We’re big. They’re tiny. They’re just learning our rules and expectations for appropriate behavior. They have a developmental need to express their will, and they have very little (if any) impulse control. With these complicated, powerful dynamics in play, why would we take our toddler’s hitting, biting, resistance or refusal to cooperate personally?
We get triggered and become angry, frustrated or scared. We might lose perspective and find ourselves stooping to our child’s level, going at it head-to-head with a tot who’s only a fraction of our size. We might be compelled to lash out, even hit or bite back(!), or attempt to regain control by sternly laying down the law, shaming or punishing our toddler in the name of “teaching a lesson”.
Or, perhaps we go the opposite direction. Fearful of confronting our child’s rage or our own, we back down. We give in to our child, hesitate, waffle or tippy-toe around the behavior. Perhaps we plead or cry so that our child feels sorry for us.
While these responses might seem effective in dealing with undesirable behavior in the moment, they end up making matters worse. Our intensity (which is always very apparent to children — so don’t ever think they don’t feel it) can turn a momentary experiment or impulsive act into a chronic behavioral issue. Children sense it when the leaders they count on have lost control, and that makes them feel less safe and too powerful. Punishments create fear, resentment, distrust. Alternatively, our reluctance to set a definitive boundary also causes discomfort, insecurity and more testing. Our vulnerability creates guilt.
Ultimately, these responses fail because they don’t address the need all children are expressing through their misbehavior: Help. When young children act out they need our help. It’s as simple as that. But how do we help them?
Perspective and attitude
If we can perceive our child’s unpleasant actions as temporarily “out of her mind” –a young one’s request for help — our role and our response become much clearer. As experienced, mature adults, this means rising above the fray (rather than getting caught in it) and providing assistance.
When we remind ourselves repeatedly that challenging behavior is a little lost child’s call for help, we begin to see the ridiculousness of taking this behavior personally. We recognize the absurdity of reactions like, “How could you treat me like this after all I do for you?! Why don’t you listen?” Perspective gives us the patience, confidence and the calm demeanor we need to be able to help.
Then we communicate and follow through. “You’re having a hard time not hitting, so I will help by holding your hands”. This is our thought process and might also be the words we say to our child. Or we might say, “I won’t let you hit. You’re so upset that I had to put my phone away when you wanted to play with it. I know.”
“I won’t let you bite me. That hurts. I’m going to have to put you down and get something you can bite safely.”
“Can you come indoors yourself or do you need my help? Looks like you need help, so I’m going to pick you up.”
We help our child and then allow for emotional explosions in response, because children need help with those, too. The assistance they need is an anchor — our patient presence and empathy while they safely ride this wave out. When the wave passes, they need us to acknowledge their feelings, forgive, understand and let go so they can, too. After all, how can we hold a grudge against a person whose impulses are bigger than they are?
This idea was brought home for me recently when walking down our hall at 10:45 PM to remind my teenager it was bedtime. I was startled to see my ten year old son (who had gone to sleep at 9 PM) striding towards me. First I thought he might be headed to the bathroom, but then he said something I couldn’t make out, “Mumble, mumble… watch TV.”
“What?” It then hit me that he was sleepwalking. For as long as any of us remember, he’s had a nightly ritual of talking or shouting in his sleep, much to the amusement of his sisters who sleep in adjacent rooms. He often sits up in bed while spouting a phrase or two, but only occasionally does he embark on a nighttime stroll.
“Give me watch TV,” he said again. This time I understood… sort of. He looked bewildered and deadpanned, “That makes no sense”. Then he lurched toward the stairs.
“Ohhhh, no…you’re going back to bed.” He fought me while I tried to hold him off. We tussled. He’s a strong, muscular little guy, a hardy opponent even in his sleep, but I finally managed to wrestle him back to his room and onto his bed where he was immediately calm and quiet again.
So, what does a ten year old sleepwalker have to do with a toddler acting out? Toddlers are very conscious and aware, but their behavior isn’t. They have about as much self-control as my boy does when he’s sleepwalking, and like my son, they need us to handle their escapades confidently without getting angry.
A mom I’ve had the pleasure of consulting with over the phone recently shared her appreciation for a word I’ve used: ‘unruffled’. She thinks “unruffled” whenever her toddler’s behavior challenges her. Since she had a new baby and her toddler needed to adjust to this tremendous change in his life, she needed to imagine unruffled a lot, but she doesn’t so much anymore, because her unruffled responses have helped her boy pass through this difficult stage quickly.
We can’t fake unruffled. Like good actors, parents have to believe. And we acquire this belief when we maintain a realistic perspective and adopt the attitude that we’re big and on top of things, our child is little, and discipline equals “help”.
Another mom’s note made me smile:
My 16-month-old son Jamie has taken to hitting – hitting me, specifically. He seems to be acting out of pure joy. Meaning – he isn’t hungry, tired or frustrated. On the contrary – he seems thrilled by the exclamation “OW!” and wants to provoke it. He cheerfully chirps “OW! OW! OW!” adorably as he tries to punch me in the face, smiling and laughing the entire time. So far I have tried many times: I’m not going to let you do that, and No, and gently stopped his hands. Also I blank my face, so I’m not smiling back, but I’m not getting emotional or upset.
He probably hasn’t developed empathy yet, but he is still repeatedly hitting me and now trying it on our 19-year-old cat.
Plus, he got me in the eye last week – it’s challenging to not be upset when it hurts. Any advice?
Like many perceptive toddlers, Jamie is as acutely aware of a subpar performance as a mini Roger Ebert. He’s not buying the “blank face”. He heard “OW!” once and that’s all he needed. He’s knows it’s still in there somewhere. He’s getting to his mom and it’s exciting.
Jennifer has to believe this is not a big deal at all. She has to think “booooring!” while she gently but firmly stops Jamie’s from hitting her. She has to rise way above this being a serious problem and perceive her little guy’s behavior as totally nonthreatening for it to cease. Right now, she’s getting caught up in the drama a bit (which is admittedly hard not to do with such a captivating toddler).
The beauty of an unruffled, helpful attitude is that it allows our child to relax knowing her parents ‘have her back’. She knows we won’t get too flustered by her mischief. She’s assured she has anchors — patient teachers capable of handling anything she tosses their way with relative ease.
With the knowledge that their parents will always help them handle the behaviors they can’t handle themselves, children feel safe to struggle, make mistakes, grow and learn with confidence.
“Toddlers test limits to find out about themselves and other people. By stopping children in a firm, but respectful way when they push our limits, we’re helping them to figure out their world and to feel safe.” -Irene Van der Zande, with Santa Cruz Infant Toddler Staff, 1, 2, 3…The Toddler Years.
I offer a complete guide to understanding and addressing common behavior issues in my new book:
For specifics about biting, I also recommend Toddler Bites by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby