Bringing the magic back into toddlerhood: supporting our tots through challenging times
Being a two year old (or almost two year old!), is hard! Being a parent of a two year old is hard! When both parties are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and in need of some sort of control, the struggle becomes even more challenging.
When we take a look at why toddlers behave the way they do, it helps us monitor our own responses to their behaviour and encourages empathy and support. We need to first understand the inner workings of a two year old so that we can fully support them through challenging times.
Developmental Changes of a Two Year Old’s Mind
Around 18 months (give or take, as each child is different), toddlers begin to realize that they are their own separate human. They begin to understand that they can have control over what happens to them. The toddler has begun to develop a sense of autonomy.
So let’s see, if you were a small person, with a limited world view, realizing that you may be able to control what happens to and around you, what would you choose to do, how would you test this out? Well the simplest and easiest way for a toddler to assert their new sense of autonomy is to use the word “NO” (even if they mean yes!). Things that are usually done “to” the child, such as being dressed, being changed and being fed, suddenly become daily tasks in which our little toddler can assert themselves and take some control.
Many parents wonder why a food their child has always enjoyed has suddenly been rejected by their toddler. You prepare their favourite dish, set it down on the table in front of them, only to hear a resounding “NO!”, as you then witness the lovely meal pushed off the table and onto the floor. Your toddler is asserting himself and showing you that they are in control (or at least WANT some control), of their meal time. Oh and don’t be surprised if sometime after your child realizes they really do want their favourite dish that is no longer edible!
During this stage of development children want to become more independent and make decisions. Although frustrating for parents, this is an important developmental milestone and is fundamental to developing a sense of self and autonomy. Toddlers are also learning how to process and deal with their big emotions, such as anger, frustration, and sadness. They need support during this time, to help them identify their emotions and learn to cope with them in a healthy way.
4 Strategies for Supporting Your Toddler Through Challenging Times
1. Give them a choice
This is one of the biggest things you can do to help a toddler feel as though they have some control and involve them in decision making. Here are some examples below.
Getting dressed – When it is time to get dressed in the morning or at night, give the child a choice between two outfits. Lay them out so your child can see them, allow them to mix and match the outfits if they want!
Too many choices can be overwhelming for a toddler, as they are still learning about and testing out decision making. Start with two choices and then maybe three if you feel your child needs a third option.
If you don’t mind what your child wears, allow them to choose their outfit all on their own. This may take awhile and could end up in some pretty interesting fashion choices, but your toddler will love it! Be mindful though, if your child seems to get frustrated by the overwhelming task of choosing their own outfit, try the first option of giving them two choices only.
Eating – When it comes to food, try not to make too much of any item for your toddler. Instead make a small amount of a few different options (eg. a few pieces of boiled broccoli, some peas, and a few carrots). Then allow them to choose which ones they would like to eat. You can store the left overs for the next meal or day.
I would avoid giving them a choice BEFORE you start cooking. They may choose spaghetti over rice, and you go ahead and prepare it. Once it is on the table, your toddler suddenly decides that they actually wanted the rice! Uh oh!
If you have a few choices put on the table at meal time, your child can still have some choice while also being offered the main meal. This will make them feel as if they have had a say in what they are eating and they will be more likely to eat some of the main dish as well.
Diaper Change – Oh don’t we all know the tale of a wiggly toddler, fighting their hardest to avoid a diaper change! Before you begin to change your toddler (or attempt to!), allow them to choose a fresh diaper out of the bag, drawer or box. You can also then allow them to pull out a few wipes to use as well. If you have a portable changing mat, allow them to choose where they would like to be changed. With so much choice your toddler will be feeling in control and the diaper change will go that much more smoothly.
If they are still super wriggly, try allowing them to wipe as well with their own wipe or maybe even apply a bit of cream themselves.
2. Acknowledge and Label Their Feelings
Toddlers have big emotions and these can be difficult for them to process and handle. They are still developing self-awareness, self-control, and self-regulation. They are learning how to process and handle their emotions, which is hard! Let’s be honest, how many adults do you know that have mastered that skill!?
Even if your child’s emotional “outburst” may seem silly to you, to them it feels very real. Here are some key phrases that can help in times of unrest.
* I can see that you are upset/angry/frustrated, would you like a cuddle?
* You are sad that we have to leave the park. You are having a lot of fun. It’s hard to leave when you are having fun. Let’s go down the slide one more time and then we can race to the car
* You are feeling frustrated that you cannot get your sock on. Would you like me to help?
* I can see that you want to do that all by yourself. You try and I will help you if you need it.
* It’s OK to be angry, but it is not OK to hit. Hitting hurts. If you are angry let’s stomp our feet.
It is easy to react to a child’s strong emotions before thinking, especially when out in public. However, if we take a deep breathe and remind ourselves that they need our support, we can approach the situation with a calm voice and a clear head.
3. Calm Reactions
When we react with a loud noise, a shout, or just a general yell, toddlers find this all very interesting indeed! Instead of teaching them that we are upset by their behaviour, we have taught them that they will get a very interesting reaction when they behave in a certain way. Toddlers really do enjoy a reaction! They also like to test out different situations to see how the adults will react. They are testing the waters, seeing what will happen, experimenting with cause and effect. So instead of yelling or making a big fuss, how can we approach an unwanted situation or behaviour?
Before responding (unless it is a serious situation where safety is a concern and immediate action is needed), take a second to breathe. Try to avoid reacting before thinking.
Tell your toddler exactly what you want them to do, as opposed to what you don’t want them to do. Try and limit the use of the word “no.” Instead of “Stop running!” try instead “walking feet” or “we walk inside.” Another example “toilets are for pee. Take your hands out of the toilet. Your hands are dirty. Let’s wash our hands”
“Mommy is taking this plate and putting it in the cupboard. This plate will break if we play with it. Let’s find a safe toy for you to play with” (you can than offer a safe kitchen item like a wooden spoon or metal bowl)
Be clear and concise, with a calm but firm tone. Do your best to avoid shouting. Toddlers are learning from you. If you yell when you are upset, so will your toddler. Remember your toddler is not “being bad.” They are learning and exploring. To us it may seem like bad behaviour, but to them it’s all an experience, a game and a learning process. This behaviour is normal for this stage of development and crucial for developing self-awareness and self-control.
You will find that daily tasks now take longer – getting dressed, getting into the car, tidying up, etc. If we allow for more time to complete daily tasks, our toddler will have more chances to make some choices, be heard and express their emotions.
Often your toddler just needs to let you know he is angry about what is happening, and once he has done that, he will be more willing to cooperate.
As a personal example – It was time to go outside into the cold and rainy weather, the toddler wanted to wear sandals. I explained calmly that it was cold and wet outside and her feet would be cold in sandals. I told her that in cold and wet weather we wear boots. She then proceeded to cry, and I let her. I didn’t ask her to stop, I didn’t force her boots on, I didn’t tell her we had to go right now. I just waited and acknowledged her feelings. Within a couple of minutes her tears had stopped. I asked her, “are you ready to put your boots on?” She nodded yes and we then proceeded to put her boots on together and head outside to play! (note: it doesn’t always go this smoothly, of course! But trying these strategies can certainly help some of the time, if not more often ♥)
Our days can be busy and demanding, and we don’t always have time. Do your best to schedule those extra few minutes in to each task and you will notice a difference! Also consider, what is more important right now, being on time for dinner with my family, or helping my toddler through this difficult time? The majority of people will not be upset by your tardiness!
Remember each child is unique, each child deserves to be heard and understood, even when they are angry. As adults we accept our wide range of emotions and have strategies for dealing with them. Toddlers have all of the same emotions we do, but they are still learning how to cope with them. Helping your child identify their emotions and supporting them through turbulent times, will develop their self-awareness and self-control, making it easier for them to handle big emotions in the future.
It’s not always easy, and sometimes all the strategies in the world won’t work that day. But don’t give up! Some days will be harder than others, some days will be wonderful! Hang in there and know you are doing the best for your child.
Each family, parent and child is different. Try different strategies out and see what works for you. Trust your instincts and trust your wisdom. You are the expert of your own child. No one knows them better than you! ♥