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When toddlers don’t behave

Sometimes the best parenting advice comes from others in the same boat. SheKnows welcomes Ann Silberman, mother of two and stepmother of two, who shares some advice to get you through the trials of motherhood.

Your question

My three year old is driving me crazy. She is very cute and is often admired by strangers. She loves being the center of attention and apart from being naughty, often does dangerous things to get that attention. I have tried everything I can to offset this behavior from ignoring the bad and reinforcing the good, to paying her my complete and utter attention and nothing works. At the moment her favorite thing is to climb out of her car seat, open the window and hang out of it. I find I don’t like going places or doing things with her because it is more trouble than it is worth. Any ideas on what I can do to stop her from killing herself? — Mum down Under

Ann answers

Three-year-old children often test boundaries, and your daughter sounds particularly mischievous and lively. I’m guessing she is a very clever girl who knows how to push Mummy’s buttons, probably as well as she does the seatbelt buttons! It’s very important to be consistent with children who have this behavior pattern, and so far, by your description, you have not been.

While it’s good to give attention-seekers choices, obviously you cannot allow your daughter to do anything dangerous like getting out of the car seat. Simple “no’s” often don’t work with kids like this, so you’ll have to outsmart her in order to impart the lesson you want her to learn. She must feel the consequences of this unwanted behavior. This might take a little planning and inconvenience on your part, but here is what I suggest:

Pick a week in which to solve this problem. During this week, plan trips to places your daughter enjoys. Also plan a few routine errands where she may not have so much fun, but where she can get a reward. But, also plan not to get there.

For example, tell your daughter you are going to go out for an ice-cream cone. Explain that she must be a good girl and stay in the seat and not open the window. Then, get in the car and go.

If she gets out of her seat, you must immediately turn around and go home. No treat. Explain to her sadly that what she did was so dangerous that you couldn’t get to the ice cream store. Don’t say it in a condemning way — that is important. Sound sad and disappointed. “Oh, darling, I’m so sorry, but you can get hurt if you don’t stay in your seat and Mummy couldn’t take that chance.” It’s important that she realize SHE is the one who caused the bad thing to happen by her behavior, so you should not sound angry. She will probably be very upset, but do not give in and go back and get her ice cream, or give her anything to calm her at home. Ignore her tantrum, but tell her that you will try again another day when she’s ready.

If she does stay in the seat, I would also suggest allowing her to eat an ice cream cone on the way home, so that she is too busy to test you on the way back. Of course, if she does get out, you must take her cone and dispose of it. Again, be very sad about having to do that. When you get home and she’s done what you expected, give her a kiss and thank her for being so good and staying in the car seat. She should only get attention when she has done the appropriate thing.

Each time you go somewhere during this week, try and have a little treat in mind. When you go to the grocery store, tell her she may pick out a toy, sticker, or a candy bar as long as she stays in the car seat. Play up how much fun you will have and what she can choose from. If she gets out of the seat, DO NOT continue along to the grocery store, even if you really need milk. Immediately turn around and go home. If she stays in the seat, she may pick out her treat, but then she may not have it until you get all the way home and she has behaved.

Plan these little trips all week, consistently going home immediately if she gets out of the seat. She will eventually get the message that you will not go anywhere fun or have any treats as long as she leaves her safety seat, and she’ll realize that she is causing the negative thing to happen.

I’m 100% sure she will test your resolve and there will be times when she gets out of the seat. If you plan for it, are consistent, and take enough time on this issue, she will get learn and the behavior will stop. This might be inconvenient for you for a while, but not as inconvenient as visiting your child in the hospital after an accident.

Good luck. You will have a lot of fun with this bright little girl, but you have to figure out how to push her buttons to elicit the behavior you want, not the other way around.

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