Anybody who's ever had a toddler knows that there are certain situations you try to avoid with one in tow at all costs: endless lines, long airplane flights, weddings. But as any parent of a toddler also knows, sometimes you've got no choice but to pin your little one down, put on his green froggie boots, and take him out into the real world.
Two-year-olds are creatures of habit. They do best in places that are familiar, on schedules that are routine, and in situations in which they aren't expected to behave well for very long. But what mom can provide that kind of environment all the time? We all have to leave the house sometime (no matter how reluctantly).
Fortunately, there are sanity-saving maneuvers to use when you find yourself in a worst-case scenario. Read on for some standard nightmares and wisdom from the parents who've lived through them, as well as some toddler experts.
1. You're one person away from checking out at the grocery store when your 2-year-old (whom you've been placating with fruit and cookies while shopping) decides he's had enough. Do you walk away from the store? Or let him scream while the person in front of you debates her total with the clerk?
When you're wrangling with toddlers, there are always two responses: one in the moment and one for next time.
For now: Pick him up, apologize, and leave. Everyone will be relieved. Or if you can handle your own emotions and other shoppers' disapproval, then hang in there while your toddler has his tantrum. Most people can't and opt to flee. That's what Amey Stone of New York City did when her 18-month-old lost it because she was foiled from wandering the aisles. "I walked away from a basketful of milk, ice cream, and other perishables," she says. Her daughter's reaction? "She was fine once we left the store," says Stone, who won't even attempt a long line with her daughter until she's older.
Don't think for a moment that by cutting your losses, you're giving in to your tot's irrational demands. "You're not coddling -- you're helping your child cope by removing him from a failing situation. He'll feel relieved, and so will you," says Claire Lerner, a mom of two and a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a national nonprofit in Washington, DC, that promotes healthy development in the early years.
For next time: Toddlers can take only so much "behaving" in a stimulating environment before they melt down. Going out with your toddler will be a lot easier if you understand exactly how much he can handle and adjust your schedule accordingly.
Try to be more focused. If he can't deal with an hour-long trek through a crowded grocery store, then get in, get the items you need most, and get out. Don't prolong the experience by trying to squeeze in two more errands. As tempting as that may be ("But he's being so good! I'll just swing by the bank..."), it usually ends in tears.
Another tactic: Take him shopping when the stakes aren't so high. Your toddler only picks up on your tension and anxiety, so attempt a few practice runs and he'll learn that he can go to a store with you without losing it at the end.
2. You're at the library, and your almost 3-year-old won't keep her clothes on for all the Madeline books on the shelves.
For now: Remind her that you've come to the library to check out the books she wants, and tell her that if she takes off her clothes again, you'll have to go home immediately -- without her books. When she starts to remove her clothes yet again, say, "I'm sorry, but we've got to go now because this isn't what we do in a library." Then take her home, or at least out of the room. "The follow-through is the most important thing," says Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, Columbia University, and coauthor of Parenting Your Toddler.
For next time: Undressing is a classic toddler control maneuver. "Little kids really want to see how much power they have versus how much you have," says Shimm. "If you've made an issue of getting dressed, then that's what they're going to focus on." Don't feel bad. With 2-year-olds, it's always something: "They look for the one thing that gets your goat and exploit that," she says. "It's very normal at this age."
How well you've set limits in the past will be a big factor in how successful you'll be next time, though. If your toddler knows that you'll give in and let her stay if she pitches a big enough fit, nothing you say will make her behave otherwise. But if she knows you mean business, you're well on your way to a fully clothed afternoon, wherever you are.
Flying Highs, and Lows
3. You're on an airplane. Your toddler doesn't want to be contained and eventually goes into full-blown tantrum mode. The other passengers glare at you with a collective hateful eye.
Before you even contemplate your trip, the first thing to ask is whether you really need to be on a long flight with a toddler. Presuming you have no other choice, there are several strategies for you to keep in mind.
For now: Take a deep breath, since you can't help your toddler if you're also unglued. While you're at it, ignore the dirty looks and focus on your child; it's impossible to handle him and the reactions of others at the same time.
Then do what you can to calm him down, whether it's talking in a funny voice or pulling out a toy. If something's working, don't change it or he's likely to get overwhelmed and melt down anew. Whatever's familiar works too. I once relaxed my shrieking 2-year-old on a packed subway car by singing the "ABC" song over and over into his ear.
For next time: Moms who travel a lot agree: Bend over backward to book a night flight when possible. A sleeping toddler is a quiet, happy toddler.
Kari White, mom of 2-year-old Ajani, lives in Los Angeles but takes regular trips back home to New Zealand. She exploits her daughter's curiosity by carrying on plenty of little surprises: sticker-activity books, a package of new hair ties, something glittery (combs, tassels), any toy set made up of magnets (so the pieces are less likely to get lost).
She also tries not to rely on airplane food. "I pack lots of yummy snacks in interesting little containers. It keeps her amused to guess what's inside." She doesn't forget to take extra clothes, diapers and wipes, and the special blanket or doll. "I have a very big carry-on bag," she says.
Crying At Weddings
4. You're at your best friend's wedding. As the ceremony begins, your 2 1/2-year-old practices her high-pitched scream. When you shush her, she laughs and does it again. What fun!
For now: This isn't the time to try to teach her about using her indoor voice. Out of respect for the adults around you -- and, in particular, the bride and groom -- matter-of-factly take her out of earshot.
"Toddlers pick up on how important something is to you," says Lerner. "So your toddler, who wants to make an impact, is going to do the thing that gets her the most attention in that setting." And screaming, as you may have noticed, is always a showstopper.
For next time: Ask yourself whether your daughter really needs to be at a wedding, where she's being asked to perform unrealistically for her age. Even the mildest of little kids can't stay quiet and still for the hour most wedding ceremonies take.
If you decide to go ahead and take your child to the ceremony, be honest about your expectations. Ask yourself how you'll feel when the behavior you expected to happen actually does happen. "If you're going to be resentful and angry if you have to leave, then don't bring your child," says Lerner.
If it's important to have your toddler there, consider hiring a mother's helper to play with her during the quiet parts of the ceremony. (Or if it's a family event, enlist a young cousin to help.) If you have a tot who can be placated with a few books or quiet toys, bring them all. But you should still be ready to exit at a moment's notice.
5. Traffic's ground to a halt because of an accident, and you're at least half a mile from the next exit. Your toddler is hot, tired, and bored. You're hot, tired, and bored yourself, but you're stuck for the time being.
For now: Here's a situation where the only real option may be to practice your Zen chanting. Perhaps your child will be intrigued and join you. Or try finding something on the radio that quiets him down. Unless traffic has really stopped dead, don't even think of getting out of your car. Your child's safety depends on yours.
For next time: Recently, on a long car trip, my 2-year-old son, Jackson, behaved like a trouper until we hit traffic an hour away from home and he melted down. Fortunately, I had the Putumayo World Playground CD my kids like to listen to at breakfast. I popped it in, and Jack immediately quieted down to listen and then fell asleep. The lesson I learned: Have duplicates of every soothing device and store them in your car.
You should also bone up on your knowledge of games. When she was younger, my 5-year-old, Annie, loved "Find the 'Bug' Car," which involved pointing out all the VWs, new and old, on the road. (Another variation is "Find the Big Truck.") My kids can always be diverted with a sing-along. Another idea for drivetime peace: Let your toddler pick out a small toy or two to take with him in the car -- little kids like being able to choose. And never underestimate the power of a small baggie of Cheerios.
Experts say that it's not until your child's third year and beyond that she'll begin to master her impulses and take satisfaction in behaving in ways that make the two of you feel good. In the meantime, don't blame her for her meltdowns -- and, above all, don't blame yourself.
"If your goal is to enjoy being a parent of a toddler, you'll need to modify your expectations," suggests Meg Zweiback, a pediatric nurse-practitioner and associate clinical professor of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco. "Because you won't get anything in the long run from trying to control your child!"
Contributing editor Julie Tilsner is the author of two books. Her most recent is Attack of the Toddlers! Further Adventures on Planet Parenthood.