I won’t forget the day I slumped into bed, sobbing uncontrollably, thinking, “I actually don’t know if I can do this,” which was the moment I knew myself and my family were in trouble. This was spending another day as a mother of a one and three-year-old.
All my education and psychotherapy training didn’t seem to be working—sure, I knew on paper how to raise young children, but my natural mothering sense didn’t seem to be kicking in. I could get a massive room filled with people to hang off my every word, laughing away, but I couldn’t get my child into his car seat (without losing my ever-loving-mind).
The next morning, as I watched my exasperated child drop to the floor in hysterics because I cut his toast the wrong way (never do this!), something clicked in me. I knew a lot about the psychology of people, but I didn’t know much about the psychology of toddlers. A resolve grew inside of me; I needed to know more.
This resolve pushed my butt into the offices of colleagues and my nose into books. I discovered how unaware I was of the real nature of toddlers. I was expecting too much, doing too much in my life at the time, coddling too much and not coaching enough (and I was too exhausted).
In order to not let what I now know as toddler/ preschool parenting PPD (it’s a thing!) take hold of me, I sat down to make a list of agreements that would guide how I interacted with my two toddlers. These are the promises I made to my children.
I agree to:
Parenting a toddler can really suck some days – that’s just the way it is. I can do this, though. I realize everyone is on a steep learning curve. I will ask for support.
It will take time to train my toddler. I need to make space for this time (now is not a good time to start that new project). I will learn techniques that positively help my toddler.
My toddler is not out to get me. He is a little person learning how to shift from the only thing he has known—how to freak out to get his needs met. I need to teach him how to say, “Milk” instead of throwing it at me because I gave him water.
My toddler is not manipulative. He doesn’t have the brainpower to intentionally do something to piss me off. He’s just being ____ (one/ two/ three).
Learning at this age takes a huge amount of repetition. I will feel like a broken record, but that’s okay, because it is this repetition that will create positive core beliefs that significantly improve his overall quality of life moving forward.
My bucket will get drained easily. I might feel like I am doing a marathon every day. I need to take care of me to take care of him.
Toddlers are violent and loud. (In fact, Dr. Richard Tremblay, a professor of paediatrics, psychiatry and psychology at the Université de Montréal, has found that two-year-olds are actually the most violent humans on Earth. Dr. Tremblay wrote that, “Perfectly normal two-year-olds are a creature who reflexively uses physical aggression to get what (s)he wants.” In order to stop this violence, I need to train my child to get what (s)he wants with non-violent communication. This will take time.
My marriage might suffer right now. I might lose too much energy being with my toddler to have enough to support our relationship. I agree to hang in there with my partner and believe we will have time together and a clear mind soon.
Although I might joke around that my toddler is an a**hole or a jerk, I promise not to believe that or say it seriously. My toddler is a little person in need of my patience, leadership, commitment, and sense of humour.
This too shall pass. I can do it.
Approaching toddler parenting with the resolve that they are little people that need support and coaching more than they need to be scolded was what really helped me. One week my three-year-old was having about five, hour-long tantrums a day and the next it was one or less. This happened when I shifted my attitude from “surviving” his meltdowns to seeing how I could walk him through them. Instead of finding ways to spend less time with him, these agreements gave me the ability to turn toward him rather than away. Maybe it was that action that made the biggest difference?
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Smoothly getting your 1, 2, or three-year-old toddler out the door is a combination of planning ahead, clever language, getting enough sleep, and consistent routines. To make the out-the-door transition as smooth as possible, consider the stage of development your child is in and steps to completing tasks.
First, toddlers do not want to leave home and they do not want to leave you. They might love where they are going, but if they had a choice, would pick to stay home with a parent and their things. Your need to be somewhere else does not match their need to be with you. This statement is not meant to trigger guilt because you can certainly securely attach with your child, foster positive development, and still go to work.
Second, toddlers are likely to freeze or get upset if they feel rushed. And third, toddlers are starting to exert their independence with “ME DO IT!” so thrusting your child into her shoes and whisking her flailing body out the door will stress everyone out. Keep these three factors in mind when you are making your out-the-door plan.
Here are my suggestions for getting your toddler to agree to leave the house with you:
1. Make sure everyone is getting enough sleep.
You know your child has slept enough if you do not need to wake her in the morning. Early bedtimes are the key. Sleep educator Alanna McGinn told me that a toddler’s best-before bedtime is 8pm.
2. Create enough time to do your tasks and not feel rushed
Are you waking up to an alarm clock? That means you aren’t getting enough sleep. You have young children who take a lot of energy out of you each day, give yourself a head start on the day with an early bedtime the night before. If your children are consistently waking you up at night, I suggest you read The Happy Sleeper by Heather Turgeon, MFT and Julie Wright, MFT, which has wonderful suggestions for making sure everyone is getting the sleep they need.
Wake up before your children: get yourself and your things ready.
3. Plan ahead: Use mini-deadlines for tasks
Consider the time you have and plan it as a series of mini-deadlines. For example, if your family needs to be somewhere at 8:30am and it takes 20 minutes to get there, start working backwards from your out-the-door time, breaking the morning into 15 or 20 minute chunks where a certain task (pee, eat, change, brush teeth) needs to be completed. This way you don’t look at the clock and panic because your child is still in pajamas and hasn’t eaten at 7:30am. I like to write these deadlines out and have them where I can see them to make sure I am staying on track.
Here is an example of mini-deadlines:
Out-the-door time: 8am
Brushing teeth deadline: 7:45am
Eating deadline: 7:30am
Changing deadline: 7:15am
4. Start the day with love
Begin each day with smiles and snuggles. Fill your child’s attachment tank so (s)he feels connected with you, which will increase her/ his likelihood of wanting to cooperate.
5. Set a morning routine (keep it simple!)
Using your mini-deadlines as a guide, create a morning routine (with your toddler). Establish what order the “jobs” will get done, and communicate what time those jobs need to be completed to stay out of the late-zone (the time after the out-the-door time, which means you will be late). Make sure there is time for play in between the jobs! Also, give your child some choices to do your best to keep power struggles out of the morning time.
You could offer a choice like this, “Do you want to change first or eat first?” or “Do we put play time before or after eating?” or “When you brush your teeth right after eating, then you will have more time to play!” (That’s an example of the “when/ then” parenting strategy)
Write the routine out as a series of simple words or pictures and post it up where you child can see it.
An example of a morning routine is this:
Couch time (for snuggles or a book)
Change— by 7:15
Eat — by 7:30
Brush teeth—by 7:45
Out-the-door (move to the space where outdoor gear gets put on)—by 8
*Some toddlers do better when all the tasks in one area are complete before moving to another area of the house. For example, for those with a second floor, finish all the tasks that need to be done up there like peeing and getting dressed before going downstairs for couch time. You can invite cooperation like this, “Change first, snuggle second! (Yay!) Would you like to change yourself or would you like help?” Smile and nod as you say this. Perhaps add, “I’m looking forward to our couch time.” If you have a powder room on your main floor, you can put a second set of toothbrushes and paste there to avoid getting-back-up-the-stairs battles.
6. Train your child to move from one step to the next
Keep an eye on the time and usher your child from one time block to the next. If a deadline is approaching and the task isn’t done, you can inspire cooperation with something like, “Oh, our eating time is almost over. Do you want a banana tower or banana smiley face?”
Also, each time your child asks to do something, remind her of the routine and time blocks. For example, if a toddler says, “Puzzle?” you can respond with, “Let’s check our schedule to see if we have time.” You can also use this as a tool to getting a task done like this, “Puzzle? Sure—right after we brush your teeth. Yay, I like puzzles.” (That’s another when/ then)
7. Use positive phrases
Use positive phrases and positive discipline to inspire cooperation rather than using force or coercion, which are likely to result in a meltdown. I put a bunch of phrases into this post aimed at parents of children who are one and two-years-old and this one for parents of three and four-year-olds. In the morning, using “It’s _____time” usually works. And keep “okay?” and “please” out of your instructions. These two words in instructions give your child an opportunity to say, “NO!”
My favourites for moving from one task to another are:
“It’s tooth-brushing time. Are we getting to the bathroom on one leg or two?”
“It’s dressing time. Are you picking your clothes or me?”
“It’s shoes-on time! Are we getting to the mud room like rockets or elephants?!”
“Did you hear the story about the lion with the green mane? I’ll tell it to you when you’re in your car seat.”
If you experience resistance, try this phrase, “It is out-the-door time, what do need to feel done?” (As in, what do you need to finish before we go) or “What do you need to feel ready to leave?” I often hear simple things like, “To finish the car race,” or “To put the nose on the face.”
I also recommend using a transition signal like playing a certain song just before out-the-door time so your child knows the time to leave is coming.
8. Scale back what you need to do
In order to attend to your child’s needs and keep her on task, feeling like you have space and energy to help makes a huge difference. Don’t try to cram other tasks into the morning, which are likely to make you feel flustered. Stay in charge of your time.
9. Fill your child’s attachment tank throughout the day
You can use what I call “attachment bridging objects.” Examples are: giving your child a note in her lunch kit, a little “love rock” (fill it full of love before you go by rubbing it in your hands—telling your child to rub it, too, when missing you) or trinket to feel connected to you while you are gone.
When you see your child at the end of the day, take time to reconnect before going home. Hug until (s)he pulls away before getting into the car. When you are home, create at least two five or ten-minute blocks of time where you can put your tasks down and do what your child wants to do.
10. Stay calm!
When things are falling apart, do your best to not lose your cool. I wrote this post for parents and this one with a technique to help calming kids if you'd like more help with that. Controlling and cooling your frustration and supporting your child when (s)he loses it (rather than punishing) will help everyone get out-the-door unscathed.
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One of the hardest skills for any person to develop is how to stop an emotional and physical eruption from happening or how to cool ourselves down once it has. We call these explosions “tantrums” in children, but adults have these, too. I call an adult freak-out a bigtrum: big person tantrum.
While reading Jamie Glowacki’s book Oh Crap! Potty Training, I came across the term “Calm-Down Jar” for the first time. It seemed like a great idea so I tried it out on my young family. It has worked quite well so far! You can use the gathering of the items to create the jar and making the jar itself as quality attachment tank filling time.
I believe it helps children to calm-down (I made one for myself, too!) because the shaking action releases emotional energy and the swirling glitter creates some space and time for the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to slow down. This is the system that kicks into gear when we get revved up: the fight-or-flight reaction. As we watch the glitter and shiny objects float around, our breathing and heart-rate has a chance to lower, and our thinking can go from the irrational “reptilian mind” types of thoughts like, “I hate you!” to the rational mind like, “I am angry because…”
You will need:
The order of operations: (I recommend making these on a counter close to the sink)
It is important that your child not feel (s)he is in a power struggle with you about the calm-down process. Telling your child what goes into the jar or when to use it might keep the reptilian brain activated. I call this part of the mind the “cobra” part—you wouldn’t want to poke it, would you?!
As with the eating suggestion in this post of phrases to use with toddlers, when you sense your child is about to lose it, make the jar available as a gentle reminder without demanding the child use it. If (s)he feels that getting the jar is her/his idea, it is more likely to be successful as a calming tool.
Be a calm-down jar role model by walking your child through the process of using it when you feel mad. When you feel your blood start to boil, tell your child something like this: “I am starting to feel angry bubbles inside of me. I’d better find my jar.” Talk to yourself while you walk to the jar: this demonstrates how to initiate the shift from the reactionary mind (reptilian) to the responsive one (cerebral cortex). “Okay, cool down. Breathe. Find the jar.”
When you get the jar, shake it and use feelings words to explain how you feel. For example, “I am angry that the dryer broke!” Stay focused on calming down, “I’m going to have to find a way to dry all these wet clothes. Ugh! I’m so mad!” Sit and watch the water, shaking it a few times if you need to. Just quietly watch the glitter—this time is where the emotions have a chance to process.
Once you have regrouped, move the focus from identifying feelings and pausing to letting them process to problem solving. You could say something like this, “Okay, I’m feeling less mad. I know I won’t hurt me, you or things. What am I going to do? How can these clothes get dry?” Give your child a chance to offer some suggestions. You might say, “What are my options?” This is the phrase we want our children to think of when they are melting down and you aren’t around.
Finally, decide on an action plan to solve the problem. For example, “Okay. I can hang these clothes up on the drying rack and around the bathroom or I can see if Cathy across the street can dry them for us. Then I’d better find out why the dryer isn’t working and get it fixed.” Key words for an action plan are: What do I need? Help? To talk? To do better (learn more)? Ideas? To try again? To be clear?
Here is a summary of the steps:
Please remember that it takes a lot of repetition to learn something new. Continually use the calm-down jar or whatever tool helps your child to chill out. Don’t give up if it doesn’t work the first time! Be a role model, use the calming tool over and over, and remember the five steps of a calm-down plan.
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