Toddlers are experts at ruffling our feathers, but these tiny people mean no disrespect. Testing our limits (and patience) is impulsive behavior on their part and a developmentally appropriate way to seek answers to important questions like:
Am I safe and cared for?
Do I have confident leaders?
Are they with me or against me?
Is it okay to want what I want and feel what I’m feeling?
Am I a bad kid?
While probing those larger questions, toddlers are also asking us to clarify (and re-clarify) our expectations – the ‘house rules’. For example:
- What will my parents do if I… (hit the dog, push my sister, throw my food, put the brakes on when I’m supposed to be getting ready to leave the house)?
- Is this decision mine or my parents’… (to go to bed, get into my car seat, hold my dad’s hand in the parking lot)?
If we don’t consistently give our toddlers the answers they need to feel guided, secure, and understood, they will usually need to continue “asking” through resistance and testing.
As parents we are not always able to ace these tests. We’re human, we get tired and triggered, and that means we’re going to lose our composure at least occasionally. That’s okay. If we remain at least somewhat consistent, composed and clear, we’ll get our messages across successfully. Here are some suggestions that have helped me and the parents I’ve worked with over the years stay unruffled:
- Gain perspective
Our attitude toward limit-pushing behavior is everything, and our perspective is what defines our attitude. Testing, limit-pushing, defiance and resistance are healthy signs that our toddlers are developing independence and autonomy. If we say “green”, toddlers are almost required to say “blue”, even if green is their favorite color, because if toddlers want what we want, they can’t assert themselves as individuals.
Add to these challenges a lack of impulse control and general emotional turbulence, and you’ll see why I recommend perceiving toddlers more like mental health patients than unruly kids. Toddlers need our help, not anger or punishments.
And when they are experiencing stress, fear or other strong emotions, impulsive behaviors intensify. It’s no surprise that the majority of the parents contacting me with behavior issues have a new baby, or are expecting one, or are dealing with some other major change that their child is reacting to. Unfortunately, our toddlers aren’t able to share their feelings about these situations on cue. Instead, they might share them by screaming “no!” in response to a direction, or melting down because we denied them one more cookie, or reacting melodramatically to some other seemingly insignificant disappointment. That’s why we mustn’t judge these overreactions, but rather try to understand and welcome them. Rather than getting offended when our child screams because we poured too much syrup on his pancakes, try to remember that this is really just an outlet for much deeper disappointments.
- Perceive conflict and strong emotions positively (or at least a little less negatively)
Many of us received the message as children that strong displays of emotion are unacceptable and conflicts are to be feared. Unfortunately, this perspective makes it next to impossible to stay unruffled with toddlers, who (as I explained above) need to disagree with us and feel safe expressing their strong emotions. Shifting this paradigm is one of our biggest challenges as parents and yet, enormously freeing.
We gradually make this shift when we practice acknowledging our child’s point of view (for most of us the last thing we feel like doing when we are in conflict!). It needs to be perfectly okay for children to want what they want, even when we won’t give it to them. No matter how unfair or ridiculous our child’s stance seems, we don’t coerce, argue or judge.
- Have reasonable expectations
Gaining perspective helps us to know what to expect. Then we aren’t as inclined to set ourselves up to be surprised or offended when our child, for example, refuses to follow our most polite and reasonable directions, or won’t stop trying to annoy us when we’re making dinner, or demands more, more, more of whatever it is. What she actually needs is to explode.
During the toddler years, our most reasonable expectation is the unreasonable. Expecting the madness makes it far easier to keep our cool.
- Be preventative, prepared, proactive
A bit more about expectations: our toddlers are naturally curious explorers, so placing them in situations in which this inclination is unwelcome is a set-up for mutual frustration. Also keep in mind that toddlers are easily overstimulated and fatigued and can seem to go from full to famished in no time flat.
Being prepared and proactive means recognizing there’s an excellent chance our toddlers are not going to follow our directions or agree to our limits. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t proceed with confidence (we need to project confidence). It means we won’t ask more than once (because that is a quick path to our annoyance and anger), and whenever the situation allows, we’ll ask in a manner that gives our children a choice and a bit of time so that they can save face. (Remember that toddlers need to disagree to own their new, more independent place in the world. In the toddler code book, compliance means weakness.)
Then there’s the back-up option: “Can you do this on your own, or will you need me to give you a helping hand?” This obviously isn’t about what children can or can’t do as much as what they are willing to do in that moment. If we are always ready for our toddlers to need a helping hand (no questions asked), we can remain unruffled, be firm and gentle rather than forceful and angry.
Don’t anticipate willingness and you won’t be disappointed.
And, by the way, toddlers aren’t great at clearing up their toys and will usually need a helping hand, or a special basket, or a gentle logical consequence like “we can’t take out more toys until we put these away”.
- Act as if…
Integral to the approach I teach (Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach) is our authenticity as parents. But since handling our children’s behavior issues non-punitively is a hugely important and noble goal that does not seem to come naturally to many of us, acting as if can definitely help.
Acting as if we’re unruffled does not mean adopting stern expressions and voices or forcing laughter and games. It means imagining we’ve been handling these situations for so many years that we’re completely calm and comfortable, so it’s easy to be direct, definitive and physically follow through when that’s needed.
Once we begin to notice how effective we can be, we build the confidence we need to stop acting.
- Use imagery
Two images that have worked for me are the CEO (No Bad Kids) and my superhero shield (Tantrums and Meltdowns – My Secret for Staying Calm When My Kids Aren’t). Use one of these or find a personal image that is confidence-building and helps you to feel calm and create the bit of emotional distance you need.
- Practice, it gets easier
Each small success bolsters our confidence as parents, makes expressing our personal boundaries easier, and positively affects every relationship in our life.
- Recognize personal triggers, projections and weaknesses
Practicing self-reflection helps us to know our triggers (almost as well as our child does!), and then we can begin to understand them. Recognition is the first step toward change, and changing old patterns of response for the sake of our children is profoundly healing.
- Find support
The toddler years are an intense time. To remain mostly unruffled, parents of toddlers need a shoulder to cry on and some may need the support of a coach, counselor or therapist. Let your children be the inspiration to get the help you need.
I share more about the tricky, yet terrific toddler years in
(Photo by Tony Garcia on Flickr)