Five Simple Steps Towards Cooperative Toddlers

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Toddlers are funny and inquisitive! They are also a handful. From one minute to the next toddlers can go from affectionate and fun to downright difficult. Toddlers can be quick to frustration, stubborn and uncooperative. While toddlers or our pride and joy watching them develop with each step they take they also learn quickly how to push your buttons.

Time and time again one of the lessons I always return to with my families is why toddlers can be so uncooperative. This is an important place to begin when we are striving for a calmer and happier family. When children are determined to push our buttons and avoid everything we say it can lead to our own overwhelm, leaving us feeling disheartened.

There are three key areas that affect your child’s ability to cooperate. The first and most important area that children require in order to be able to cooperate is a strong connection with the parent. Through connection we are able to relate to another person, empathise with them and eventually see their point of you.

So often we forget how easy it is to genuinely disconnect from a toddler. This can be as simple as not spending enough floor time engaging in their interests to as complex as interrupting their expectations in a situation such as saying, “No” or “You need to wait your turn”.

Once we understand how and when the brain disconnects we are able to rebuild those bridges and strengthen their confidence and cooperation in the situation.

The next reason that a toddler may disengage is when they feel like they don’t have much say in the matter. A young, growing brain craves independence and feelings of relevance and validation. If your toddler believes that they have no choice they become more likely to shut down or fight back. This is natural brain work.

The third key area to keep in mind when boosting your child’s cooperation and confidence is through encouragement. There are many things that can lead to a discouraged child. This can be following a big day at the park and their brain is just spent from the experience. Discouragement can also happen when we are using language above their heads and they’re unable to follow leading them to disengage.


True encouragement begins with understanding why your child is struggling to keep up with your instructions and the ability to support them and coach them through the experience.


Now that we understand the three key areas that are so important in order to boost your child’s overall cooperation in the moment, let’s explore five top tips for moving forward with your youngster.


1. Have a strong connection with your child.


If you find that your toddler is avoiding, ignoring or defying you then this may be a sign that it’s time to reconnect! A good rule of thumb to follow is scheduling ten minute blocks for engaging with your little one’s interests. Floor time is a perfect opportunity to boost those connections and rebuild that bridge towards cooperation. Just make sure the ten minutes is all about them. Ask simple questions around what they are already exploring and mirror their activities. They will immediately respond to your interest and that connection will bloom!


2. Use their motivation as often as possible.


It’s easy to get caught up with the rush of the day and become quickly reliant on saying, “No” to everything!! It’s simply easier! But, here’s the thing: young brains struggle to cope with “No” and “Not now” because it stimulates an area of the brain that is emotional and reactive. You may find that a big, overflow of emotions follows a lot of your “No’s”. This is your little one’s brain having a hard time translating the stressor it’s experiencing. Which is why I encourage families to start focusing on motivation instead. Replace “No” with “Yes!”. If your child is asking to read a book but it’s time to take your older child to school you can simply replace, “No, we can’t read now.” with “Yes! Once you’re in the car you can read your book!” This targets their motivation and radically boosts cooperation in the moment.


3. Ask more questions instead of placing to many demands.


A young brain can feel overwhelmed easily due to their underdeveloped cortex. We can support their emotional and cognitive development by replacing those demands with simple, problem-solving questions. Once you ask the brain a question there is a physiological response to relax and search for the answer. This immediately calms the midbrain, where our big emotions are stored and helps youngsters navigate their very early reasoning skills. For example, instead of saying “Go get your hat so we can go outside!” you can replace it with, “What do you need on your head so we can go outside?” Not only is this wonderful for boosting cooperation it also gives you an opportunity to celebrate them! “Yes, your hat! You’re so clever for figuring that out!” which leads to a natural influx in their self esteem and confidence (bonus!).


4. Give them choices even when it feels like there aren’t any!


We all love feeling relevant, like we are part of an important conversation. Choices are immediately empowering. There will be times when your kiddo doesn’t seem to have a choice. This can be taking a bath, for example. However, when we think creatively we can always find a choice to offer. “Would you like bubbles or toys in the bath?” or “Once you’re in the bath, would you like your washcloth or bucket first?” By emphasizing their choice the attention to the demand decreases and so does any potential resistance. Your little is focused on making their decision. This leads to a smoother transition into bath time because we took a few seconds to consider their brain development.


5. Start simple and work your way up.


If your child is playing in their room and you rush in telling them to clean their room you may notice a reaction of overwhelm or discouragement. The brain needs time to adapt especially during a transitional period - going from playing to cleaning can be a big ask! Support your child’s ability to cooperate by starting simple and working your way up to cleaning the room.


“Hey buddy, can I get a high five? Thanks!”

“Can you show me which animal says ‘Moo’?”

“Awesome! Can you pop the cow into the toybox?”

“Well done! Can you put all the farm animals in the toybox?”

“You legend! Look how clean this room is now!”


This is true in any situation where you expect your little one to dismiss what they’re doing and adapt to your needs.

That’s it! When you combine these five simple tips your youngster’s cooperation and confidence will go through the roof leaving you feeling calmer and happier! Which tip are you most looking forward to using with your family? Grab your FREE download!

Are you reading this thinking to yourself, “I am so ready to put these tips into action!!”? If so, you may love my FREE mini series where we dive behind the scenes of tantrums, defiance and disobedience. Learn why kiddos can give us such a hard time and step-by-step action towards more cooperation and connection! Remove the guilt from your discipline and move forward calmly and mindfully alongside your children.


About the author

Stephanie Wicker is a child behaviour expert, parenting educator, counsellor and speaker - who has successfully guided families through early childhood for over 15 years. Through her experience with private consultancy, as a preschool teacher and special needs therapist - she has worked across the many facets of early childhood behaviour. 

Stephanie's evidence-based programs are grounded in behaviour science and her passion for Relational Frame Theory (RFT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and developmental psychology all play a big role in her programs.

Stephanie’s experience covers early intensive behaviour intervention programs for children with special needs and for families newly diagnosed. She hosts live training events all over Australia, where she shares her practical solutions and language techniques, along with providing private, in-home therapy sessions for those seeking more personalised support. 

Through her company, Simply Kids she provides family resources such as digital books and educational activities, designed to keep behaviour simple. 


"By helping parents place emphasis on connection, empowerment and encouragement, I believe that all children have the ability to reach their full potential." - Stephanie Wicker


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