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Outsmart Your Toddler

The battle lines were drawn: It was me against him. And he, my 2-year-old, was a formidable opponent. I lay in wait by the stairs, a pair of size-2T sweatpants clutched to my chest. Catching Kevin and wrestling him into his clothes reminded me of the day I tried (and failed) to catch a greased piglet at a county fair. At least with Kevin I didn't have to worry I'd end up facedown in the mud. Suddenly, my slippery little boy popped up from behind the relative safety of the sofa. Our eyes met. He squealed and bolted for the kitchen. Game on!

Somehow, my master's degree in psychology had lulled me into the mistaken notion that motherhood would be a piece of cake. I knew the latest child-rearing theories. I'd handle behavior problems with finesse.

Ha.

Never did I envision how challenging raising a stubborn and feisty toddler would be.

Thankfully, I've now learned several great toddler-taming strategies that work quite well. Sometimes, I've found, you need to save the "I am the parent! Do as I say!" approach and try a little creative thinking.

Act like an idiot

"Even the most defiant toddler will take pity on us if we seem like total incompetents," says Harvey Karp, M.D., author of the DVD and book The Happiest Toddler on the Block. The trick is to convince your child that you should be helped, not resisted:

Be forgetful. If she's refusing to put away her toys, pick up a few and put them not in the toy box but in some other unexpected place, like the bathtub or a kitchen cabinet. When your child balks (she knows where things belong, even as young as 2), say innocently, "What? I'm putting your toys in your toy box!" She'll likely take pity on you and help you put her stuff where it really belongs.

Be wrong. Next time you foresee a battle getting your toddler in the stroller, try squeezing into it yourself. Chances are good she'll announce, "That's mine!" Finally her possessive streak is good for something.

Be incompetent. Put your coat on backward and place your shoes on your hands. Say, "I'm ready to go, are you?" She'll laugh, straighten you out, and get her own shoes on for once.

Don't worry: Your child won't really think you're a boob, says Dr. Karp. This is just a fun tactic, like playing hide-and-seek and pretending you can't find her.

Deborah Carpenter writes frequently for Parenting.

Become a silver-lining expert

Want to avoid disaster? Pretend everything's great. Your attitude, and the way you handle disappointments (big and small), can greatly affect how your child learns to do the same.

Use positive language. The right words can lessen the blow of letdowns and make mundane tasks seem interesting and fun. For instance, the day 3-year-old Josh Boswell had been looking forward to going to the playground, it rained. Rather than let him sulk and stomp angrily around the house, his mom, Sue, of Pepperell, Massachusetts, said, "This rain is wonderful! Now we get a chance to have that indoor picnic I've been planning for you." Josh was intrigued  -- an indoor picnic sounded at least as much fun as going to the playground. "Turning disappointment into delight is part of the magic of being a parent," says his mom. "The silver lining is almost always there. You just have to learn to point it out."

Teach your child to look on the bright side himself. If things don't go right (the cupcakes fell on the floor or his best friend isn't at preschool that day), ask him to think up something good about the bad situation. He might say he's looking forward to using a different icing color or that now he can draw a "get well soon" picture for his pal (you might need to coach him at first). Play this game often and your child will automatically learn to look for the silver lining.

Try reverse psychology

You say "yes," she says "no!" You say "no," she says "yes!" This verbal tug-of-war is frustrating, but actually it's a healthy declaration of her growing independence.

There's even an official name for this stage. "When your child doesn't want to wear certain clothes or taste new foods, it's called 'the oppositionalism of toddlerhood,'" says Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., author of The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting.

The solution? If you want your child to do something, like put on her socks, pretend you don't want her to do it.

One strategy I used to get my daughter, Kaylin, then 2, to try new foods was to deny her first few requests for them. At dinner I'd put two foods on her plate and four foods on the grown-up plates. She'd stare longingly at our full plates and say, "Me want that!" I'd reply, "Sorry, pumpkin. These foods are for grown-ups." She'd keep asking, and as she started to get frustrated, I'd ask, "Do you really think you're old enough?" She'd shout, "Yes!" and scoot over, holding out her plate. She couldn't eat her broccoli fast enough.

And when I want Kevin, now 3, to get ready quickly, I pretend I'm in a big rush. "Me come, too?" he'll ask. "No, honey, Mommy's in a hurry today. Why don't you stay here with Daddy instead?" My son, who always prefers an adventure to staying home, will dash off to the closet to get his shoes and jacket. When he returns, I say, "I'm not sure you can get ready in time to come with me." That gets him to start hurriedly shoving his little arms into his jacket sleeves  -- and then I say, "Wow, you really can get ready quickly!" He beams with pride and allows me to finish zipping him up in record time. Say goodbye to the old capture-Kevin-and-yank-his-clothes-on-while-pinning-him-to-the-floor maneuver.

Reverse psychology works by using your toddler's natural desire for independence (also known as defiance) to get what you both want. Just be sure to use it in a playful way  -- and not so often that he gets wise to you!

Say, "Yes, but..."

Amanda Paolucci of Newington, Connecticut, loved playing outside when she was a toddler. She'd press her nose against the screen door and plead to go out. "She'd throw a colossal fit if I refused to let her," says her mom, Julie. But once Paolucci learned the "Yes, but..." trick, Amanda's tantrums subsided. Instead of saying no all the time, Paolucci now says, "Yes, Amanda, you may go outside, but after dinner." Or "Yes, you may ride your big wheel, but we need to wait for the rain to stop." Toddlers are a lot more cooperative if they just know when they can do whatever it is they want.

The younger your child, the less patience she'll have to wait. So sidetrack her opposition by offering up another activity with your "Yes, but." You could say, "Yes, you may have a cookie, but first we're going to make dinner together," or "Yes, we can watch Dora, as soon as we've picked up your toys." She'll fight a "no"  -- a "yes, but" is harder to resist.

Stay a step ahead

Although most toddler battles are caused by hunger, fatigue, or frustration, it's easier to recognize those things after a tantrum starts  -- and after a few slices of apple would have saved the day. So staying a step ahead of your child is not a quick solution so much as a smart way of thinking. It comes down to consistent routines and reasonable expectations, so you don't have to be a toddler mind reader. Keeping your child on an even keel can be relatively simple: Try to make his basic needs  -- food, sleep  -- a priority, and not something you squeeze into a busy day.
  • Put him down for a nap before he seems super tired.
  • Feed him several small meals to keep his blood sugar (and mood) level.
  • Give him plenty of encouragement  -- he'll be less inclined to flip out when something goes wrong or he doesn't get his way.

But also think twice before you make life unnecessarily hard on him. If you're thinking of braving the mall with a tired child  -- don't. The notion "maybe I can just squeeze in one more errand" has been the downfall of many otherwise rational moms. Some of my finest parenting moments (and by finest I mean horrifying and humiliating) have had me half-dragging, half-wrestling my thrashing, wailing, screeching toddler out of Wal-Mart. After public tantrum #36, I finally caught on to the idea of setting limits  -- for me. I now limit toddler-accompanied outings to less than two hours.

Of course, if you have a toddler, you've already learned that life rarely goes as planned. So, here's one last trick to try on yourself: Act like you know what to do  -- and soon enough, you will!

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