The Secret to Good Behavior in Your Toddler? Self-Confidence.

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At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we get lots of questions from parents of toddlers who want to know how to “improve” their child’s behavior, especially regarding how they interact with their peers on playdates and at preschool.

Our answer? After many decades of helping parents raise their infants and toddlers, we’ve found that what most affects toddlers’ behavior is how they feel about themselves.

Self-esteem and self-confidence strongly influence how children behave toward their parents, their teachers and their friends

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

Since parents are the strongest role models and have the most influence in a child’s life, how they encourage, praise, discipline and listen to their children (or not) can be the key to a well-adjusted, well-mannered child who respects rules or one who hurts others, lacks empathy and throws angry out-of-control tantrums.

So how can you help encourage good behavior in your toddler? Recently, we discovered these suggestions, tips and guidelines from babycenter and feel they really hit the nail on the head. We’d like to share them with you here.

10 suggestions for helping your child develop healthy self-esteem

  1. Give unconditional love

Lavish your toddler with cuddles, kisses and hugs. Make a habit of telling him/her how much you love them, no matter what they’ve done, good or bad. Children’s self-esteem flourishes when you accept them for who they are, regardless of their strengths, weaknesses, temperament or abilities.

  1. Be upset with the behavior, not the child

When your child has acted badly and needs discipline, make it clear that it’s the behavior — not him/her as a person — that’s unacceptable. For instance, instead of saying, “You’re a naughty boy! Why can’t you be good?” this is a better option: “Pushing Gabriel isn’t nice. It can hurt and make him sad. Don’t push.”

  1. Set aside time to give your child your undivided attention

Make time to give your toddler your undivided attention, without siblings or anyone else around to pull you in different directions. Take a walk, play a game, read a book or do a puzzle. Maybe carve out some special one-on-one time right before bed. This does wonders for your child’s self-worth because it sends the message that you think they’re important and worth your full attention.

  1. Set limits. And enforce them.

Be clear and consistent. For instance, if you tell your child he/she has to eat their snack in the kitchen today, don’t let him/her wander around the family room with it tomorrow. Knowing that life has boundaries and that certain rules are absolutes helps your child feel more secure. It may take constant repetition on your part, but he/she will start to understand what you expect.

  1. Offer choices

For 2-year-olds, letting them choose between two possibilities can be very empowering. It not only gives them some control over their lives but helps them develop important decision-making skills. Examples: Does your child want to wear the striped sweater or the polka dot one? Do they want cereal or waffles for breakfast?

  1. Let your child make mistakes

If your child puts his/her plate close to the edge of the table and it looks like it might fall off, resist the urge to swoop in and move it. Let it fall (hopefully it’s plastic) without getting overly upset. Instead, encourage your child to think about what he/she could do differently next time to avoid a similar accident. The lesson here is to let mistakes happen so your child learns how recover from them and start again. (There is an excellent New York Times article about “snowplow” parents who clear all obstacles out of their children’s path, resulting in young adults who have not learned coping skills. You can read it here.)

  1. Affirm the positive

Every day, acknowledge the good things your child does, either face-to-face or so he/she can hear you. For instance, tell your partner, “Sally washed all the vegetables for dinner,” then watch her beam with pride. In addition, make sure you’re specific. Instead of “Good job,” you might say, “Thank you for waiting so patiently in line.” This will boost children’s sense of accomplishment — and confidence — by letting them know exactly what they did right.

  1. Accept your child’s emotions, good and bad

When your toddler throws a massive tantrum because it’s time to leave the playground, try your best to see it from his/her point of view. At this age, leaving the park may feel like the end of the world. A good tactic is to say, “I know you’re really sad because we have to leave the playground now. Thank you for doing what I ask even though it’s making you sad.” By accepting your child’s emotions without judgment, you validate his/her feelings and show that you understand what they’re going through.

  1. Resist comparisons

Avoid making comments such as, “Why can’t you be nice like your friend Oliver?” These kinds of remarks just make your preschooler feel bad about him/herself. Similarly,  overly positive comparisons — such as telling your child that he/she is the best at something, better than everybody else in the class — are potentially damaging too because he/she might find it hard to live up to this “perfect” image. It’s important for parents to let their children know that they appreciate them for the unique individuals they are, rather than how they measure up to others.

  1. Be encouraging

Every child needs support from the adults in their lives — parents, teachers, grandparents, coaches — that signals, “I believe in you. I see you trying hard. Keep going!” This kind of encouragement acknowledges effort, not just rewards achievement. This makes kids, of any age, feel good about themselves even if they haven’t completely mastered a skill yet.

Count on us for information and advice to help you raise your toddler

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Whether you’re a new parent or an old hand, we want you to know that you can turn to us for help, whatever stage of development your child is in. We’re parents too, with years of experience helping parents care for their toddlers, including how to help their social and emotional development. To read about our tips, advice and guidance specifically for raising infants and toddlers, click here.

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If you have questions or want advice about your toddler’s social and emotional development, come see us

If you want to know more about ways you can help your child’s social and emotional development, or have questions about any aspect of raising a toddler, please make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians. Our #1 goal is to help you raise a happy, healthy toddler and for you to feel confident as a parent. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.Make an appt

By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, a practicing pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball