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The only way to offer your toddler choice to stop those meltdowns

I have to say I love having lots of choice. If I find a great top and it only comes in one colour, I’m disappointed. If it comes with tons of colour choices I’m going to feel much happier, even I pick the same colour every time. Ok, so I’m a creature of habit.

We all love choice or at least we think we do. But just because choice is great for grown ups doesn’t mean that it’s so great for toddlers. A lot of people have many more issues with their little people than they need to, simply because they offer too much choice and at the wrong time.

Giving toddlers choice is something we all want to do; and parenting toddlers isn't an easy job. But what can we do when we give our toddlers choice that will help reduce those meltdowns?

It’s a myth

I’m here to bust the myth that offering toddlers lots of choice is a good idea. Let me explain. I see it so often as part of my behaviour intervention service. Mom and/or Dad standing over a drawer of clothes in front of a recalcitrant 2 year old waiting for them to make a decision over what colour of pyjamas to wear. The toddler who can’t make a choice to save their life, finally has an epic meltdown with tears bursting forth like Krakatoa.

Choosing involves loss

You see choosing something involves the concept of loss and loss to toddlers is an exceptionally hard concept to understand.

Toddler choice confuses sometimes...
Pretty Bond haired girl looking confused via Shutterstock

As adults, we’re so used to making choices we don’t even think about it. However, when you choose it means you’re picking one thing over another. If you have a steak for dinner, you can’t have the pork chops as well. If you choose to go to Spain on holiday, you can’t go to Italy at the same time and on it goes.

Unfortunately most toddlers simply aren’t ready developmentally to handle real choice and if you insist on trying to offer it, you’ll likely get a screaming, writhing, tangle of limbs on the floor for your troubles. That’s because if you offer toddlers too much choice, they feel overwhelmed. They don’t know what to do because they have no life’s  experience on which to base their choice.

Asking them to make adult decisions will make them unhappy

If you ask them if they want to go to the park, suddenly they’re not sure. Did they like the park last time? Will they like it this time? Subconsciously they wonder why you don’t seem to know what it is you want to do. For their part, they don’t know and they certainly don’t want the stress of making decisions for grownups.

As a result, they vacillate between one thing and the next and suddenly they can’t take it anymore. In the place of decision you get an enormous meltdown instead. You see the kind of choice toddlers can manage is the kind of choice that matters to no one but them and where they can change their mind multiple times, if needed. It’s the kind of choice where nobody removes either option. To offer them real choice without first going through this important step and practicing it often, is to put your toddler under unbearable strain.

Offer simple choice without loss

So what kind of practice am I talking about? Well, try putting two pieces of fruit on their high chair table and asking them to make the choice of which one they’re going to eat first, but not taking either option away. That way they can change their mind 285 times and you needn’t go brain dead waiting for an answer.

Remember children are hardwired to want you to lead them. That means you making the important decisions, not them. If you want to avoid toddler meltdowns, then the best way is to stop the choice and start saying, ‘we’re doing this and we’re doing that,’ with a cheerful expression on your face and you’ll find they’ll follow you like happy little clams.

So when can you introduce real choice?

Around three, it’s fine to introduce some simple choice, like which colour cup to have for lunch. However, if they choose one, just make sure you teach them how to stick with their choice and include lots of time to allow them to come to terms with the fact they might not like the decision they’ve made. Make sure in other words, that you don’do it on the way out to a family wedding or Great Granny’s 100th birthday party.

Just for fun though, lets look at how you see choice and how a toddler sees it. Imagine you have £1000 to spend on a new sofa. For that money you can choose between a number of really nice sofas but when you choose the midnight blue super comfy sofa, you know you can’t have the red sectional as well. Sounds obvious to you I know, but it isn’t to your two year old. They cannot yet understand the concept that choosing one thing means losing the possibility of another.

Fast forward back to being a parent and if you offer your toddler choice before they can handle it, you’re asking them to make a decision with no basis of experience.

Learning how choice works is a process

You see when you choose that sofa, you can research. You can look at reports and figure out the best one. You can read reviews. You can visit the furniture shop and try it out and when you finally buy it, you know what you are buying and why. You are prepared for the possibility that you might not be happy with your choice, but you know you will have to stick with it. After all, by the time you’ve sat on it for a few months they’re unlikely to take it back. In short, you have fully examined the options available to you and you have made an informed decision. A toddler on the other hand wants right now. They see something, it looks like fun and they want it immediately. That’s normal and completely understandable. However, it also might not be healthy for them or the product may have any number of potential issues, the flaws of which they’re not going to understand. You do understand and that’s why you’re the one that should make the decision.

Make decisions calmly, consistently and without getting flustered, even if your child gets upset and it’s surprising just how quickly your toddler will get over your decision, even if it’s one they hate. That’s because subconsciously they’re grateful you took over and made the decision for them. It’s also because taking that pressure off their shoulders allowed them to relax and be a kid.

Thanks so much to Annie, for a great guest article for us. Do visit Annie for more parenting help; we will have another article from Annie next month too.

Anna Lussenburg, commonly known as ‘Annie the Nanny‘ loves her job of solving every kind of young child’s behaviour problem you can think of. Since starting her business in 2004, she has been giving practical advice to families, dealing with everything from temper tantrums, to sleeping issues, to picky eaters and more through her behaviour intervention service, helping turn chaos in to calm. She’s featured in all kinds of media, has a regular TV segment and helps people all over the world through her Skype services and informative website.

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