Better Listening | Big Emotions

Bossy Toddler: How to Keep the Upper Hand

Funny there’s no chapter in any parenting book called Advanced Toddler Negotiation: How to Keep the Upper Hand.

I think there should be.

Because somewhere between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old your sweet obedient child will turn into a rebellious teenager overnight. Of course it seems cute and funny at first. But after a few days managing a bossy toddler life becomes downright maddening leaving you wondering why a kid engages in power struggles.

Even a trip to the grocery store turns into an impossible task. You arrive and your child refuses to get in a regular shopping cart because he only wants the racing car shopping cart. He says, “No, no, no shopping cart. Racing cart ONLY.”

Dealing with a bossy toddler. When your toddler thinks he's the boss: Strategies that work.

Conveniently, none are available when you arrive and now you have a screaming toddler on your hands. Your complaining child’s world is crushed; life cannot go on. This includes grocery shopping. Lovely.

Then there is the whole bedtime negation saga. You tell your to toddler to pick up the toys before bedtime to which he responds, “No, no, no pick-up toys.” Then you take him to time-out or time-in (which ever we are supposed to do these days to avoid scarring our kids for life) and your child responds by hitting and spitting at you. Precious.

To top it all off, he escapes from time out and proceeds to run around the house—naked.

No worries.

You’ve got this.

Taking shelter in the home office, you pick up the phone and warn your toddler you are currently speaking with Santa Claus.

Bossy toddler. How did this happen?

How did you go from parent to negotiator to fake calling Santa on the phone? When did things get this bad while parenting your toddler? And how do you fix it? What do you do when your toddler thinks he is the boss?

As a parent, the lines of authority become blurred very quickly when toddlers start asserting power and demanding control. During the toddler years, parents start to notice defiance, risky behavior, and extreme bossiness. And eventually you feel helpless and lost as a parent. You don’t have a functional way to get your child to obey. You’ve effectively lost control.

How to reign in a bossy toddler.

It’s time to get back on track with toddler parenting. You want to improve toddler listening. You want to see better toddler behavior. You want to stop feeling like you’re in a hostage negotiation situation.

I’m right there with you.I’m a mom who wants a peaceful home and an obedient child. I’m a mom who wants to maintain some sanity. I’m a mom who just wants to complete a grocery shopping trip without a major meltdown. And of course, I’m a mom who wants her toddler to pick up the toys and go to bed without having to call Santa on speed dial. You probably are too.

bossy toddler parenting tips

Be the parent, not the friend.

Children thrive on firm boundaries, rules and structure. This doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to flexibility as a parent. This means your child yearns for guidance and direction—a strong parental leader. Don’t hesitate to fulfill that role for your child. Years down the road when they are grown adults, there is plenty of time for friendship. But now, your child adores your guidance.

Have clear expectations.

Establish household rules with your kids and remind them frequently. For example, when we go into the parking lot you need to walk next to mom or hold mom’s hand. Or you need to sit nice at the dinner table until everyone is done eating.

Remind older kids of rules by keeping some “house rules” on the refrigerator or through a family meeting. For younger children and toddlers, remind them of the rule 10 minutes beforehand and again 5 minutes beforehand. For example, in 10 minutes we are going to eat dinner and you need to sit nicely until everyone is done eating.

You can create morning, mealtime and bedtime routine charts in collaboration with your child to help set expectations together.

Follow through.

If we create a rule, yet fail to enforce it, the only message we send is that the rules are meaningless (I’m speaking from experience here.)

If your toddler asks for a cookie and you say no, feel confident in the boundary you created. Your toddler may ask for the same cookie 20 times and throw a huge fit, but stay firm in your boundary. Your child is learning whether your rule is actually a rule or a starting point for negotiation.

Get creative and say something your child can have instead (like carrot sticks). Or validate that your child wants a cookie by saying, “You really want a cookie right now.” Or explain that he or she can have a cookie later that evening, but not right now.

Expect pushback.

Children will test boundaries. It is incredibly frustrating, yet testing boundaries is normal, healthy developing behavior.

Yes, toddler tantrums are a good thing. It means you set a boundary. It means you are teaching, guiding and setting limits appropriate for your child. Having a good cry from time to time (okay…daily!) is positive for kids.

 bossy toddler parenting tip

This is something Dr. Laura Markham calls the controlled meltdown: Kids cannot articulate their complex feelings and emotions like adults. Thus, crying can help release those emotions.

If your expectations and boundaries are appropriate for your child, feel confident staying firm. Pushback is often a sign of a job well done.

Get on the same page as your spouse.

Parents see the most success in reigning in a bossy toddler when they work together. Talk to your spouse. Make a plan. Stick to it.

If you aren’t sure how to get your spouse on board, share something that works really well to decrease bossy toddler behavior and ask if you can do it together. You can also share a helpful parenting article, read it together and talk about it how to apply it in your home.

Reward appropriate behavior.

If your child is cooperating, following the rules or acting helpful, there is nothing wrong with rewarding behavior through a special activity or praise. Connecting and recognizing the positives make a huge impact on turning behavior around.

Small & big instances matter.

Whether kids are acting bossy and defiant over wanting a cookie or crossing the street, each instance matters. Each time a parent follows through, it solidifies a strong foundation for behavior. It makes a difference.

My Santa speed dial confession.

Okay. Okay. I’m going to confess the person described at the top of the article was me.

What can I say?

I was desperate.

So I called Santa.

Unfortunately, Santa on speed dial is a patch, not a long term solution to bossy toddler behavior.

Instead, these real parenting solutions and firm boundaries helped reign in our little one.

Now if I could just get him to appreciate grocery shopping, life will be good.

Print this free toddler listening checklist.

This post comes with a free printable checklist to help with toddler listening. I always have the hardest time remembering these phrases. This printable simplifies it!

Here is a sneak preview…

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    2. Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
    3. Place it on your refrigerator. Check things off as you go and don’t forget a thing!

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  1. Oh the things that have come out of my 5 year olds mouth in the past. Specifically with Daddy because she has his wrapped. Follow through was a huge one for us. I always assumed I was good at it, but in fact I wasn’t! It sure has helped since sticking to it though.

  2. Oh, toddlers can be tough, especially when you introduce a new baby into the picture! I really like your idea of putting up family rules. I always had my rules posted in my classroom, so why not at home? I think I’ll have to try that. The thing that most always seems to work is to make sure to validate their feelings like you said above. Haha And my son always wants a cookie!

    1. Yes. Every night 30 minutes before dinner my toddler is on the floor crying about wanting chips or a cookie. Ha. We are working on keeping the rules posted and reinforcing them. Not always easy though!

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