Using Massage to Your Toddler's Advantage

Toddlers struggle to reconcile their need for autonomy with their need for their parents' help and guidance. One of the many ways that kids in this age group express their autonomy is by saying no. Sometimes toddlers say no to everything, even things that you know they want. You may find that your toddler says he doesn't want a bowl of cereal, for example, only to turn around and demand that same bowl a few seconds later.

Your job as a parent or caregiver is to set limits and boundaries for your toddler. You may sometimes doubt this, but it's good for your toddler to experience the frustration of not getting everything he wants and to have limits set. At the same time, it's good for you to respect your toddler's no. Listening and responding to your toddler's words teaches him that he has power in the world and some control over his environment.

You can avoid power struggles with your toddler by choosing your battles wisely. For example, if your toddler wants to wear a winter hat in the summer, let her. However, if she wants to cross a busy street without holding your hand, that's obviously non-negotiable.

What if your toddler refuses a massage? Respecting what she says sends her some clear messages:

  • Her body is hers, and she has a say over who touches it. This is a very important message to give any child. The statistics on childhood sexual abuse indicate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. Perpetrators of sexual abuse are most often people that the child knows, not strangers. Teaching your toddler to say no to unwanted touch will decrease her vulnerability to being abused.
  • You respect her feelings and her boundaries.
  • You encourage her to be autonomous.

Your toddler may specifically request a massage. If you can't do it at that exact moment, tell her when you will be able to. Accommodating your toddler when she comes to you with such a request shows her that you are sensitive to her struggle with independence and dependence and that it's okay for her to have needs. Keep in mind that childhood needs that are met tend to go away. Needs that are not met are carried with us into adulthood.

Setting and respecting boundaries

Boundaries are what separate me from you; they simplify life and define expectations. Creating and setting boundaries for toddlers helps them be safe and lets them know what their limits are.

Here are some examples of common family boundaries:

  • Knocking on a closed bedroom door before entering
  • Asking permission before giving physical touch
  • Prohibiting hitting and biting

Boundaries can also be rules and limits:

  • "You must hold my hand while crossing the street."
  • "You have to wear a coat in freezing weather."
  • "You can't play with Daddy's laptop."

Babies and toddlers learn by watching how others behave. If you model clear and consistent boundaries with your partner and your other children, your younger children find out how to behave and have healthy relationships.

Here are some tips to help you be effective in setting boundaries:

  • Be consistent. Toddlers and children get confused if your limits and rules are constantly changing.
  • Be aware of your child's development. Knowing what she is capable of emotionally and physically lets you set realistic boundaries.
  • Remember that setting boundaries is not about controlling your children. It's about keeping them safe and helping them learn self-discipline.

When massaging your older baby or toddler, you can set boundaries and let him know that you respect his by doing the following:

  • Ask his permission to give him a massage.
  • If your children are giving each other massages, make sure both are willing participants.
  • Stop the massage if your child shows signs of overstimulation or is bored and looking for something else to do.
  • Adhere to his requests. Sometimes toddlers have requests that may seem silly to us but are a way for them to express and practice their autonomy. For example, your toddler may be fine with you massaging his arms but refuses to let you touch his legs. This is a perfect opportunity for you to respect his boundaries.

Teaching discipline through massage

Massage gives you a consistent opportunity to create the kind of relationship your child needs in order to be receptive to gentle discipline. Here are some things that a child needs in order to respond favorably to loving guidance:

  • Your child needs to trust you.
  • He needs to recognize clear and consistent boundaries between you.
  • He needs to learn how to communicate with you (both verbally and nonverbally).
  • He needs to know that you are sensitive to his needs.

The word discipline literally means "to teach." Massaging your older baby or toddler actually helps you teach her about discipline, because massage helps children find out about boundaries, trust, and nonverbal communication. In fact, even a newborn or infant picks up lessons about discipline through massage.

Parents who massage and touch their children regularly become sensitive caretakers attuned to their children's needs. This type of parenting builds a relationship based on trust. Because you have responded to your children's needs with compassion and sensitivity, your babies grow up to respect (instead of fear) and count on your positive authority.

You create positive authority by doing the following:

  • Not engaging in power struggles
  • Setting appropriate limits and boundaries
  • Disciplining your child with sensitivity and compassion

None of this means that you need to be a pushover. In fact, when you need to express your positive authority, it's best to be firm without being controlling or overbearing. Each time that you express positive authority, you strengthen trust and mutual respect with your children in a non-adversarial and cooperative way.

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