The 1 Phrase You Should Never, Ever Say To A Toddler

"Go right up to them, help them put a toy away or stop what they are doing, and help them leave," advised Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development.

In a recent Instagram video, Deena Margolin ― a licensed child therapist and half of the toddler experts duo Big Little Feelings with Kristin Gallant ― describes a scene familiar to anyone who has ever tried to convince a small child to leave a playground, birthday party, or any other fun scene at which they’d rather stay.

You say it’s time to leave, but your toddler ignores you and continues playing. So you start walking away. Your toddler ignores you, perhaps looking up from time to time to see if you’re still there. Eventually, you say, “OK, bye!” And you begin to walk away. Usually, at this point, the toddler will scream “No!” and come running after you, allowing you to finally leave together.

We’ve all had a moment where we’ve either done this or thought about it — perhaps pushing away some reservations about scaring our child.

But while this strategy is tempting, and maybe even effective (at least in the short-term), Margolin and other experts recommend that we refrain from using it.

Why do toddlers bring us to this point?

You don’t see older children or teens running after their parents in a panic after they’ve announced, “Fine, I’m leaving without you then.” Older kids are more likely to call your bluff, perhaps with the flourish of an eye roll. But there’s also just something about toddlers that can bring normally high-functioning parents to their knees.

You can love your toddler more than anything in the entire world and have days when you’re pushed to your limit and you reach a breaking point,” Margolin and Gallant told HuffPost in an email.

When it comes to convincing them to leave when they don’t want to, there are a couple of things going on developmentally that make this tricky for toddlers.

“Toddlers are coming into their own as separate people,” Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of Raising Resilience: How To Help Our Children Thrive In Times Of Uncertainty, told HuffPost. “As they grow, they have more ideas of their own, what they want and don’t want. That includes deciding what they will do and when.”

At the same time, Klein explained, toddlers “have no sense of time, so they do not move through the world with a sense of what comes next.” Our adult focus on needing to pick up a sibling, or get home to start dinner, can “clash with the toddler living in the here and now,” Klein said. “Whatever they are doing right this minute is their focus.”

When a parent tries to reason with their toddler, and it almost inevitably fails, they may end up grasping at straws — perhaps resorting to a “Fine, I’m leaving without you then.”

It may help to remind yourself that this challenging behavior is a phase, one that your child will almost certainly grow out of. “It can be helpful to remember that your toddler isn’t ‘bad’ or manipulative. Independence and boundary-pushing are just part of their development, and are actually signs of healthy development,” Gallant and Margolin said.

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“Go right up to them, help them put a toy away or stop what they are doing, and help them leave,” advised Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development.

Why you shouldn’t say “I’m leaving now” and walk away.

As tempting as it may be to turn your back on them and start walking, experts recommend against doing so. The strategy “works,” Klein explained, “because it is scary to them — so they react strongly and run to be with the parent.”

“No child wants to be left behind or abandoned, particularly at these ages. It says to them that they are bad and will be left,” she said.

When you threaten to leave without them, it “sends the message that if they’re not obedient, you might abandon them — and over time, that approach can have unwanted consequences,” Margolin and Gallant said.

It can erode your child’s faith that you will always take care of them, no matter what, a belief that forms “the strong base in the parent-child relationship,” Klein said.

“That is what allows a child to develop a strong and confident inner core or what we call resilience. The idea that even when life is hard, they can count on the parent,” she continued.

When we threaten to leave, we “teach them that love and safety are conditional. This can lead to low self-worth, feelings of shame, and a pattern of being obedient for the sake of securing love,” Gallant and Margolin said.

What you can do instead.

Instead of expecting a toddler to calm down and be reasonable, we need to stay calm and be reasonable for them.

“We often expect too much of our young child and don’t realize we are the one who has to pick them up or help them walk out, even if they are unhappy,” Klein said.

Margolin and Gallant suggest that you handle this kind of a situation by acknowledging your child’s feelings: “I know you want to keep playing and this is hard,” and then holding steady the boundary you have drawn: “It’s time to go now.”

To help kids feel like they have some agency in the situation, they suggest that you offer a choice such as, “Do you want to walk or be carried? You choose.”

Klein offered a similar tactic, which she called giving the child a “role”: “When we go, you can carry the bag.”

Another option is to use a timer. Have your toddler set the timer for 2-3 minutes, and then when it goes off, they know it’s time to head out. “Then go right up to them, help them put a toy away or stop what they are doing, and help them leave — pick them up or take their hand and walk with them,” Klein said.

Even if your child is upset, try to maintain your calm to help them regulate. Klein explained that you can handle the departure “in a loving and clear way.” You might say something like, “It’s hard to stop playing, I’ll walk you out to the car,” Klein offered.

Gallant and Margolin emphasized that it’s important to stay strong and hold the boundary, no matter how upset your child gets. “Say, ‘It’s time to go,’ and carry them to the car or put them in their stroller, if need be … They might be upset, and that’s OK! You’re allowed to hold boundaries, and your kid is allowed to be upset about it.”

Kids may behave as though the thing they want most is to have their own way, but the truth is that “children feel safer when they know the parent is in charge, even if the child wishes they could stay,” Klein said.

If you do lose your cool, threaten to leave and upset your child, however, don’t despair. “Children are forgiving and relationships have room to reconnect and repair,” Klein said.

She suggested that you apologize with a statement like the following: “I am sorry I said I’d leave without you. I would never do that, I was frustrated. Next time I will help you go.”

Gallant and Margolin are also big believers in the power of a sincere apology. “It’s a powerful tool that models ownership and empathy, prevents shame, and ultimately builds trust in the parent-child relationship.”

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