5 things you can do when your toddler’s being a total jerk

Don’t put these down to ‘kids being kids’. Here are five things toddlers do that dads can nip in the bud.

Dad feeding toddler cake

Let’s be honest: we all want to be awesome dads. We wouldn’t be on this site if we didn’t.

But it’s no easy feat.

Most new parents would have read approximately 1.2 billion articles about the perils of ‘helicopter’ parenting, with the more obsessive types analysing every nuance of their child’s behaviour lest it affect what law firm they’re eventually hired into.

And while it’s pretty obvious no-one wants to be a killjoy stopping their kids from being kids, it can be difficult threading the needle between crazy obsessive weirdo and deeply neglectful monster.

All that said, there are certain red flags that are actually worth noticing with our little ones – not because we’re being overprotective, but because research and science (science!) tells us that certain behaviours portend more significant issues down the track.

As with all things, you’ll know whether the behaviour is a one-off or part of an emerging pattern. But don’t feel like you’re stifling your child’s magical spirit by disciplining them when they do any of these five things:

1. Lies (outright)

I feel bad bringing this up at a time of year when we assure our offspring that a magical fat stranger is going to break in and deposit contraband under the tree we’ve inexplicably erected in the loungeroom, but it’s still important to teach your kids that lying is a bad idea.

Making up stories can be a wonderful sign of creativity, but outright lying – saying that they’ve done something when they clearly have not, or vice versa – needs to be called out … gently.

That doesn’t mean shouting “j’accuse!” at your terrified child when they tell a porkie. Instead, try explaining to them it’s important to tell the truth because otherwise people will learn not to ever believe them, and how would that make them feel?

But don’t go too hard, too young. Child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character, makes a compelling argument when she says there’s no point getting in a two-year-old’s face for telling fibs – as they haven’t quite developed empathy yet and simply don’t understand the difference between truth and fiction.

This becomes a matter of building up honesty between you and your kids, even if they don’t really get that lying is a bad thing.

For example, if you bust them sneaking a cheeky biscuit when they weren’t meant to, lying about it and then eventually confessing, getting angry at them will only reinforce the idea that telling the truth will get them in trouble.

2. Interrupts

Kids get excited … and why wouldn’t they, since everything’s new and interesting? But it’s important to stop your tyke from talking over you for reasons other than it’s irritating.

A child that gets into the habit of interrupting risks becoming frustrated and angry when the rest of the world doesn’t immediately shut up and listen to them – and, as the most cursory glance over the current political landscape amply demonstrates, we already have no shortage of such people.

Another risk is that your child doesn’t learn to be patient and to find ways to occupy themselves while you take a call, or change a tyre, or finish your high-stake Jenga game (look, different people have different priorities).

Parenting expert Elizabeth Panley, who wrote The No-Cry Discipline Solution has a laundry list of advice to help parents whose toddlers persistently interrupt – the best of which is to try not to answer your toddler’s request directly when you’re letting them know that they’re being rude little savages.

Explain to them that you’re going to be busy for a little while and help them find an activity to do quietly by themselves, and then re-engage when you’re done.

3. Laughs at discipline

This one is hard because let’s be honest: there’s literally nothing funnier than watching a child theatrically roll her eyes at a parent.

When my son starts laughing at me while I’m trying to get him to fall asleep again at 4am, I have to try so hard to not start giggling along with him, especially since I know that he’s doing it precisely because he knows the reaction it gets.

And that’s an impulse you need to quash too, because kids that sass-talk their parents are likely to do the same to teachers and friends. And they’re likely to be a lot less forgiving.

Little kids learn quickly, especially if they have older siblings or cousins, and will pick up the current equivalent of “talk to the hand” as soon as they see it gets a reaction.

Kids mirror the actions of their parents, too. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology found that even newborns like to mimic the actions of others, and that behaviour continues when they become toddlers.

So if your rugrat is being a brat, it might be time to check your own behaviour.

Setting some boundaries early – refusing to engage until Mr Smart Alec starts speaking politely, for example – is vital in this instance, as is robbing them of a receptive audience.

Even if all you want to do is high-five them for their perfect delivery, resist the urge.

4. Ignores you

All children become experts in hearing things like “maybe we should go to the playground tomorrow” or “who’d like some ice-cream?” while mysteriously missing the requests to brush teeth or turn off the screen.

As children get older they’re going to attempt to assert their own authority, and not acknowledging or listening to you is an easy way to do it. But your child needs to learn that responding to people is not always an opt-in system, not least because that is going to fly very badly once they get to school.

Child psychologist David Kidder says that one of the most important things for dads to do is make sure that every time you ask your toddler to do something, make sure you mean it.

Asking them to do something and then wandering off, letting them continue what they were already doing, is a surefire way of ingraining in your toddler that it’s fine to ignore you.

Removing privileges for ignored requests helps teach kids to be more diligent from the outset. You can also try getting the child’s attention by making eye contact or physically touching them (not aggressively), making it harder to argue “…b-but I didn’t hear you!” when you explain they’re not watching Octonauts tonight.

5. Hits/bites/physically harms others

This is an important one, because toddlers can – and will – get violent, especially with brothers or sisters. And sometimes with you. Ever been punched in the face by your toddler? It happens.

The world of a toddler can be an overwhelming place. They’re still learning to control their feelings, so they can lash out when their brains simply aren’t up to the task of processing what’s happening around them.

So while immediate intervention is required when a child hurts another child, it’s important to also go over what your little one can say or do when they feel wronged or get mad at someone in the future. Ask how they would feel if someone hurt them.

The more empathetic our children are, the more empathetic our next generation of adults will hopefully be – and that sounds like a worthwhile sort of a goal.

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