Taming My Toddler Cave Girl


It’s all very well having the time and energy to spend playing and learning with your child, but if you are struggling to manage your little one and their emerging personality, how much playing will you actually get done?

However kind, patient, tolerant, strict, disciplined, experienced or wise we think we are as parents, I don’t think any of us can say we’ve got it sorted when it comes to behaviour management.

Before I had children, one of my colleagues, who was famous at our school for managing challenging behaviour successfully, said to me: “It’s different when it comes to your own kids. They just seem to know how to push your buttons!” I have certainly found this to be true. That’s why I am delighted to present this VERY USEFUL guest post to you. The article is written by my friend, Helen. She is mother to an 18-month old girl, and a teacher, with 8 year’s experience of working in disadvantaged schools in Ireland and London. What she doesn’t know about behaviour management isn’t worth knowing!

If you want to get your hands on some juicy tips for understanding your toddler and getting back that control (even with the most “spirited” of children!), READ ON!

Taming My Toddler Cave-Girl by Helen B

I always thought it would be different….
After 11 years of primary school teaching, I had convinced myself that “when I have my own, I will know exactly what to do when it come to behaviour!” Let’s just say that while my experience has certainly helped, having an “exuberant” toddler (or little caveperson as Harvey Karp calls it; but we’ll get to that later), isn’t quite as straight forward as controlling a classroom full of rowdy ten year olds! Your toddler temperament may be easy, shy or spirited, but there will always come a time when behaviour needs to be managed (if they are “spirited”, be prepared for this to be a bit more often!).

One thing that has helped has been taking the same approach with my new cave-girl as I would have taken beginning a new school year. That is to say: do my research, have a clear idea about my rules/standards/expectations and don’t smile until October (just kidding!). I know it is hard to find the time to ACTUALLY READ when you have kids, but a little dip into things here and there (if possible) really helps. You’d never embark on a project or task at work without a bit of due diligence, so why should parenting be any different? If you disagree (or like me fall into a stupor every time the printed word swims before your eyes) then hopefully I’ve saved some time and effort with the tips below. If you are going to read one book, make it ‘The Happiest Toddler on the Block’ by Paediatrician Harvey Karp. He’s the guy who does the most amazing 5 S’s method for soothing little babies (swaddle, shush etc… can’t remember the rest, but it was life saving at the time. Wow, how time flies!)

With this in mind, I set about reading (or re-reading) a couple of different books/articles to see what approaches are out there, that may suit me (and N of course). I coupled this with my own training on behaviour management, mostly inspired by an Australian education consultant called Bill Rogers. They might not suit you, but hey when the screaming in the supermarket starts or your little poppet decides to refuse to eat anything but yogurt, anything is worth a try!!

So here, in no particular order is what I have learnt…


Communication is the key. Emerging language skills mean challenging behaviour in toddlers is often borne out of the frustration of not being understood.

Toddlers are like cavemen. A parent’s job over the years will be to “civilise” their child, teach them please and thank you, toilet train them etc.. we also need to help them to develop impulse control (i.e. don’t hit!!).

• Toddlers are beginning to move from the small world of home and immediate family into the wider world and with this awareness comes a desire for independence (and control).

• Believe it or not, children LIKE boundaries. It helps them with a sense of control and makes them feel safe. It is our job to help them feel safe and give them these boundaries.

Children respond extremely well to reward and positive reinforcement (praise etc). Behaviour management is not just about sanction.

understanding your child is vital. Toddlers can misbehave when tired, hungry, teething, over stimulated, hurt, injured, embarrassed. This is why, despite what I am going to say next about approaches, the most important thing is not in any book and relies on your instinct as a parent.


There is a big difference between understanding why a particular behaviour is happening and letting your child “get away with blue murder” as my mum would have put it! So even if they are tired/hungry/ ill we still need to show them the way…

• Harvey Karp says that behaviours can roughly be grouped into three types. Reminding myself of this really helped me, especially when I felt like over reacting to the orange ones! Traffic light behaviours: green light are those lovely things you wish they did all the time; orange light are the annoying things like the nagging, dawdling, pestering and so on and red light behaviours are dangerous or disrespectful or aggressive acts that require immediate action.

• The number one most rule in behaviour management is: CONSISTENCY, CONSISTENCY, CONSISTENCY! Being tired really, really (really) weakens your resolve, so it can be tough to stick to your guns, but without being consistent you might as well not bother trying any technique at all.  So you need to make sure you enforce:

1.  Consistent standards. Decide what is acceptable and what is not.  It is best to discuss this with other caregivers, so you are all on the same page. There is no point in me getting aggrieved with N about screeching and daddy laughing for example.

2.  Consistent consequences. Would you have the same consequence for a red light behaviour as an orange? Again this should be a joint decision. If N hits or bites someone what happens? What if she throws food? Once you decide on the consequence (time out, loss of a treat/privilege, ignoring, etc.) for a particular action, this needs to happen every time – not just when you are more tired or annoyed! The older your child, the more power you can give them by letting them negotiate the consequence with you (NB not at the time, but at a calm time, in advance of any issue).

Follow through. If you say there is a consequence for something, then it has to happen. For example if you say : “If you do that again we are going home” then you have to be prepared to go home if the behaviour doesn’t stop. You’ve got to mean it! They learn to recognise an empty threat really quickly.

• Don’t underestimate the power of a quiet voice. At school, a good teacher is the one who rarely raises their voice. If you shout all the time children will a) shout louder too and b) just stop listening as it becomes part of the everyday clatter. N nearly jumped out of her skin the other day when I raised my voice as she tried to hit another child, she hadn’t heard it before, so boy did she know that I meant it! Bill Rogers talks about controlled severity. This is the idea that the less you use it, the more effective it is.

• Positive consequences work too. This is especially for ironing out those annoying yellow light behaviours. This can be as simple as a bit of praise when your little darling finally shares, right through to special time (the Americans call it “Time In”!) with mum or dad, or a special game. Try not to make it food based all the time as this is setting up a pattern (negative associations with other foods, behaving just to get sweets etc.). It’s a bit too deep to get into the whole intrinsic versus extrinsic reward thing here but there will come a time when you want them to do something not to gain a reward but to feel proud of themselves.

Ignoring is also useful for yellow light behaviours.  I feel like the little annoying things are designed to break you more than the big ones. By ignoring a bit, you stop yourself getting wound up and your toddler learns that persistent low level misbehaviour doesn’t get them attention.


And now for some fun and embarrassing stuff to try. This is more preventative to stop issues emerging at all, or getting worse when they do…

• Toddler-ese is your toddler’s native tongue! Use short phrases, repetition and mirroring to help your child understand their feelings. You are a spokesperson for them, especially when they are upset, as the part of their brain for words shuts down.

• As your little caveperson finds it difficult to communicate, try doing it for them, at their level. The Fast Food rule is where you say for your toddler what you think they are trying to say – just like at a fast food restaurant, where they repeat back your order. You are showing that you understand and respect your child. Try to reflect some of their emotion in your voice as you do this (but don’t go over the top!). You state their feelings as well as the issue and you do it in a really embarrassing way using simple cave language. Who hasn’t tried to leave the park only to be met with the rigid buggy baby? We often will try to explain in adult language but what HK suggests is more like “No leave! no leave! N no want leave. You love the park!” then after you have calm, explain why… “We need to go home for tea…” I have found this method incredibly successful. I’m still not sure if it is because she is bemused by me or because she genuinely feels more empowered and respected! All I know is that it works.

Help your toddler express their feelings by giving them a method. For 12-24 month olds teach them to say “No” (even though we might regret it later!). When she is mad show her how to vent by stomping her feet and shaking her head. As she gets older this should progress to practising faces. “Show me your happy face…sad face…”. Find pictures to support this. Make a feelings book to refer to. Enrich this by using more words to describe similar feelings.

Be a sports caster. Connect with your child by broadcasting what she is doing: “You are mad, you are shouting out loud, your face is really red, you wanted raisins and now you are mad at mum”. Also great fun when they are happily doing things “… and now N is running down the corridor with the toilet roll, it has fallen… can she rescue it… “ etc.

Give toddlers choice: if you have to leave the park, let them choose what to do when they get home, let them choose from two meals and they are more likely to eat one of them, let them pick which trolley to sit in in the supermarket. This empowers them and gives them more of the independence they need.

Act the idiot. There is nothing better to help a child feel safe and secure (and build their confidence) than to know that other people can be silly, make mistakes, not understand things either. Don’t be afraid to pretend you have tripped over, have a race and loose, sing the wrong words to a song, be weak, pretend to be confused, forgetful etc (for any of you expecting number two this should come pretty easily!).

All in all, it is about loving and connecting with your child and showing them the way really. I love the idea that we are ambassadors. We go to a foreign country (Toddlerland) and build good relationships. We throw parties, give aid (food, love, toys, kisses) and show respect. But we’re not pushovers – when there is serious conflict, we put our foot down!

If you found this article useful, show your appreciation by sharing, liking, tweeting or pinning.  Or if you have any other thoughts to share about your own experiences in “Toddlerland”, comment below.  We all love a good discussion :-).

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