Distracting Your Toddler


Unless you purposefully practice other methods, it is likely you use distraction as a means to calm your child down in various situations. Distraction is the method of introducing a new, unrelated activity in order to detour a child’s unwanted behaviour. (Not to be confused with redirection, whereby a similar activity is used, for example a child throwing rocks is redirected to throw balls instead).

I was chatting to a father friend recently and the subject of distraction came up. We both agreed that we had misgivings when it came to using distraction to deter bad behaviour, but was it really such a bad thing?

Well, distraction can be a quick solution to a bigger problem and should only be used when you really can’t deal with a meltdown. My issue with distraction is that it does not confront the aforementioned ‘bigger issue’, and often a teaching moment is lost.

For example, your child fighting with another child over a toy. What is the most natural reaction? To try and distract your child with a different toy, probably to save yourself the embarrassment of a child who is unable to ‘share’. But we then rob our child of the opportunity to learn that taking turns is not only more pleasant, but also a normal part of life and the expected appropriate behaviour. Then the next time he is in the same predicament, instead of remembering the lesson, a meltdown will ensue until he is distracted again. Not ideal.

My friend commented that constantly distracting his child felt too close to encouraging ADD for his liking, which was a feeling I had shared. I try so hard to get my daughter to concentrate for longer periods of time, to spend more than a couple of minutes on her letters or even on one specific game, yet I purposefully play on her short attention span when it suits me. Que the ever-present mom guilt!

What is the point, I thought, of doing mindfulness exercises with her, of working on keeping her attentive to what she is doing in the moment, if I’m going to encourage her to ‘go goldfish’ and jump to something else in the blink of an eye?

It may be more difficult, more time consuming, to use techniques other than distraction. But the thing to remember is that she is a child, and it is all a process. A long and seemingly arduous process, but one I chose when I decided to have her.

Another worry I have is, what if this distraction technique inhabits her conflict resolution skills? If mommy is always swooping in with something to pull her away from solving her own problems, am I raising an adult who avoids confrontation no matter the cost? And then on the other hand, if I leave her to constantly figure it out for herself at a time when she desperately needs guidance, will she become confrontational and aggressive?

I think the answer is that we need to find a middle ground that works for us and for our child. (Every child is different after all!)

You may find that, after using distraction one too many times, that your kid becomes wise to it and won’t easily allow his attention to be maneuvered away. Or if you avoid distraction you may begin to feel that the tantrums you are using as ‘learning moments’ are lasting a bit too long.

Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong answer, and it is unlikely that everyone will ever agree.

We can all agree that there are other ways to curb unwanted behavior though.

1. You can try the ‘one finger touch’, which is an adorable comment I found in my research. You allow your child to touch, with just one finger, the fragile or out-of-bounds item they so desperately want to touch. It gives them the satisfaction of the physical experience while still teaching them boundaries and rules.

2. Think of the meltdown your toddler has because you have given them water in the green cup instead of the pink cup (and you don’t even own a pink cup). Oh this hasn’t happened to you? It will. Your options are to a) let your child scream and cry and dissolve into an inconsolable mess, b) run to the shop and get your hands on a pink cup asap or c) distract them. In this case I have to say that distraction will win for the simple reason that, your little tyke is physically and mentally incapable, at this point in their development, of calming down from a full blown tantrum. Their emotions take over and it’s like a steam engine on a one-way track baby! Save the stern-talking-to for after they have calmed down and distract them with the nearest bright-and-shiny you can find.

3. We are having a very tough time with Olivia at the moment as she learns that she does not want others to play with her things, but she does want them to share their things with her. When she gets upset because a peer has a toy that she wants, I get down to her level and explain that, while I understand she really wants the toy and is upset that she can’t have it, taking turns is how humans behave. I remind her that she would be very sad if her friend took a toy that she was busy with, and ask if she wouldn’t rather play with something else. Now if she was a little older she would likely whine a bit but move on, at an age just shy of 3 though, she isn’t really capable of that, so I will give a little cuddle and hear her complaints, maybe wipe away her tears, but stand firm that she has to wait her turn. This is usually when she increases her volume and brings on the waterworks, and when I get a bit more serious with distracting her. Most of the time this works and I’m able to say, ‘you see, this is fun too. And when your friend is done you can have a turn with the other toy’. So, I feel we have not missed a lesson, but we have narrowly escaped a small tantrum.

There are some things I will not distract from. Biting (should it ever happen), playing with dangerous objects like knives or plugs, disrespectful or cheeky behaviour, and any behaviour which can harm another person.

A few days ago Olivia and I were playing outside when my mom came out to chat. Olivia gets a bit upset when this happens because it puts a pause on whatever game we are playing. She was, at the time, pushing her toys on the swing, and purposefully pushed the swing into my mom. Not hard, and not in an aggressive way, but it was absolutely inappropriate. I immediately raised the swing out of her reach and told her that, no matter her feelings, we do not treat people in such a way, and that she had made her granny very sad. I then asked her to apologise. Now, Olivia does not like to be reprimanded and she abhors saying sorry, so she then started to cry and asked to be picked up and she kept begging for her swing. As much as I wanted her to stop crying, I had set the boundaries – no swing until you apologize. She was quickly working herself up to inconsolable, so I put her in her safe space* and left her to calm down. Once she was calm, I reiterated why what she had done was wrong (she could have seriously hurt someone, and she made her gran very sad in her heart), and she did apologise to her gran. I take a situation like this as a win.

So there’s 3 different ways to tackle this strange new behaviour – be it the terrible two’s or the threenager, or whatever name they have now – without using distraction.

I think it’s so important to have empathy with these little ones of ours. As the saying goes, ‘though she be but little, she is fierce’. We don’t want to temper that fierceness, just point it in the right direction!

All my love,


*Olivia’s safe space is her cot with her soft lion cuddly and her dummy. We are working away from this as she will be moving into her big bed and getting rid of the dummy in the next few months, at which point I will set up another safe space for her. I think a safe space is so important for little kids, where they know they can go without being judged, to have a cry or a moan and pull themselves together. Some kids will like going to their safe space alone, some will want mom or dad to go with them, whichever they prefer. It’s their safe space.

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