helps to remember that their job right now is to begin developing independence.

The key: Don’t think of yourself as the director but a teammate that occasionally guides

Directing involves so many rules, and doesn’t offer explanations. This is extra exhausting when the wild people you are directing don’t even want you to direct! They want to discover WITH you. They want you, but they would like you to leave all those directions behind. You may have noticed…

So, let them practice and grow that independence. This will build critical thinkers and creative problem solvers! It helps their brain form more connections and think big!

Some tips as you start working together as a family

  • Literally treat your family like a team
    • Make a team cheer or song
    • Call yourself a team as you do activities “go team, we got this!”
  • Talk to them like your teammate (not as the coach)
    • Ask them why, and listen to their answers
  • Don’t give them all the answers, talk out loud about your thoughts
    • Model trying ideas that will fail so you can talk about how you feel when it doesn’t go right the first time
    • Try their ideas. Even if you think it won’t work, say “ok let’s try it” and let them see with their own eyes what does and doesn’t work. 
  • Have THEM think of solutions for the team 
  • Be investigators and discoverers of all the simple things in your daily lives TOGETHER
  • Get eye level with them when you talk
  • Be their biggest fan
    • crown them best “best laundry put awayer” (or best anything)
    • cheer for them when they graduate from learning a tasks to doing it independently

Lets see this family team in action

mother and two kids sitting on floor and laughing together

An example from play (this is my real life 10 times a day)

Kid: Let’s stack up all the chairs and jump off them! (We need lots of deep pressure, sensory play, so jumping activities are pretty common)

Parent: (in your head: yikes that sounds like a terrible plan) out loud: interesting idea, I am worried the chairs won’t be stable and you might get hurt. What do you think?

Kid: Lets just try it!

Parent: ok, how do you want to start? (oh yes, I actually go with it)

Then the kid tries to stack the chairs, and I help with placing. We look together at how we can stack them so they aren’t wobbly. I ask questions and listen to their ideas, we try different chair configurations until there is one that stays up and is a little stable.

Parent: ok, so now what is your plan?

Kid: I’m going to climb up and jump!

Parent (still yikes!): What is your safety plan? (aka let’s pause and think: what are your ideas so you and the chairs don’t fall and end up in a pile where you and the chairs are both broken) Remember, you are always the safety police but let’s get them thinking about it for practice!

Note: we talk a lot about making safety plans before we do crazy things so that vocabulary is not new to them, you might have to explain it a bit the first few times

Kid: looks at the chairs, thinks, attempts to climb the first chair and sees how it feels to them. Then: can you stay close and hold the chairs for me?

Parent: Great idea! (I hold the chairs so that my arms are also on either side of him. So the chairs are stable and I am there to catch him if needed)

Note: you can help your child come up with safety plans, and give them different options of plans if they are still new to coming up with them on their own. But make sure to give options and still listen to their ideas so you can help them transition to coming up with the ideas on their own

Kid: makes it on top of the 2nd chair, feels a little wobbly up there. 

Parent: notices a little nervousness on their face. Says: that looks high to me and I feel a little worried, what else can we do to make sure you don’t get hurt? 

Note: this names their feelings, and helps them to stop and evaluate the feeling and also think through part 2 of a safety plan instead of rushing through and doing something dangerous. 

Kid: wow I’m feeling nervous, can you hold my hand while I jump? 

Note: At this point my son does a pretty good job of naming his feelings on his own and making multistep plans. He also may have asked ahead of time for pillows to go underneath the chair for a soft spot to jump. We do MANY questionable activities that involve jumping… You might have to give ideas to prompt your kids at first. 

Parent: I can definitely hold your hand! Here we go!

Kid: yahoo! Then jumps off, laughs and looks at you with excitement and joyParent: very relieved nobody got hurt and then heart melts a little as that little face beams up at you

Option 2: the traditional approach

The other option: 

Kid: Let’s stack up all the chairs and jump off them!

Parent: NO! That’s not safe! (no explanation, no cooperative thinking or problem solving)

Then the power struggle or argument ensues, they just keep asking to do other ridiculous things and feel frustrated with the constant no.

The first option may involve a few minor heart attacks and lots of patience on the part of the parent, but it also involves the child thinking through multistep safety plans, naming and acknowledging their feelings, and creative problem solving (and more including gross motor skills). And it ends in joy and connection (and hopefully nobody gets hurt). Yep, All that learning took place from one little wild idea.

Be a team outside of playtime

If they are going to be part of the family team and you are going to start working together as a family, then they need to know the needs of the family. Show them what it takes to keep the home and family going, and invite them to participate. Walk with them as they learn and applaud them when they succeed. Be their biggest fan. These are life skills that they will need! See my post specifically on teaching life skills in normal everyday life for more info.

toddler putting away silverware in a drawer
my little buddy putting away the silverwear

When is it ok to say no?

Now I will say, if after all the problem solving it’s still too risky and you don’t think you can think of a way to keep them safe even after thinking through some safety plans. Then talk that out with them. But, don’t start there. Start by trying, do their ideas (even if in the end you can’t finish them because it’s not safe). This can turn into a teaching moment. Because you started with validating his/her ideas, now your little one is in a place that s/he can listen and learn. Remember – connection comes before teaching.

This is also a learning area for parents. You need to learn to take a deep breath and release your initial reaction. Hold in the NO. And just take a breath and laugh at the wild things you end up doing together. Its kinda more fun for all involved…you get used to the initial panic, most of the time…

mother sitting on floor ready to play with kids
just me sitting on the floor waiting. for the next kid to run and jump at me without warning…tell me I am not alone in this!!

Time to start parenting toddlers as a team

So starting today, figure out how you can all be on the same team. Stop directing and be a teammate working together as a family … teach them all the ways they can keep you close and explore their world both in play and in real life.

Let me know: What crazy things did your wild souls want to try? How did you handle it?

Post Disclaimer

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice.  Consult you health care provider for your individual nutritional and medical needs.  The opinions are strictly those of the author and are not necessarily those of any professional group or other individual

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