Toddlers and Holiday Decorations: Another Approach to “Don’t Touch That!”

I watched a toddler laugh in unbridled glee yesterday, amazed at the garland and lights draped on his staircase.  You don’t get more holiday cheer than that sound!  He wanted to touch every nutcracker and every candle.  I had to think on my feet when answering his grandmother’s question: “How do I get him to stop touching everything?”.

My answer may surprise you.  It almost surprised me.  But here it is:  touch the objects together, with an adult completely controlling the object for the toddler’s safety as well as the safety of the treasured holiday ornament.  Hold the object and turn it around, demonstrating the best way to explore the nutcracker’s beard or the bell’s sound.  If possible, over-saturate your toddler so that he is the one to say that he’s seen enough.  I really mean it.  Once you have to put it back because he has gotten totally bored, your item may be much safer than if you had said that it was too precious to touch. That denial makes it catnip to curious children.  If the object really is very delicate and any toddler is likely to destroy it in one swipe, this might be something to save for another year’s display.  You could place it in a glass cabinet that he cannot open, or a shelf that makes it hard for a little person to see.  There will be another holiday season next year.

If your toddler is likely to grab something and throw it, then you had better have a solid grip and a plan to deal with that impulse.  My favorite strategy is a simple warning before the exploration: ” We are going to look at the  ________.  If you try to hit or throw it, I will have to put it away.”.   I don’t get any fancier than that.  I could be tempted to go on about how we have to be careful, how this is great-grandma’s so-and-so, but I think it waters down the important message.  The message is: This is not for play.  If you try, it will no longer be available to you.  Toddlers stop attending to complicated instructions very quickly, so long explanations are a waste. They can actually compel a toddler to tune you out.  Use “toddler-ese” with the smallest or special needs toddlers who need the simplest explanations with the most gestures, facial expression and repetition of phrases.  I would give this one a try:”Nutcracker.  SO soft (while touching fluffy beard). Gentle, gentle touch”.

There are toddlers who are in a big testing phase, so you might get a test of whether he can grab or throw it.  Be ready for this test, be firm, and move slowly.   Calm voice, slow but firm removal and placement into safer storage if you are tested.   Toddlers who test are often the ones who actually enjoy seeing you go ballistic from their actions.  I recommend showing them that you are slightly sad/disappointed that you “have” to put this thing away, preferably in a cabinet so that it is not even visible at the moment.  This is not the time for a long lecture on safety, respect, and care.  Warning, incident, response.  Toddlers need to see the results of their actions clearly.

Good luck with all those lovely items, and feel free to post your own successful strategies!

By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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