When my little guys were both toddlers, I really struggled to get out of survival mode. I wasn't satisfied with clawing through each day so I invested time to find a way to enjoy my time in toddlerville.
While researching techniques and theory, I came across several posts like this, “Two-year-old for sale: priced to sell.” Raising a toddler can really bring out the worst in us and grow feelings of desperation and exhaustion. *We all know how incredible, funny, and endearing toddlers are so let's assume that while I talk about the challenging parts, I'm not forgetting these qualities.
First, we need to acknowledge that the toddler years can sometimes:
Require a massive amount of energy
Be mind numbing
Turn you into a broken record
Bring out the most intense anger a person has ever felt
Be a strain on your marriage
In order to thrive with a toddler, we need to understand how we might be inadvertently creating tension or growing some negative self talk in the child's mind which can elevate anger, exhaustion, and disconnect for both parent and child. This usually happens when we are trying to manage our toddlers while they are breaking things, hitting, fighting us when we want to get them out the door, not wanting to eat, refusing to use the toilet when they obviously need to, crawling out of their beds, or having a complete meltdown. Many parents say, "My toddler just won't listen!"
That's right, toddlers don't listen. Toddlers don't really have the ability to listen, they form learning associations like, "When I throw my food, it gets taken away and I get hungry. That sucks; I'll try not to do that again." It might take some time for the association to actually turn into action.
Our parenting challenge is how we respond to toddlers when they aren't doing what we'd like them to do. In this respect, one of the most frequent questions I receive is, "How do you discipline a toddler?"
My answer to that is, "You don't. You don't discipline a toddler: you teach, guide, nurture, and attune to them." Some people use the term "positive discipline," but I prefer to replace "discipline" with "guidance" for this age.
There is a serious consequence to using harsh discipline with toddlers—as sobbing mothers of "rebellious" teenagers will attest to. A toddler does not have the rationality to understand why they are being shouted at, spanked, timed out, or belittled for following their natural instinct to explore and push the limits.
When well-intentioned parents use physical punishment with toddlers, these paired associations might happen within the child's mind: "My mommy is scary", "Don't trust daddy", "Being vulnerable isn't safe."These internal messages are called negative core beliefs which can affect behaviour throughout our entire life if they go undetected. How do you think a teenager would behave when she gets into something over her head, if she truly feels that "My mommy is scary?"
Equally important are the paired associations that DON'T happen such as: "Being angry is okay but I can't be mean" and "Having big feelings is normal." Learning how to manage those big emotions is the next step.
But many of you might be saying, "I was disciplined harshly (spanked) as a child and I turned out okay." Well, spanking (and shouting, belittling, shaming) works as a discipline method like stealing works for financial freedom. Both achieve a goal but at a serious negative cost, which I mention in this article called, "The Cost Of Spanking Our Children."
The reason physical punishment isn't the best choice with toddlers is that when toddlers are disciplined this way; they usually go into a defensive mode. They might stop spilling their drink if they get shouted at each time, but they also might develop negative self talk that they are incompetent ("ARG!!! Look what you did!! You spilled your milk again—why can't you stop doing that?")
Anxiety is created when a link is formed between a thought and a negative outcome. Anxiety is born from a thought such as, "I'm too afraid to try something on my own because I'll just mess it up."
Using cups with lids and a straw until they are old enough to be aware of their surroundings and their elbows takes one battle off the field and can reduce their anxiety. Then you can take time to train the child how to use a cup when they are able. "Are you ready to try using a cup? Let's see if you can remember to see where your cup is and to not hit it with anything. Why don't we put it in front of your plate?"
The child will LEARN how to have space awareness, not be AFRAID they can't do anything right.
Along with learning how to not scare your toddler, and instead be patient and teach them, the two most important skills for parents during this time are:
1. Your ability to reduce your exhaustion.
2. Your ability to calm yourself when your child is freaking out. (I have written other posts on this topic if you would like help in that department.)
When you are rested and calm, you are more able to be rational—which is really the biggest thing you can do to help yourself during the toddler years.
If you are looking for some specific tips to manage your toddler, here is a list of tricks that worked in our family and in the families of my clients:
Do not pose instructions as a question. "Do you want to put your mitts on?" will often get a reply of "NO!" Use an "it's time to....." statement. "It's time to put your mitts on." If "NO!" still happens you can say, "Oh, I didn't ask you, I was just letting you know what time it is."
Do not use the words "please" or "okay?" when giving instructions. Children learn manners by watching how you interact with them and other adults, not by you asking them to "please do this... or that" So when you are giving an instruction, resist the urge to throw "please" or "okay" at the end, which will reduce your authority.
Everything can be made into a race! “Let’s see if you can get into your carseat before I count to ten!"
Be creative and/or gross with everyday tasks. For example, “There’s a fire in the potty! Who can put it out?!” *Sound effects and silly faces get you extra bonus points.
No surprises… if you can help it. Announcements like, “Okay, it’s time to go,” may result in an hour of yelling. Give three warnings: “Just so you know, we’ll be leaving in fifteen minutes…” Repeat the warning at ten and five, and on the last warning, introduce something like, “because we are leaving in five minutes, which is soon, what special toy do you want to play with before we go.”
Find a way to give directions in a way that doesn’t feel coercive. Instead of "Wash your hands." Try "Everyone with clean hands can sit down to eat."
Invest time in them. Your child needs your undivided attention more than anything else. Undistracted, on-the-floor time (cell phone/computer/TV off) every day will help form a secure attachment.
Routine, routine, routine. A predictable order of things at a consistent time reduces yelling. Ask her to help you create a morning or bed-time routine and then make a chart using simple drawings to post on the fridge.
Have low expectations of behaviour when your child is compromised. For example, it is not reasonable to expect a young child to stop himself from pushing his little brother when he is tired, hungry, hot, or has had to share his favourite toy all afternoon.
Get used to being a broken record. It might take several, maybe hundreds of repeats of "Hitting is not okay. Let's hit the chair instead when we feel full of anger." These directions will eventually sink in.
Toddler-proof the entire house. The more thoroughly you toddler-proof your house, the less you will have to convince them to not climb on, pull down, or get into things that will hurt them. More things off the battle field!
NEVER, ever, say HURRY UP! This will make your child slam into slow motion. There is a deep instinct in all of us called counterwill. If a child feels he has lost control, he will be compelled to do the opposite. Try hard to not be in a rush yourself.
Don’t ask your child to stop yelling. He is yelling because he is likely angry or scared. Give him a safe place to get it all out. Yelling into pillows, sweaters, or his elbow allows him to resolve his feelings.
Learn to support your child through a tantrum. Children need to learn that calming themselves down is their responsibility. I encourage parents to sit calmly nearby but not to try to talk to their child during this time. Make sure the child and surroundings are safe, or get the heck out of whatever public place you are in. During a time when the child is calm, establish a family "anger plan" which tells them exactly what you will do and what you expect them to do when they are flipping out. (This is a huge topic with entire books having been written about it. I regularly post book reviews and articles about this, so if you would like more information, I recommend you go onto my Facebook page www.facebook.com/andrea.m.nair.)
Try not to take it personally. Even if you feel more equipped to handle fits of yelling, they still might be difficult to go through. Try saying this to yourself during these times, “This child is not trying to hurt me. This too shall pass.” I also found it helpful to do slow, long breathing.
*I am available to conduct parenting workshops on this topic. If you would like to book me to come provide an interactive session on guiding toddlers, please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: flickr cc Nienke and Ties