FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Enjoying Your Toddler

with Brenda Nixon | October 27, 2009
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What issues are you most likely to face with your toddler? Author Brenda Nixon, a long-time parent educator, talks with Dennis Rainey about bonding, attachment disorders and separation anxiety. Find out what to do when your toddler throws a fit or bites another child, and what age you should begin potty-training.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • What issues are you most likely to face with your toddler? Author Brenda Nixon, a long-time parent educator, talks with Dennis Rainey about bonding, attachment disorders and separation anxiety. Find out what to do when your toddler throws a fit or bites another child, and what age you should begin potty-training.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

What issues are you most likely to face with your toddler?

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Enjoying Your Toddler

With Brenda Nixon
October 27, 2009
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Brenda:  In the toddler years when they are 18 months old they begin sometimes screaming and crying even on the way to church and that is called anticipatory separation anxiety.  They are anticipating they are going to be separated from mom or dad or big sister of whoever drops them off in the church nursery.  One of the best things parents can do is hug their baby and say I love you and I remember where you are and I will be back.  Turn and leave.   

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, October 27th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I am Bob Lepine.  We are going to talk today about separation anxiety and the number of issues that parents face when they are raising toddlers.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today!  Thanks for joining us.  I was thinking about this before I came in here today.  I was thinking which is harder taking a child through year 14 or year 2 of their life?  I was thinking it probably depends on which parent you ask, you know what I mean?


Dennis:  And what sex the child is.   

Bob:  Well, that could have something to do with it too.  But I was thinking for a lot of dads we’d look and we go two wasn’t that hard.  I don’t remember anything being particularly challenging about that year.

Dennis:  That is because he was mindless during that period of time.

Bob:  He was away somewhere.

Dennis:  No doubt about it.  Well I would give it a toss up.  That would be how I would answer it because you have similar issues during both stages of development. 

Bob:  Really?  You think year two and year 14 are kind of parallel tracks?

Dennis:  Yes.  Rebellion and issues of identity. 

Brenda:  Independence.

Dennis:  No doubt about it. 

Brenda:  Power and control. 

Dennis:  At all stages.

Brenda:  Wanting to make all the decisions.

Dennis:  No doubt about it.  Well, that is our guest on today’s broadcast.  We should have just given her this choice Bob. 


Bob:  Yes, that’s right.  Rolled it out for you. 

Dennis:  Brenda Nixon joins us again.  Thanks Brenda for coming back with us.

Brenda:  Thank you.  It’s great to be on board.    

Dennis:  Brenda is a speaker and writer.  She’s written a book called The Birth to Five Book: Confident Child Rearing Right From the Start.  She has two children and has been married for more than 30 years to her husband.  She knows what she is talking about.

One of the things we haven’t talked about this week is the issue of attachment and bonding with a child.  We know that is important during the first months of life but attachment disorder can be  a big deal as a child begins to come through this phase, right?

Brenda:  Absolutely.  Without getting to technical or into a lot of the neurological science the brain basically has the first 12 months to lay the neuro-pathways to emotions.  When the emotional connections are made and strengthened through repeated hugging and touching and holding and soothing voices and having needs met the child develops a strong emotional attachment to the primary care giver which we hope is mom or dad. 

The first 12 months are the most important.  Often if a child is neglected because a parent has drug abuse or they are institutionalized and neglected from the third world and they don’t have a lot of touching and opportunities to bond and develop those neuro-pathways in the brain for emotional connection they are going to have a tough time.  They are going to have some attachment issues.  There is attachment issues, attachment disorder and then worst is called reactive attachment disorder or RAD.

Bob:  What is that?  If attachment disorder is that a child doesn’t want to be separated from mom or dad, is that what attachment disorder is?

Brenda:  Reactive attachment disorder is almost the opposite.  They become so self sufficient it’s like they are saying to themselves on a less than conscious level nobody takes care of me, nobody loves me so I will take care of myself.  I am in charge and they become highly controlling, manipulative people.  


Bob:  Even at 12 months old?

Brenda:  Oh, yes, toddlerhood, teenager, and on into life.  Often children who are maybe in a situation where they have been chronically neglected and they have some reactive attachment disorder it takes professional counseling to help the parents and the whole family and the child through this.

Dennis:  You casually mentioned a child coming from a third world country you’re speaking at this point of adoption and some of these issues can be found in children who are adopted. 

Brenda:  Yes and some adoption situations in some countries they are institutionalized.  They are put in a crib so that they are confined and safe but they are given minimal attention and loving and toys.  

I had a friend in Kansas City who adopted this charming little Chinese baby and her hands were always fisted.  She did not know how to open her hands and play with a toy because she was never given toys in her crib.  So for the first 12 months of her life she was just in this crib by herself.  She literally did not know how to play.  They had to go through physical therapy and teach their daughter to open her hand and to feel toys and teddy bears and get that tactile sensation.

Bob:  Here’s the kind of scenario though that I’m thinking of as I think this whole attachment issue.  Mom and dad have worked really hard to make sure there is bonding and that the child feels love, secure, and comfortable.  Now the child is 18 months old and we take the child to the nursery for Sunday school on Sunday morning and as soon as we start heading down the hallway the child starts screaming bloody murder.  You have to pry him off your body to hand them to the poor volunteer who is there in the nursery who is receiving this child. 

Dennis:  And you think you are punishing the volunteer at that point with this screeching child.

Bob:  The child is throwing a fit and you pry the child away and you try to walk away and you hear the screaming goes on for 10 or 15 minutes. 

Brenda:  Been there, done that. 

Bob:  If you are a parent in that situation I have a couple of questions.  First, how do you keep that from happening when you get there on Sunday morning and then secondly what do you do if it does happen on a Sunday morning?

Brenda:  Those are very good questions.  First of all what you are describing is called separation anxiety and the onset of that is 8-10 months of age.  So actually they begin that even before their first birthday and then it can resurface again in the toddler years.  It can resurface in preschool.  It can resurface the first week they go off to kindergarten. 

Basically what that is saying to you and when I give workshops on separation anxiety and how to handle it I explain that it is sort of a celebration in a backhanded way because it’s showing you that your child has developed memory.  When they are born they have no memory but by the time they are 8-10 months of age they have started to developing memory for that primary caretaker and developing a bond.  They are literally going through an anxiety that this person is leaving their life and since they can’t tell time they have no concept of time they just think out of sight means they are gone. 

In the toddler years when they are 18 months old they begin sometimes screaming and crying even on the way to church and that is called anticipatory separation anxiety.  They are anticipating they are going to be separated from mom or dad or big sister of whoever drops them off in the church nursery.  They are literally going through an anxiety phase.  One of the best things parents can do is hug their baby and say I love you and I remember where you are and I will be back.  Turn and leave.    

Dennis:  Don’t look back over your shoulder.  

Brenda:  Do not look back.  Do not linger.  Do not pass go and collect $200. 


Just get out of there. 

Bob:  Leave them with the poor helpless volunteer. 

Brenda:  Yes and more often than not within three to five minutes babies calm down.  Here again you’ve allowed the gift of time to teach self calming skills. 

Bob:   Now if your little beeper goes off in church or the number flashes on the screen or somebody comes and taps you on the shoulder 10 or 15 minutes later or 30 minutes later.

Brenda:  Go respond. 

Bob:  You think if I respond am I setting myself up for the same thing to happen next week and the week after that.  Is there any way to break this cycle?

Brenda:  The first and most important rule is “I love you.  I remember where you are.  I’ll be back.”  Turn and leave.  If you still get that phone call in 10 minutes from the church nursery saying you need to come and get your child go ahead and go in.  Give reassurance but leave your child in that situation because if you rescue your child and take them out to sit with you in church they are getting the message you can’t handle this so you have to be with me in order to cope with life.

Dennis:  It is back to the premise that your children are better students of you than you are of them.

Brenda:  That’s absolutely right.

Bob:   We didn’t experience anything like this but we did have situations where our kids were falling into patterns and we were actually enabling their patterns as they were growing up. 

Brenda:  Yes, and you don’t realize it. 

Bob:  What we found ourselves doing was starting to rehearse ahead of the actual event with the child.

Brenda:  That’s good.

Dennis:  Sure.

Bob:  We would say things the week before like “Sunday when we go to church we are going to take you to the nursery and you’re going to play and it will be fun. You’ll have a good time.”

Brenda:  Good for you.  That’s good.

Bob:  We’d talk that through and you’d think with an 18 month old would they even understand nursery and church but just using those words and then there were other times when you might take a child up to the church mid week and walk in and say this is the nursery.  On Sunday this is where we are going to leave you and you are going to be here.  You start teaching the child to be ready for this event so that when Sunday morning comes their not as taken by surprise because you have been prepping them all week. 

Dennis:  Yes and here is where dad’s must step in because dads can be and should be more objective in my opinion in helping their wives turn and walk away from the child who is crying.  Dads help your wife by asking her to take your arm, turn and don’t let her look back over her shoulder because I promise you that child has some kind of extraterrestrial radar that is waiting for any bit of her countenance.  That child will catch it and figure it out. 

That really leads me to another area this is of utmost importance and that is throwing fits.  We went through a deal where kids would throw fits in grocery stores.  So we would do the thing you are talking about Bob.  We would talk with the children before we went into the grocery store.  Here’s what you are going to do.  You are going to stay in the grocery cart.  Mom is going to push you down the aisle or dad will.  We are going to get food.  You are not going to reach out and grab things.  If you do here is what will happen.  If you disobey here is what will happen.  So you help them understand some consequences. 

What I want to know from you are what have been your best tips and techniques in terms of handling a toddler’s temper tantrum?

Brenda:  I love what you share because what you did was proactive.  When I talk to parents about discipline I encourage them to remember the best discipline or the most effective discipline is proactive.  Have your plan in mind and tell your child your expectations. 

Most children disobey because they are unclear of what the parent expects of them.  When you do this kind of rehearsal you are telling your child what you expect and here is what will happen if you do or if you don’t corporate. 

Most parents need to remember that shopping is an adult activity.  You take a child to the store with you and they are going to be bored.  So you are asking for them to start acting up, whining, wanting to climb out of the cart or run up and down aisles.  Or play hide and seek in the dressing room.  Just remember that if it is possible try to get someone to watch your child when you go shopping because it is no fun for them.  It’s like if you had to spend all day at McDonalds in the big pool of balls that they have there.

Dennis:  I like this idea the best. 

Bob:  I wish we could call my mom right now she loves to tell this story.  I was 4 or 5 years old when my mom said we are going shopping.  I said are we going to a toy store or a ladies store?  She said, why?  I said because if we are going to a ladies store I’m not going to behave.  If we are going to a toy store I’ll behave.   

Brenda:  See you already knew it.



Bob:  I just put her on notice right there.  You’re right a child who is bored is going to find ways to deal with the boredom and typically not very constructive ways to do it.

Brenda:  Exactly because they don’t know what is an appropriate way to self entertain. 

Bob:  Right. 

Brenda:  That is something the parents have to teach them as well. 

Bob:  It doesn’t mean that you cater to the child necessarily.  They do need to learn some of these things but you also have to be wise as a parent and say where is the child’s tolerance?     

Brenda:  Exactly.  Don’t get in a situation where you are straining a child’s ability to cooperate.   

Dennis:  Let’s talk about a child though that is pitching a fit and throwing himself or herself on the kitchen floor.   

Brenda:  Okay I’ve been there done that. 


Dennis:  We have, too. 

Brenda:  I mean not us as adults, my children.

Dennis:   Frankly there have been a few times I would have like to reverse the psychology on them but how do you handle the situation?

Brenda:  I’ve had some parents say they do that.  They will do what their child is doing and mirror it.  And it turns into a laughing thing.

Dennis:  No.

Brenda:  The best thing for parents to do and I sometimes get parents saying no--no that doesn’t make sense because it sounds like you are condoning it.  The best thing to do is ignore the behavior if it is non destructive.   If they are injuring themselves or kicking your walls or doing something that is hostile you can’t ignore it.  If they are just pitching a fit on the floor screaming and hollering ignore it and walk out of the room. 

The best way to extinguish negative behavior is to ignore it.  Because we want to affirm their self calming skills the minute they calm down then you say wow, I like the way you are acting now.  Then give them eye contact and attention.  You are sending the message that the way to get my attention is to have a normal tone of voice and not be crying or screaming. 

When parents are out in public like my daughter Lindsey she threw a big hissy fit in a McDonalds store one day and what we did was we scooped her up and took her out to the car and just sat quietly alone in the car.  We were eliminating all the stimulation of the lights and sound and noise.  We didn’t even talk to her but we let the quietness of the car help her to calm down and once she gained control then we gave her attention and said now we are going to go back in and we expect you to sit and eat and talk in your big girl voice and not scream.  So you can sometimes remove them from the public situation until the calm down and then go back to it. 

Bob:  See this is back to what I’ve already talked about this week kind of the animal training tips.


Dennis:  I was actual thinking of scientific research that has proven that there is no brain damage in children who scream.


No, the brain damage occurs in the parent.


And that’s why we as parents need to remove ourselves or the child so that they no longer have an audience.

Brenda:  Exactly, because kids love to perform before their favorite audience mom or dad. 

Dennis:  Yes.

Bob:  One of the issues that often emerges in the toddler years is the issue of how we are going to transition from diapers to potty training.  Are we going to use pull ups?  How do we get from here to there?  Is there a time you start that with a child?  Does the child signal some way to let you know they are ready to start to be potty trained?  How do you engage that whole process?

Brenda:  If we are a student of our child and we observe our child we will see a list of readiness signs that they are ready to learn.  Toilet teaching is about learning this huge massive complicated mile stone.  It’s not an age issue. 

In fact, there was research published several years ago in the journal Pediatrics and it said about 82 percent of children do learn between the second and third birthday.  There is a percentage who can learn prior to turning two and there are about four percent who learn after their third birthday. 

Bob:  Four percent did you say?

Brenda:  Four percent are still learning toileting control after their third birthday.  So there is a pretty wide window here on what is normal.  Don’t look at a calendar and let a calendar tell you how to parent.  Watch your child and see if there are signs of readiness.  Do they have the language skills in place?  The whole teaching process is a communicative process.  You have to be able to talk to them and they have to hear and understand words and use words.  Do they have the motor skills to remove their clothes?  Do they have the cognitive skills to remember where is the potty located and do they like to copy your behavior?

There is a whole slew of readiness signs so it isn’t an age issue as much as it is a readiness to learn issue.  Just like you wouldn’t give car keys to your Beamer to your four year old and say hey, I think you need to learn how to drive my Beamer. 

Dennis:  Right.

Brenda:  You have to wait until they are truly ready and mature.  I know parents want to get out of diapers because they are expensive but if you impose this on your child as your will they will dig in their heels.  They will feel it as an imposition and it is going to set up a battle of wills.

Bob:  Sometime in 24-36 months is probably the general window?

Brenda:  Yes. 

Bob:  And you look for those signs that a child might be ready and then how do you get from I think he is ready to okay he is done.

Brenda:  Get everybody in the home on the same page.  Everybody is going to use the same words and decide what equipment you are going to use.  Some people want an insert and some people want a potty chair.  They are coming out with fancy ones now.  I think they have sun roofs on them and cups and the ipod and everything.  Heated seats.


Decide what you are going to use and take your child with you to pick out their big boy or big girl panties because if a child is invested in that decision they are more committed to the outcome.  If you take your toddler with you and say we are going to start going to the potty now and you are going to put your poop and pee in the potty let’s pick out the kind of pants you wear. 

The child will be more committed to that because they have had some say so in that decision.  Then the parents have to commit the time and energy.  You can’t put him in pull ups Monday through Friday and on the weekends because you are running around doing errands and stuff put him back in diapers.  That is confusing.

Dennis:  In all these issues that we are talking about with toddlers and there are many more we didn’t discuss how they will step over the boundary after you’ve made it clear where they are to go.

Brenda:  Always.

Dennis:  What they are to do or not to do.  Toddlers is a time of testing.

Brenda:  Yes.

Dennis:  It’s them testing you, your limits, boundaries, life, and their identity.  Who they are and who they aren’t.  It’s also a time of testing for parents.  Are they going to be the ones who are in charge and calling the shots for the future in terms of leading a child where he or she should go and how they should behave.

Brenda:  Yes.

Dennis:  I want encourage parents be the parent. 

Brenda:  Thank you.

Dennis:  You can be a friend to your child.  I believe in relationships and loving and holding them and setting them on your lap and reading to them and all the attachment and bonding issues.  That need to be in place but the child is in need of a parent.

Brenda:  Amen.

Dennis:  You need to be empowered as a parent.  When you don’t feel like you are in control step away from the battle.  Get control.  Pray.  Ask God to give you perspective and wisdom.  God can meet you in your circumstances through the scriptures, prayer, and you walking in the power of the Holy Spirit.  He can give you direction, wisdom, understanding and a game plan. 

I would encourage you.  I’ll go back to what I said earlier I’d encourage you to talk with your husband or your spouse around the situation and talk about how you need a plan to be able to raise these children.

Bob:  For both of you to be on the same page I think you have to start at the starting point that you are talking about which is the scriptures.  To have the counsel and wisdom of parents who have been there and who have tried to live out what the Bible teaches as they raise their children that is invaluable as well. 

Brenda’s book The Birth to Five Book is a great resource for moms and dads as you raise your kids through the toddler years and the DVD series that we have put together with you and your wife Barbara offers insight on early childhood discipline.  That is available now for parents as well.  Sunday school classes can use it and small groups too.  You can show it for the entire church.  You can sit down as parents and watch it together as you get ready to raise your toddler. 

There is information about Brenda’s book and the Right From the Start DVD series on our web site FamilyLife  We also have posted from Brenda’s book a list of many of the fears and unknowns that new moms face in those toddler years.  Again you’ll find that at FamilyLife 

You can also call toll free 1-800-FL-TODAY.   That’s 1-800-358-6329.  That’s 1-800“F” as in Family “L” as in Life and then the word TODAY.  Someone on our team can let you know how you can get a copy about any of the resources we’ve talked about here today.

As we were raising our children in the toddler years one of the things Mary Ann was very diligent to do was to teach the kids to say thank you.  In fact I remember with a couple of the kids before they could even speak she had taught them how to sign thank you as a way when mom would bring the food over.  She taught them how to say thank you in sign language.  This was a core value for her and it has paid off as I’ve seen our kids develop and cultivate a heart of gratitude. 

I want to make sure that we always appropriately say thank you to those of you who help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  Those of you who donate to this ministry make this radio program possible.  You make our web site possible.  The outreaches of FamilyLife Today could not happen if it weren’t for folks like you providing the financial support.  We do appreciate it. 

In fact this month if you are able to help with a donation of any amount we’d like to say thank you in a very tangible way.  We’d like to send you Barbara Rainey’s audio book Thanksgiving:  A Time to Remember.  This has been produced and read by a dramatic actor.  It’s got sound affects and music.  It really brings to life the thanksgiving story and the CD is our thank you gift to you when you make a donation this month in support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today. 

If you are making that donation on line at FamilyLife you can type the word “THANKSGIVING” in the key code box on the on line donation form.  Or if you call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation just ask for a copy of the Thanksgiving audio book and we are happy to send it to you.  Again, I want to say thank you for your financial support.  We do appreciate you.

Tomorrow we are going to be back with our guest Brenda Nixon to talk more about parenting during the toddler years and beyond.  I hope you can tune in for that. 

I want to thank our engineer Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine.  We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.  Help for today, hope for tomorrow.

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