Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gentle Discipline for Preverbal Toddlers

I can’t say I know for sure, but I really really hope that parenting a preverbal toddler is the most frustrating thing one can do. As my 15 month old son, Oliver, transitions from infancy to toddler hood, he is showing less interest and responsiveness to many of my old tried and true parenting methods and as his ability to communicate falls behind his evolving needs, I find myself constantly grasping for a better handle on my patience, and searching for better ways to connect with him despite his limited vocabulary.

Gentle discipline is labor intensive, especially with a preverbal toddler. It requires a lot of repetition, a lot of patience, and most importantly I think, a number of different approaches and tools to use for different situations. Here are the gentle parenting tools that I have found the most effective with my preverbal toddler.

Anticipating and meeting basic needs:

Toddlers, like infants, are still pretty much 100% dependent on us. They may seem as if they are ready to leave us in their dust while they learn and explore, but when their basic needs go unmet there are a number of toddler behaviors that inevitably result. These can include tantrums, hitting, biting, or other aggressive behaviors, whining or perceived neediness, demanding behaviour, and hyperactivity. The list goes on. When I see a toddler storm brewing my first step in preventing it is to figure out which of my son's needs have not been, or need to be met. 

A general rule to prevent about 50% of preverbal toddler tantrums is to try offering frequent healthy nutrient dense snacks (an added benefit of extended breastfeeding is that half these snacks are ready just when you need them!), make sure your child is getting the appropriate amount of sleep for his or her age during the day and at night, and make sure you are available for frequent snuggles, nursing sessions, or just to sing silly songs or read a favorite book.


When undesired toddler behaviour cannot be prevented, it can often be diverted. The basic idea is to distract your child from one action with an object or action that is more interesting and/or appropriate.

Maybe your toddler has lost interest with dinner and is throwing his food on the floor but you are not ready to clean him up yet. Offer a cup or small bowl and ask him how many bits of food he can put in it. Need an extra few minutes? Dump the bowl and start over again. Toddlers eat that stuff up!

When my son gets excited he often starts throwing toys around. When excited throwing is imminent, why not try distracting with a more appropriate way to show excitement, like “Wow! This is exciting! Let’s do an excited dance!”

Develop routines:

There are many activities that must be completed regularly and yet are totally despised by most toddlers. Brushing teeth and sitting still for a diaper change are two that come to mind, as well as bundling up to go out doors and going to bed at a relatively reasonable hour. 

I have found that creating some kind of routine or ritual around these tasks makes them a lot easier to swallow for my toddler.  This routine or ritual could be as simple as singing a special getting dressed song, or as involved as giving goodnight kisses to every single toy as it gets put away before bed. A routine not only cues your child into what is happening or about to happen and what is expected of them, but also serves as a way for your child to transition smoothly from `play` mode to `cooperation` mode. 

Keep in mind that these routines should not be set in stone, nor should your toddler be forced to participate if he is not interested. By staying relaxed and flexible you make the routine inviting and fun, when you try to force the issue it becomes a power struggle (something I find gets me absolutely no where with my preverbal toddler). In the case of our bed time routine, if Oliver does not seem interested in putting the toys away I simply start the process myself, saying goodnight to the toys and giving them kisses until Oliver decides that it looks like fun and joins in.


I think the most frustrating part of dealing with a preverbal toddler is the limited communication. At this stage, a child’s wants and needs are growing in complexity and his communication skills are having trouble keeping up. Helping him learn to communicate can go a long way.

I highly recommend teaching your child a few words of basic sign language. Even if you never tried baby signs with him or her as an infant, one or two key signs can totally change your life. We find the signs for ‘help’ ‘nurse’ ‘hungry’ and ‘all done’ to be especially helpful, but you may find that other words would be more helpful for your family. It really is as easy as signing whenever you say the word, and/or signing while talking with other adults. You’ll be surprised how quickly your toddler picks it up.

If you are not interested in teaching your child sign language, there are still ways that you can teach communication as a part of gentle discipline.

If your child seems to be acting out of intense emotions, help them to identify these emotions, while being careful not to label them for your child. You can do this by modeling what you would like to hear. Try something like ‘I feel frustrated when I can’t get my toys to work’  then offering a solution like ‘When I get frustrated I ask for a hug and some help’. Your child may or may not respond to this tactic, and it may seem like a silly exercise with a child who cannot speak, but just because they cannot speak does not mean they cannot hear. As your child starts to communicate more he or she will benefit from a good example and the repetition.

Get a job:

It’s true, toddlers are busy, and that makes them exhausting. Equally exhausting is the flip flopping between wildly independent explorer and ‘I need you right now mommy or my tiny brain might explode PLEASE!!!’ Both of these are a problem when I am trying to complete tasks other than directly caring for my toddler. Either he’s using my inattention to get a head start scaling my book shelves, or he’s absolutely indignant about not having my undivided attention to begin with.

By giving my busy toddler a job to `help` me with my task, I am effectively killing two birds with one stone. I am focusing his energy into something that keeps him where I can see him and out of my house plants. And he is engaged with me and what I am doing instead of in competition with it. 

He may not really be helping, in fact it’s more like un-helping. But when I do laundry he knows that he can take things in and out of the dryer, and carry my soap to the laundry room and back. When I unload the dishwasher he stacks the plastic cups and containers. When I am reading he sits in my lap and either ‘reads’ along or looks at his own book. 

Giving your child a job can also help to avoid power struggles. Example: I often let my son walk from the top of the stairs to our apartment door when we are coming home. Most days he will go straight to our door, but some days he decides that he’s going to run and knock on the doors of our neighbours instead. If I try to block or heard him he gets frustrated, so I give him my keys to carry.  This simple action is enough to get him back on the desired path about 80-90% of the time. 

Run/climb/jump it off:

This can be especially helpful for toddlers who are having trouble playing gently with other kids, pets, or you. 

A month ago I found myself repeating the exact same phrases over and over until my throat became hoarse. `gentle Oliver, please be gentle!` followed by `We don’t throw toys at mummy Oliver` or `It hurts mommy when you hit, can you please kiss it better`

I could feel Oliver growing as tired of my constant nagging as I was of his over-excited aggression. I cam to realize that I am not always laid back and docile, so why would I expect the same of my son? It still was not acceptable for him to throw toys or hit me, but there are other perfectly acceptable ways for him to vent off some steam and expend some of that excited toddler energy. 

Make sure that your toddler is getting enough romping time. in the back yard, play ground, or other outdoor space is a great option, but even indoor activities like building a jungle gym out of couch cushions to jump and climb on, or rocking a pots and pans drum solo, or dancing like crazy with mom and dad can serve to vent off a lot of that energy that would otherwise be used to hurl projectiles. 

Making sure your child gets enough active play will also help with common young toddler problems like climbing or getting into things they ought not to, though both of those are completely normal activities that you will never prevent entirely!

Realistic expectations:

As illustrated in the above story of my ‘gentle’ mantra, my expectations don’t always line up with what my toddler is actually capable of.  This can cause a lot of frustration for both parent and child.

While it is true that teaching with gentle discipline takes a bit (ok a lot) of repetition, you may want to stop and examine some of your most recurring problems and decide if the problem could lay in your expectations of your toddler’s behaviour. 

Is it reasonable of me to expect that my 13 month old not touch breakable items within his reach, even after I tell him ‘no’ or try to distract him with another toy?

Is it reasonable to expect that my 15 month old spend an all day , or even few hour, shopping trip quietly slinged on my hip without any breaks to run around, nurse, snack, or nap?

It may seam like a reasonable request to you and me that a 13month old play with the toy he’s been offered, or a 16 month old to remain calm and quiet in her caregiver's arms, it may even be what we NEED them to do at the moment, but if it’s not something he or she is capable of you may need to find an alternate solution.

Try a time-in:

With preverbal toddlers especially, but also with verbal toddlers and preschoolers, there will always be the occasional time where a tantrum simply cannot be avoided or diverted, and that’s Okay!

Our children experience emotions, some of them are very strong emotions that they are not yet able to cope with. In fact, most adults occasionally experience emotions so strong that they have trouble coping with them. Can you really say that YOU have never sworn at a driver who cut you off and leaned on your horn longer then you should have? Or been so upset that you needed to step away for a good cry during a stressful day? Have you ever been so excited that you jumped up and down and screamed with joy?
Just as it isn’t healthy for an adult to bottle up or ignore their feelings, I don’t think that it is healthy or necessary to stop all of our children’s tantrums or crying fits with distraction or playing games.

In the event that your child is truly upset or angry or sad about something that cannot be changed like a parent leaving for work, or a broken toy, or frustration over not being able to do something, you may want to try a time-in.

For me a time-in basically consists of allowing my toddler to experience his emotions in a safe environment with my supportive presence. Sometimes this means leaving the situation entirely and moving to a different room or our favourite nursing chair. But more important is that I do nothing to convince Oliver to stop crying or yelling while still letting him know that I am there to support him. I say something along the lines of. ‘I am sorry that daddy had to leave for work, I miss him too’ or ‘I know we have stayed out too long, and I promise that we will go home very soon’ then I offer some kind of physical support like a hug or hand to hold. I then simply sit quietly with him until he is ready to nurse or play or otherwise move on with his day.

What gentle parenting techniques do you rely on with a preverbal toddler? Do you have any issues that you’ve had trouble finding gentle solutions for? Please comment!


Dionna said... [Reply to comment]
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dionna said... [Reply to comment]

I can't say enough good things about sign language. I think I got a pass out of the typical toddler meltdowns simply because he could almost always communicate his needs. We started with the basics - mama milk, cracker, water, and then we moved on to other words as his interests grew. By the time he started talking a lot (around maybe 20 months? 22?), he knew over 200 signs. Our little ones are SO smart, and they want to communicate! Signing is amazing.
Great list!
~Dionna @ Code Name: Mama

LindsayDianne said... [Reply to comment]

I wish that I was more gentle with my toddler, ah well. Bygones.

Julian@connectedmom said... [Reply to comment]

@dionna I am happy every single minute of every day that we taught Oliver baby signs! Not only is it really handy to be able to ask, 'what do you need?' and get an answer, but I find that it's a million times easier to be calm and responsive when he's being demanding while signing 'please please please!' ya know, being polite about it!

I've always avoided prompting him to say please and thank you, I am really excited that he's just picking it up on his own AND using them correctly!


I was actually nervous to post this because I thought it was unfair to present myself as such a calm and gentle parent... I am not always! Sometimes what I know I should be saying and doing are light years away from what I am actually saying and doing. Parenting is hard! It's really really frustrating and half the time we're doing it in the early years we are doing it in exhausted survival mode!

So remember to be gentle with yourself too!

Jess said... [Reply to comment]

I agree with Dionna - signing was a life saver for us. Now that he's close to 2 and a half, it's still super difficult, just in different ways. But I keep reminding myself - soon he will be ten or twelve and not want anything to do with me, so I've got to enjoy these baby times, even though they are so hard!

Mama Mo said... [Reply to comment]

I am very interested in the concept of time-ins. Thank you for describing how yours works... My twins are 11 months, and I want to have my tool kit ready :-)

Malcolm+ said... [Reply to comment]

Regarding little songs as part of a routine: You probably won't remember, but I had a little song at diaper changing time to encourage you (and later your brother) to assist in the process. It was a corruption of "La Bamba" with a bit of doggerel French:

Le-le-le-levee la bum up.
Le-le-le-levee la bum up in the air.
and so on.

I know you may not always be as calm and gentle as you'd like to be, but I wish I had been as calm and gentle with you as you are with Oliver.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

@Malcolm+ I remember my step dad singing that same song with Mario.

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you for posting this. I am in the same predicament. (Owen's less than two months older than Oliver.) I love reading your suggestions, some of them we've tried and some we haven't. I also want to add that you aren't the only one who aspires to calmness, but sometimes fails!

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I bet this would work on husbands too! :-D

Lo said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much, Julian! Today was a tough one for me and my 19-month old, but this article gives me hope for tomorrow!

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