At this age, the focus is on creating a healthy beginning and fostering positive social, emotional, and moral development that will extend through your child’s lifespan. According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, effective prevention focuses on intervening early in a child’s development before problems develop.

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Nourishing your child

Enhancing meal times

Breastfeeding your infant is a great opportunity to place them on a lifelong path of putting healthy substances into their body. Even if you are unable to breastfeed your infant, feeding times can provide physical closeness between you and your baby which facilitates a strong bond or attachment; a close connection that acts as a protective factor from high risk behavior later on.

Mealtime with toddlers can be challenging at times to say the least! As your toddler continues to grow and develop, their food preference and rate of intake differs. Your child will eat more during growth spurts and eat less during periods of slowed growth. Children are born with an innate tendency to know how much food their body needs so let your child decide how much to eat and when they are full. Try to not "force" your child to eat. This includes commenting, using bribes, or negotiations (e.g., "Clean your plate or you're going to bed"). Instead, provide a healthy selection of food for your child at mealtime and allow them to pick from a range of healthy choices which ensures they are receiving adequate nourishment. Trust your child’s natural appetite and allow your child to listen to his/her body’s natural signals and learn to respect his/her own body. This is the beginning of learning how to respect and take care of their body.

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Structure and discipline

Use non-authoritarian methods to gain cooperation

Toddlers typically go through a period of resisting and refusing to follow parental requests. This is a part of normal development where your child wants to assert themselves. Although this may be frustrating for you, try to avoid using rewards/bribes or punishment to make your child listen to you and follow through with your requests.

Toddlers are more likely to cooperate in tasks that seem like games or fun and where they have some control over what is happening, so be creative! For example, if you want your child to put their toys away, make it a fun race; if your child doesn’t want to brush their teeth, ask his/her help to put toothpaste on the brush and tell you when she’s ready. Also, avoid asking questions where there is no real choice (e.g., Do you want to pick up your toys?). Instead, provide your child with limited choices (e.g., Do you want to pick up your toys before your snack or after your snack?) but not too many choices because they may become overwhelmed. Finally, don’t forget to explain to your child the reasoning behind your request. Often their ability to understand why they can and cannot do something is underestimated. Be reasonable in your disciplining in order to establish a relationship of mutual respect. Click here to find out what your parenting style is.

Respect your child’s body by avoiding harsh discipline practices.

Corporal punishment (e.g., spanking) can be emotionally and physically painful, it can lead your child to anger and rebellion, a low self-esteem, fearfulness and hate, chronic anxiety, lying and deception, and inhibits effective communication; all of which are contributing factors to later substance abuse. Harsh discipline shows disrespect for a child’s body. If you respect your child’s body through gentle handling and respect, they will subsequently learn to value and take care of themselves and naturally want to avoid anything that may be harmful.

Allow your toddler to say "no" sometimes

Resisting peer pressure to use alcohol and drugs requires a simple "no" and a firm stand. Toddlers are very good at saying "no" and while it is often our first instinct to discourage this behavior, there are times when we need to respect their wishes. In situations that are minor, allow your child to assert themselves and have the upper hand. For example, if you want your child to wear a particular shirt and they resist, ask them which shirt they want to wear or if your child says "no" to a hug from grandma, don't take it personally. Toddlers often like to do things in their own time and on their terms.

However, there are times when your child refusing to do something is non-negotiable. For example, certain rules like sitting in their car seat or remaining seated when eating are times when you have to override their wishes. Calmly explain why you are enforcing this rule and acknowledge their feelings (e.g., It's okay to be mad. I know you don't like to sit in your car seat but I have to buckle you in so you are safe when we’re in the car. Mommy has to buckle up too."). Keep in mind that your child is practicing and learning a skill that will give them the courage to say no to alcohol and drugs as well as other harmful situations later on.

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Be a good role model

Live your values and be a good role model

At this age, imitation is a large part of your child’s learning process. Toddlers imitate everything and everyone around them mimicking actions, words, and phrases; even when you’re not aware of it! This is the ideal time to model your values in the way you conduct yourself and teach your child values (such as humanity, honesty, trust, self-control, respect for laws, etc).

If you use tobacco or alcohol, be mindful of the message you are sending your children. We may unknowingly be relaying a message that we don’t want. Avoid giving your child sips of alcohol, asking them to grab you a beer from the fridge, taking your child with you into a bar or liquor store, or asking them to pass your box of cigarettes. By avoiding these behaviors, you reinforce your message that alcohol and tobacco are not for children and they are dangerous for growing bodies. "Take a Closer Look" at how you model alcohol use to your children.

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Take time for you

Take care of yourself and set aside "you time"

Parenting can be both rewarding and stressful so it is important to not neglect your own health and needs. Find a healthy balance between "you time" and being a parent and don’t feel guilty for taking time away from your child to spend it on yourself. Get enough sleep and exercise, eat properly, and stay in touch with friends and outside interests. Take time to do activities that you enjoyed before like meeting a friend for lunch, going to a movie, reading a book, spa day, going to an art gallery, jogging, etc. Also, connect with other parents who have similar aged children so you can share concerns, get advice, or simply vent frustrations and challenges you’ve experienced. Networking with other parents is a great resource.

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Form a strong bond with your child and teach them about feelings

Foster your child’s attachment needs

Forming a healthy attachment or bond to a parent or primary caregiver during the first few years is very important for your child’s emotional health. Children form attachments to individuals who are consistent and responsive. A lack of attachment or bond during the early years has been associated with an inability to form healthy relationships, as well as mental health issues, both which may lead to substance abuse. You can foster a healthy attachment with your child by frequently holding them, responding sensitively, and minimizing separation. Remember that the quality of the engagement is more influential than time spent so make it count! Also, when your child bonds with other family members (e.g., grandparents, aunt/uncle, close family friends) they will form trusting relationships that provide them with a safe outlet to confide in or talk about other daily dilemmas in the future. We all have relationships with others of varying degrees. When your child creates additional bonds with other trusted adults, they are expanding their support system.

Teach your child to label their emotions and understand needs

It is important for children to grow up knowing exactly how they feel and what they need. It is equally important for their needs and feelings to be acknowledged and responded to. Help them label their emotions by reflecting on what you think your child is thinking and feeling and teach ways to work through those emotions. For example, if a sibling takes your child's toy and triggers a tantrum, help your child identify the feeling and why (e.g., "When she took your toy that made you angry because you were still playing with it" or "That dog scared you when he barked"). Also, you shouldn't tell your child to feel differently (e.g., "I don’t know why you're crying.") or try stop him from expressing him feelings because this is a healthy release.

Be patient with temper tantrums

Temper tantrums are often misinterpreted for misbehaving. This is often a reaction to your child not getting what they want or not being able to tell you how they feel. However, research has shown that crying and raging can have beneficial effects and are healthy ways to release stress. Learning safe and healthy ways to express emotions like anger and sadness early on will make it less likely for them to turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to manage (i.e., self-medicate) when they are adults. Once a tantrum has begun, try to avoid sending your child to an isolated place like their room or time-out or punishing them because this will only increase their frustration. Accept your child’s emotions and stay with your child to let them know that you will remain beside them until they feel better. If you know the source of your child's tantrum (e.g., want something out of reach or want to play with something that isn't a toy), explain to them why they can’t have it.