The last couple weeks have been especially hard for our little toddler. At 2 going on 3 years old in a few months she has been less than patient and unusually demanding from sun up to sun down. There are moments when I can’t help but think where did we go wrong?! What I find most interesting is that I don’t recall our oldest being quite so extreme at this age. Now don’t get me wrong, she had her shiny moments of toddler terror but her little sister makes those days look like a walk in the park. It is really difficult as a parent to gauge where the shift in behavior happens, nail down the exact triggers and plan a course of action. I’ll give you an example: I would pick my girls up last year when they attended the same pre-school/day care. It was a great school where they had a good plan for the day and nurturing staff. Some afternoons they would be whiny and have trouble listening to the simplest instructions. I’m not going to lie, my initial knee jerk reaction would usually be to go into discipline mode and this usually didn’t offer much relief other than elevating their emotions and mine. I’d rack my brain as to the various triggers. Maybe they aren’t feeling well today? (Did I hear her cough this morning?) Maybe she didn’t nap very long? (Im pretty sure I forgot to pack her the favorite naptime blanket!) The internal dialogue can really mess with your confidence as a parent. The reality is that you can’t always be with them and especially as a working parent, it may be difficult to know exactly where to start. I find what helps me work through these days is going back to what I know well: psychology! The study of human behavior begins at birth and there are many common patterns of behavior that when you remove the current state of ‘elevated emotions’ usually find underlining triggers in their most basic form.
So why are toddlers so emotional?
Children at this stage in development are learning vocabulary, learning to express their needs, starting to develop both positive and negative emotions and most importantly, how to express them. They are also starting to think for themselves and this breeds the desire to do things on their own! My daughters favorite saying is , “I do it Mommy.” While adorable in most contexts there are times that she clearly is unable to complete the task. It is our job as parents to model positive, calm behavior even in these frustrating periods. We are also setting boundaries and establishing the consequences of actions, both positive and negative. Easier said than done! Yet we can not give up on molding these young little people in to vibrant and whole adults.
These are the most common triggers of a temper tantrum and some ways to redirect or proactively ward them off! Not fool proof, but just simple things to help remove the “person from problem” and think through the best course of action.
They are Tired and Hungry
These are two basic needs that sometimes they aren’t able to articulate well and in our busy lives can sometime get out of routine. Truth be told I think most adults have their own ‘temper tantrums’ with the absence of these needs met as well. The best course of action is age appropriate amounts of sleep as much as possible and and lots of healthy snacks on hand. We recently went to Disney World and this is a prime example of how these two triggers can break the daily routine. It was hot, they perhaps had a few empty calorie treats and nap time was replaced with Main Street Mickey Show. Sound familiar? Nevertheless, the times we plan ahead with lots of breaks, nutritious snacks and maybe even leaving the park at nap time and returning mid-afternoon through the early evening, we create a much better experience for all parties involved!
They are Over or Under-Stimulated
Lets use the analogy that they have been at daycare for the day. They have been in a different and stimulated environment all day and now they are coming home to a relaxed and quiet place. This change can produce emotion and depending on the child and situation can be expressed with acting out. The best scenario is to provide routine to create the most structured environment possible. Any one who has ever been in the same room as a toddler know that they need boundaries and constant direction. Try to involve them in picking up the house with a mini shopping cart or identifying the ingredients in the dinner preparation. Even a simple routine like coloring in an activity book while you make dinner still establishes a plan and could help in warding off ‘meltdowns’.
You are their Place of Comfort
I recently came across this article by Kate Baltrotsky of KateSurfs.com discussing why kids tend to have worse behavior around their parents. She wrote, “YOU, dear mama, are a garbage disposal of unpleasant feelings and emotions. If a child’s been holding it together all day, in an unpleasant situation, the second they see you, they know it’s time they can finally let go.” Maybe you can relate to the stories from grandparents or caregivers, “Little Johnny was an angel for me all day.”..or my favorite, “He’s never like that with me, I wonder whats wrong?” It leaves you thinking as a parent, I’m whats wrong! Or perhaps you only have precious hours in the evening and they are a constant battle. There is really no way around this but to remember: “this too shall pass.” Take the tantrum as a sign that you are their place of comfort and refuge. Offer undivided attention and lots of love. You have been given a great responsibility and honor that someday you may really miss.
They are Out of Their Routine.
All children and specifically growing toddlers need routine and structure. This really ties into all of these aforementioned triggers and it is so very crucial. The routine needs to start from when they wake to when they sleep. Even a routine around correcting the misguided emotions. There are many schools of thought around how to correct/ignore this behavior and I have listed some of my personal favorite resources below. The most important piece is consistency and follow-through on your behalf as the parent.
Remove the Stimulus
I know this seems simple again, but if your toddler acts out because they can’t have their sisters tablet…remove the tablet and allow the older child another space or place to play! Or if they have melt downs at Target because you always go on the weekends mid day approaching nap time…go at a different time! We are creatures of habit as well and the best thing we can do is take a step back and start to look for patterns of behavior in our children and in our own routine. Don’t get me wrong, your children should not dictate your entire day or plans, I’m simply suggesting modifying your schedule and making deliberate choices that reduce the repeat stimulus causing frustration.
Remember the days are long but the years are short. Parenting is the toughest job I have and I would venture to guess many of you would tend to agree. It will not be easy but it will be worth it. Build up a support network, do your best to get on the same page with other adults and caregivers in the child’s life and have a plan. Some days, that plan for the day may be just simply to get through the day…and that is perfectly acceptable!
Harvey Karp M.D. the same author as The Happiest Baby on the Block wrote “The Happiest Toddler on the Block”
I would also recommend “How Toddler Thrive” by Tovah Klein M.D.