Managing Toddler Behavior: The Importance of the “L Words”

Originally published August 3, 2015 on Big City Moms.

A couple of weeks ago I met with the parents of a three-year-old girl, let’s call her Madison. Madison’s father told me about a frustrating experience he’d had with his daughter the weekend before. The two of them had passed an ice cream cart while on an afternoon walk in Central Park; Madison asked her dad for ice cream as soon as she saw it. She had just had a cookie, though, and her dad didn't think a second dessert was a good idea. Madison begged and pleaded with him, and was quickly unable to focus on anything else. Dad held his ground, and, out of ideas, finally ignored her tantrum altogether so as not to indulge her bad behavior. It was then that Madison punched her father in the thigh, something that is very much against their family’s rules. Madison’s father sat her down on a park bench for a time-out; she wailed from start to finish. The two of them then walked home, silent but for Madison’s whimpers and sniffling. Her father was crushed that his precious (and somewhat rare) one-on-one time with his daughter had taken such a negative turn, and he wasn’t able to see how the interaction might have gone differently – unless, of course, he had gotten Madison the ice cream, which didn’t feel like the right solution.

A few days later, I spoke with a close friend of mine – we’ll call her Jessica – whose son, Duncan, is two and a half. She had returned home from her high-pressure job on Wall Street the night before and had barely gotten through the door before Duncan ran toward her and wrapped his arms around her legs in a bear hug. Although Jessica was delighted to see her little guy, she was also exhausted and dying to have five minutes to herself to exhale and change out of her skirt suit. She gave Duncan a quick, distracted hug and headed to her bedroom, letting Duncan know she’d be back in a moment. Duncan, however, didn't like this plan. He collapsed to the floor, crying and kicking his legs. Jessica was overcome with guilt. She quickly walked back to join Duncan on the floor, where the two of them began to play Legos together. “The whole time, though,” she confessed to me, “I just kept thinking about how uncomfortable I was sitting on the floor in my suit, which then made me feel guilty because I hadn’t seen Dunc all day – who cares about my suit? Maybe I’ll start bringing a change of clothes to work, and I’ll change in the bathroom there before I head home.”

Do either of these scenarios sound familiar? Unless I’m very wrong, I’ll bet that they do. In my work – as well as socially, as a mother of a 16-month-old (who has a little brother on the way!) – I hear various versions of these stories every day. The details change, of course, but the theme is the same: How do I maintain a limit with my child without losing my sense of connection to her? Or, the flip side of the coin: How do I connect with my child without feeling as though I’m putting his needs above my own?

Decades of research demonstrate that healthy parenting – the kind that leads to healthy, well-adjusted children – involves two important dimensions, otherwise known as the “L words”: limits (i.e., structure, rules) and love (i.e., ensuring your children feel loved – which, by the way, is subtly but critically different from loving your children, but that’s a subject for another day). Although I’m simplifying an enormous amount of data, the take-home message is this: children who grow up in homes with high levels of both structure and warmth tend to fare best in this world. Children from homes with high structure and low warmth, or high warmth and low structure, tend not to do quite as well, and that is even more true for children whose homes provide low structure and low warmth. It turns out that if your parenting style involves equal and abundant measure of limits and love, then you’re doing more than OK, and all of the other details that we, as parents, obsess about, pale in importance.

So what does any of this have to do with Madison’s father, my friend Jessica, or, I would venture to guess, you? I’ll tell you. Both Madison’s dad and Jessica seemed to forget, in the heat of the moment, that they could provide their children with both structure and warmth at the same time. Are they unusual this way? Not at all. Too often, we all lose sight of the fact that structure and warmth, or limits and love – whatever shorthand terminology you prefer – are not mutually exclusive. Not only can they be exercised simultaneously, but when they are, the effects can be pretty amazing.

Let me explain.

Madison’s father was worried that the only way he could connect with his daughter as she was throwing a tantrum in the middle of Central Park was to give in and buy her an ice cream cone. In his mind, he had only two choices: either hold firm, or give in. During our session, I introduced a third possibility: what if he were to show compassion toward Madison, to empathize that it’s really hard not to get what you want when you want it, all while maintaining the limit around not getting ice cream. In other words, the word “no” doesn’t have to stand alone in order to be effective, and showing warmth to your child doesn’t have to signify your approval of her behavior. In all likelihood, Madison didn't end up hitting her father because he wouldn't buy her ice cream, but because she felt like her father wasn’t hearing how upset she was, and she needed to show him – and let out her angry feelings – in the only way she knew how in that moment. If dad had empathized with her desire for ice cream, rather than simply shut it down, he might have been able to avoid Madison’s meltdown.

Madison’s dad was skeptical. He felt that, if he were to add some compassion to his “laying down the law,” he would somehow compromise his authority. He agreed to give it a shot though, and, because Madison is three years old, we both knew it wouldn’t be long before he had his chance. Sure enough, a few days later Madison demanded Oreos for breakfast. Her father, of course, said no, but then followed up with, “I know, Sweetie; it’s really hard not to get what you want. Oreos are delicious, but they’re not for breakfast. I know it’s a stinky rule.” Madison stopped yelling within seconds and went back to enjoying her scrambled eggs – no tantrum, no punching, just more connected daddy-daughter time. And all he did differently was provide limits and love at the same time. It's not magic, although the results can at times feel magical.

The same process can work for Jessica and Duncan. Even though getting down on the floor with Duncan appeased him temporarily, it’s impossible for a parent to go through his or her life making choices with the sole purpose of preventing their child from becoming upset. Sadness, anger and frustration are, unfortunately, part of life; it’s best that children learn that reality within a safe and loving home so they're not blindsided by it later on. If Jessica were to continue handling Duncan’s distress in this manner, Duncan would likely internalize two important messages over time: 1) he’s in charge – if he cries or becomes angry, the world adjusts to suit his needs, and 2) his feelings are really scary – so scary that even the grownups will do anything to get them to go away. These messages can put kids on the road to unnecessary anxiety as they grow up. Beyond that, imagine the resentment Jessica will come to feel after a week or two of carrying clothes to work and changing in the bathroom before she heads home.

What if instead Jessica were to bend down when she gets home, and give Duncan a long and connected hug from a place of presence rather than distraction? And what if she then said something like, “Mommy is so excited to see you and to play with you, but first she needs to go into her room and change her clothes.” And if – or, rather, when – Duncan starts to cry? Well then it’s not about giving up the limit, but, rather, about maintaining it while offering warmth as well: “I know, Dunc; it’s so hard when Mama comes home and can’t play with you right away. I get it. I’ll be back in just a few minutes.” Armed with the knowledge that his mother is the boss and also understands how he feels, my best guess is that Duncan would be able to pull himself together, tolerate his frustration, and exercise patience (even if only for a few precious minutes!) until Jessica came back to play Legos.

Using the “L words” – setting limits and showing love – is nothing new for parents; in fact, it’s probably how you spend pretty much all day, every day. Using them both at the same time, however, is the part that can feel novel, and the part that can be a real game-changer when it comes to your toddler’s behavior. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go ahead and take your little one on a stroll past the nearest ice cream truck, and give it a go yourself. I’ll be over here, waiting to hear how it goes, and enjoying Oreos for breakfast. (I'm allowed – I’m pregnant!)

Photo credit: Harsha K R