Essentials for Parenting Toddlers and Preschoolers

Communicating with Your Child

Good communication between you and your child is important for developing a positive relationship. As your child gets older, good communication will make it easier for you to talk to him about things like alcohol and drugs. Good communication with your child can start early. Two skills that are helpful for good communication with toddlers and preschoolers are praise and active listening. You will learn more about these skills in this section.

Keys to Communicating with Your Child

Praise your child when she does something right. The more you praise a behavior, the more likely it is your child will behave the same way again.

Pay attention to your child when he is talking to you or trying to communicate with you. Giving him your full attention will help you understand what he is telling you. It will also make him feel like you care about what he has to say.

Set aside time each day to talk and play with your child. Creating a special time lets your child know she is important. It also strengthens the bond between the two of you.

Tips for Communicating with Your Child

Take time to listen to your child.

When your child is upset, active listening can go a long way in helping your child know that you hear him and understand what he is trying to say. Active listening can also be helpful in calming a situation and preventing a tantrum before it starts!

Avoid distracted parenting.

In the rush to get everything done, you may find yourself trying to have an important talk with your child while doing a million other things like cooking dinner, folding laundry, or paying bills. Chances are if you are multi-tasking, your child may be too. He may be playing or doing something else that keeps him from listening. Stop what you are doing and make the conversation a priority. Walk over to your child and talk to him face-to-face. This will help both of you focus on the issue at hand.


Let your child know when you think she has done something good.

Praising your child is an important way to encourage good behaviors. Sometimes it can also help to let your child overhear you praising him to someone else like a grandparent, teacher, spouse, or even a toy if no one else is around. When the praise seems sincere and honest, it can reinforce good behavior.

Read with your children.

Reading with your children helps to strengthen their vocabulary, knowledge, and understanding of their world. It also creates opportunities for you and your child to spend time enjoying each other. It is never too early to begin reading to your child, and no book is ever too short.

Make time to laugh and be silly.

So much of parenting is making sure your children are fed, clean, clothed, and doing what they are supposed to be doing. Taking time to just talk or play with your children shows them how much you care about them and want to be with them.

Responding to Good Behavior

Attention from you and other caregivers is important to your child. In fact, toddlers and preschoolers demand A LOT of adult attention.

Attention can be both positive and negative. Positive attention is used to show your child he has done something you like. Positive attention includes things like praise, hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and high-fives. Negative attention lets your child know you do not like what he has done. Negative attention includes things like scolding, correcting, and yelling. Let’s take a look at an example of positive and negative attention.

You are in the check-out line at the grocery store with your child.

Positive Attention

If your child waits by your side, you might say, “Thank you for being patient and staying by me.”

Negative Attention

If your child runs away, you yell at him, “Come back here, now!”

As you can see from this example, the child received attention for both behaviors. Sometimes use of positive attention is better. But at other times, you have to use negative attention, like if you need to stop your child from running away from you. There are two key things to remember about attention. First, any attention (positive or negative) your child receives right after his behavior increases the chance that the behavior will happen again. Second, negative attention becomes a problem when we use it MORE than positive attention.

When to Not Give Attention

Your attention is powerful. Any attention you give after your child’s behavior makes the behavior more likely to happen again. So, if you give your child attention after he does something you do not like, the misbehavior can increase. You can decrease misbehavior by limiting the negative attention you give. Ignoring is another good way to limit attention for behaviors you do not like.


Praise and Imitation

Praise happens when you give positive attention to your child for something good. It is helpful in improving young children’s behavior, strengthening the parent-child relationship, and increasing communication.

Why is Praise a good tool to use?

Praise lets your child know what behaviors you like. When you praise behaviors you like, your child will do those behaviors more often. Praise can also help your child feel good about herself.

What type of Praise works best? of Praise works best?

Specific praise works best because your child knows exactly what you like. This type of praise is called labeled praise. Unlabeled praise is a general statement that shows approval or affection. Unlabeled praise can help children feel good but does not help improve behavior. It doesn’t let your child know exactly what is liked.

Unlabeled Praise                                                         Labeled Praise

Great Job!                                                                   What a great job of putting your toys away!
Super!                                                                         You did a super job making our bed!
Way to go!                                                                  Way to go sharing with your brother!

Praise Tips

Sometimes labeled praise is best when it is not expected. If your child is playing quietly in the living room while you are cooking dinner, take the time to let him know you like it. You might say, “It’s so nice when you are playing quietly all by yourself while I am trying to cook dinner!” This will send a message to your child that you are paying attention.

Hugs, high-fives, a pat on the head, or a pat on the back along with a labeled praise can give more power to your praise.

Creating Structure and Rules

Does your child have meltdowns when you change from one activity to another? Do you have trouble getting your child to follow a regular schedule? Consistent routines and rules help create order and structure your day. Things go more smoothly when you and your child know what to expect.

Keys to Creating Structure

Consistency, predictability, and follow-through are important for creating structure in the home.

Respond to your child’s behavior the same way every time. When you are consistent, the behaviors you like will happen more often and problem behaviors are less likely to happen.

Routines and daily schedules help you and your child. You both know what to expect each day. Routines can also improve your child’s behavior and your relationship with your child.

A family rule is a clear statement about behaviors that are never okay, such as hitting and running in the house. You can change your child’s behavior when there are clear consequences for breaking the rule.

Keep things positive! Reward and praise your child for following routines and rules. This makes it more likely that your child will follow the routines and rules in the future.

Give your child choices.

Whenever possible, try to give your child choices. Ask your child, “Do you want A or B?” (“Do you want the red or the green shirt; the apple or the banana; this story or that story?”) If your child gets upset, calmly repeat, “Do you want A or B?” If there are two things you need the child to do such as getting in the bath and brushing her teeth, let the child choose which one to do first. Giving choices can help your child learn to be more independent, feel like she has some control, and reduce struggles.

Establish a routine and stick with it.

A routine is a set of steps you follow the same way each time.  This means that the day’s activities are predictable. Morning routines, for example, can help you and your child get ready to leave the house on time. A bedtime routine can help your child sleep better and allow you more time for yourself. A dinner time routine can help your child eat healthy (no dessert before dinner!). If your child knows the routine, you will have fewer tantrums and power struggles during the day.

Use routines to prevent temper tantrums.

Establishing routines can help prevent temper tantrums. Many tantrums occur because children do not know what to expect during the day or do not want to do something they are asked to do. Routines take the guesswork out of the day’s activities. It may be helpful to teach your child the routine when you first start using it. A chart or nighttime song that spells out the routine may be helpful.

Be predictable.

Children feel safe and know how to behave when they have a routine and know what to expect. Being predictable in all areas of a child’s life can reduce stress and improve children’s behavior. Examples include setting and enforcing rules and having a bed time and meal time routine.

Stagger wake-up times.

If you have more than one child, consider staggering wake-up times for children who need to get ready for school or childcare in the morning. Wake up the children who need the most help first and then move on to the children who need less help. This can help reduce your frustration in the mornings and get everyone where they need to be on time. 


Building Blocks of Structure

It’s normal for young children to test the limits. That’s how they learn what is right and wrong. But, it can be frustrating and really test our patience as parents! One way to keep control and help children learn is to create structure. Structure is created by consistent routines and rules. Rules teach children what behaviors are okay and not okay. Routines teach children what to expect throughout the day. Structure helps children learn responsibility and self-control.

There are three key ingredients to building structure in the home:

Consistencydoing the same thing every time
Predictabilityexpecting or knowing what is going to happen
Follow-throughenforcing the consequence

What are these things? How can you use them in your family?

Consistency – doing the same thing every time

Consistency means that you respond to your child’s behavior the same way every time. You respond the same no matter what is going on or how you’re feeling. Misbehaviors are less likely to occur again if you always use the same consequence, like ignoring or time-out. Good behaviors are likely to be repeated if you let your child know you like them. This doesn’t mean that you need to give consistent attention to ALL your child’s behaviors. Think about something you want your child to do more often. This could be sharing, cleaning up, or following directions. To increase those behaviors, praise them each time you see them occur. Your consistent response will help those behaviors happen more often.

You use time-out at home and at the grocery store every time your child hits her sister. You do this even when you are tired from a stressful day at work.

You praise your child each time he shares with a new friend while playing. You do this even if you are busy with something else and need to make a special effort to praise him.

Predictability – expecting or knowing what is going to happen

Predictability means your child knows what will happen and how you will respond. When your daily routines are predictable, your child knows what to expect for the day. When your rules are predictable, your child knows how you will react to her behavior.


Your child knows that if she hits a friend while playing, she will go to time-out every time.

Your child knows certain steps are followed each night at bedtime, such as taking a bath, brushing teeth, reading a story, getting into bed, and turning off the lights.

Your child knows that if he follows directions while running errands with you, he will get a special reward. The reward could be an activity with you or a trip to the park.

Your child knows that if she plays quietly each time you are on the phone, you will let her know how happy you are with her behavior once you finish talking.

Follow-through – enforcing the consequence

Following through means that you do what you say you will do in response to your child’s behaviors. This is often called the “say what you mean and mean what you say.” If you tell your child a behavior will be punished, you punish it every time it happens. If you tell your child he will be rewarded for a behavior, you give him the reward after he has done what you asked. To be consistent and predictable, we need to follow through. Follow-through is important for ALL behaviors. This includes behaviors we like and don’t like.

You have a house rule that hitting results in a time-out. When you see your child hitting her sibling, the hitting is stopped. Your child is taken immediately to time-out.

Your child does not follow your direction, and you give a warning that he will lose playtime if he doesn’t follow your direction. Your child still doesn’t do what you directed. He loses playtime.

If you promise your child a treat for staying in the shopping cart in the grocery store, your child knows he will get a treat from the candy or toy machine on the way out of the store.

How do consistency, predictability, and follow-through help create structure?

A structure that helps your child learn to behave has routines and rules that are consistent, predictable, and have follow through. There is a basic routine you follow and rules you live by on most days of the week. You set appropriate expectations and limits for your child’s behaviors. Your child learns how you are going to respond to behaviors that are okay or not okay.

Structure helps parents and their kids. Kids feel safe and secure because they know what to expect. Parents feel confident because they know how to respond, and they respond the same way each time. Routines and rules help structure the home and make life more predictable.

When can you start creating structure with routines and rules?

Creating structure at any age can help your child and you. Children can begin learning routines and rules at a very young age. You can begin with routines for important activities of the day, like meals, bedtime, or in the morning. Or you can use routines to help your child learn important behaviors, like getting dressed.