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How to Handle Your Bossy Toddler

Blog How to Handle Your Bossy Toddler

Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., a psychiatrist at Indiana University Health, explains why kids this age always want to be in charge and how you can tame their demanding behavior.


The toddler years are an exciting time for your child. She’s becoming more independent, is walking and talking with some proficiency, and is eager to explore her surroundings. Unfortunately, meeting these important developmental milestones has a downside: It creates a perfect storm for bossy behavior.

“Your toddler now understands that she’s a separate person from you, and she’s trying to assert herself,” Dr. Fodstad says. The problem is that while she’s learning new words every day, kids this age don’t yet have a large enough vocabulary to make their wants and needs known—nor do they understand they can’t get everything they want when they want it. It’s no surprise, then, that this frustration leads to bossiness and temper tantrums. “It’s actually pretty normal behavior you see in every toddler,” Dr. Fodstad explains.

The good news is that while you can’t avoid the bossy phase, there are simple ways you can head off some of your toddler’s demands and meltdowns. Dr. Fodstad offers these tips:

Make your expectations clear.

Your toddler won’t learn good behavior if you don’t consistently set ground rules, says Dr. Fodstad. If you’re taking your child to the supermarket, for example, tell him beforehand that he has to keep his hands to himself and stay close to you; saying something vague like “I expect you to behave” or waiting until you hit the cookie aisle to tell him he can’t take anything he wants off the shelves is more likely to lead to tantrums.

Prepare your child for transitions.

Because toddlers are naturally curious and can get deeply involved in activities that interest them, they often act demanding and get frustrated when it’s time to do something else. To avoid a meltdown, set boundaries so they know what to expect. “If your child wants to play on her tablet, say ‘I’m going to set the oven timer for 10 minutes and when it dings, you need to finish playing so we can go to the store,’” Dr. Fodstad says. The same goes for any changes in their normal routine (“Instead of going to the park this afternoon we’re going to visit Grandma. We’ll go to the park tomorrow.”)

Give (limited) choices.

Dealing with your toddler’s bossiness can be tricky because you don’t want to completely discourage his newfound independence. This is why it’s important to let him make some small decisions—what shirt to wear, what snack he wants—to satisfy his need for control. “The key is to avoid providing too many choices,” Dr. Fodstad says. “When you give young kids unlimited options, it confuses and overwhelms them.” Offering two or three things to choose from is best.

Check your own behavior.

You can’t expect your child to ask for things nicely or manage her frustration if you don’t say please or fume when something doesn’t go your way. “When you do find yourself losing your temper, explain and demonstrate how you’re going to calm down,” suggests Dr. Fodstad. “Say, ‘I’m getting upset, so I’m going to sit on the couch and take some deep breaths to relax.’” This will help your toddler learn positive ways to cope with her own frustrations.

-- By Jessica Brown

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