Tantrums or growing pains? There’s much more to toddler troubles than you might think

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Letting them have their own opinions about what they like and don’t like.
Letting them have their own opinions about what they like and don’t like.

Before you know it, the once chubby baby that you cradled peacefully in your arms is suddenly a busy bouncy toddler who just can’t seem to sit still.

The onset of toddlerhood signals many developmental milestones for your tot, from walking, running and climbing to colouring in, dressing and developing imagination. However, the once agreeable infant you knew has been replaced by a mercurial creature with a flurry of emotions.

Clinical psychologist Christine Scolari, owner of the Sandton Psychology and Wellness Centre explains: “There are a lot of big things going on in your toddler’s life – big feelings to manage and big things to achieve on a developmental level,” Christine says.

“He needs to find his little person and move away from being overly dependent on mom or dad as he was in the baby stage." 

“This can cause immense frustration. Also, exploring a brand-new world is exciting – but it can be overwhelming. Toddlers do – and it is normal for them to – have lots of emotions where they can quickly go from being excited to frustrated or angry in the space of a day.”

Your toddler’s behavioural changes or "growing pains" are an expected part of his development, but certainly not his right to run riot in your home. Your challenging tot can be reined in by simply understanding why it happens and what it means to his overall development.

Moody mayhem

Your toddler may be moody for a variety of reasons. He is in a phase of his life where he wants to be independent and do more things on his own. It’s great, but it can also be frustrating for him. He may become moody from being unable to express his feelings as he is still learning to master his verbal skills, or simply because his fine motor skills do not as yet allow him to do the things he wants to do.

What to do?

Christine says that while it’s okay for your tot to be moody, be wary that your child doesn’t stay moody for lengthy periods. For example, your toddler may wake up moody and just won’t “snap” out of it. This, says Christine, could signal other difficulties such as feeling hopeless, frustrated and generally uncontained.

“Toddlers by their very nature are egocentric and require lots of attention, as this reinforces their sense of security and awareness. Try to ensure that your toddler is receiving your attention,” says Christine.

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Bedtime battles

Getting your toddler to bed can be mission impossible at times. It could be he is not tired enough or that his afternoon naps are longer than they should be. Also, being overstimulated before bedtime could mean that he hasn’t learnt the necessity of having down or “relaxing time”, making it difficult for him to settle down.

What to do?

A tired child is a miserable child. A lack of sleep can make your child cranky and whiny, so it is vitally important that you sort out a good sleeping routine for him as soon as possible.

Simply make sure your toddler goes to bed at the correct time.

Don’t overstimulate the child – no TV, running around or rough-housing before bedtime.

Develop calming activities before bedtime to get your tot to unwind and relax, like lying in bed together and reading a book.

Mini meltdowns

Separation anxiety is a phase most younger babies will go through, but it can strike now too. They simply cannot be without you and will cry, scream, roll on the floor and pretty much hang onto your legs to prevent you from leaving them.

Separation anxiety is your child’s way of ensuring you remain close to providing for him. The intensity of anxiousness at separation depends on your child’s temperament and the bond he shares with his parents.

What to do?

Sneaking out is not a good idea at all. It only causes more stress for your little one. Always say goodbye with confidence and offer a toy as a distraction while you exit. Ensure your tot is left in the care of people he knows and trusts, as familiarity will help him feel less anxiety when you are away.

TV-obsessed tot

Television is an entertaining distraction for your little one. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of two should not be exposed to any TV, and those between the ages of three and eight should watch only 30 minutes a day. TV watching is a passive activity, according to Christine, robbing your child of development opportunities, from fine motor skills to imaginative play.

What to do?

Do not make TV the focus of your home – the TV is not a babysitter. Encourage toddlers to play by themselves or with friends. Take them outside to explore, and read or build puzzles together.

Five tips for TV viewing

Limit TV viewing to one educational programme a day.

Sit and watch with your tot. Let him ask you questions if there is something he doesn’t understand, and ask him questions to gain a sense of what he does understand.

Join in on the fun with your tot when there are sing-a-longs, dancing or clapping instead of just sitting still and watching the screen.

Have a special TV room away from where the family usually spends most of its time. The TV distracts from families spending quality time together by interacting with and talking to one another. Don’t put a TV in your tot’s room for any reason.

There should be no TV time when your toddler has a playdate. The kids should rather play with toys or run and jump outside with you so that they can keep active.

Switch off the TV when no one is watching. This limits your toddler’s exposure to programmes he shouldn’t be watching. It also lets him know that TV viewing is a special time.

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Afraid-of-the-dark tot

It wasn’t a problem before, but suddenly your tot is afraid of the dark. He associates the dark with feelings of fear or anxiety. An already anxious child is likely to be more afraid of the darkness.

Christine warns: “Watch that your toddler doesn’t talk about things he shouldn’t be exposed to such as ‘ghosts’ or ‘witches’, as this could be the influence of TV."

"Remember that a toddler won’t be able to distinguish between reality and cartoon characters, therefore what is seen on a cartoon is real to them.”

What to do?

Try and be supportive and reassuring. Ask him why he is afraid of the dark. It could be that when it’s dark the monsters come out from under his bed.

If so, chase them away together, and show him there is nothing to be afraid of. Leave on a night light if it helps him feel better, and don’t shout or ridicule your tot for being “silly” or a “baby”. Being afraid of the dark is normal for your growing child.

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