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December 21, 2017
I won’t judge your toddler and their toddler tantrums if you won’t judge mine… deal?
That’s what I was thinking when my daughter threw herself onto the floor at the grocery store. She started wailing and went boneless when I attempted to pick her up and move her out of the way of shopping carts. She had been happy on the way to the store, happy when she started sipping on her green smoothie and then, wham… a hot mess of toddler tantrum the second I attempted to divert her attention away from the cookies (thank you so much Whole Foods for putting them right at her eye level).
I sighed, took inventory of the scene around me – a scene I know I have surveyed myself with the judging eyes of pre-motherhood -and formulated my response to my child. I let her have her moment and I didn’t act like a toddler back with yelling, nagging or giving into her request. Then I waited until she let her emotions roll over her like a huge wave. I started singing “ABC’s” and, fifteen seconds later, I had the more pleasant version of my 23-month old back, merrily singing “Twinkle Twinkle” at the top of her lungs, happy as a clam.
My child is, in polite terms, spirited. She will, when older, be confident and self-assured, I can tell. And, most of the time, she is a total delight. She is quick, she is engaging and she is, above all, hilarious. “Mommy, it’s complicated,” she told me with a smirk the other day. Okay…. well, I guess there’s no arguing that. But, if I didn’t have a consistent approach to responding to her behavior, she could easily turn into an uncontrolled terror and things would get more complicated for both of us.
I’m not alone. Every parent worries about toddler tantrums. First of all, their child turning into a full-on nightmare. Secondly, scarring their child in the process of trying to discipline him or her.
Before I had a daughter I gave a lot of advice about families creating a consistent and loving approach to toddler tantrums and problem behaviors. I knew it from the books. And I hoped it would work. Now that I am a parent myself, I realize how wise those behavior experts were. I also realize how difficult it is to put their advice into practice.
Here are the things I remind myself when I want to scream, “Stop acting like a two year old!!!”
Just like her speech is not as mature as mine, the parts of her brain responsible for emotional regulation and decision-making are not either. They are still developing. So, if I talk to her and expect her to act like a 30-year-old (or even an 8-year-old!), the odds of me getting through to her are pretty slim. Instead, I have to take her tantrums in stride and understand that the work I am doing with her will pay off somewhat now but even more in the future. She will still have tantrums for the next several years, at least. I can help to prevent some of them but not all of them. I can make sure she is fed and rested and that she has plenty of positive attention, but sometimes she will just “act her age.”
If I react to her emotional outbursts (by getting exasperated, raising my voice or whining back at her), both she and I will end up more upset. Also, it will teach her that she gets a lot of attention when she is misbehaving. This reinforces the negative behavior. Instead, I take a deep breath, say my, “She is only two” mantra in my head, and move on to responding calmly, allowing her to be the only one going wild. “Only one of us can be out of control for this to end well,” I tell myself, and that one of us is her.
I keep my directions and my responses short and sweet. For example, if we are crossing a road, I tell her beforehand, “We are coming to the road. You can hold my hand or I can carry you. “ She says, (of course), “Hold hands.” When, in the middle of the street, she tries to break free, I repeat my original statement. I then pick her up and carry her, even if she starts throwing a tantrum about it. There is no long explanation of how dangerous it is in the street or a lecture on why she is not being good because she didn’t follow directions. I just repeat, simply, “You didn’t hold my hand so mommy is carrying you,” and then I leave it.
It feels bad to have your child throw a fit, say, “Not you, mommy!” or not respond to your directions. Most parents take it too personally. Remember, you’re not dealing with a rational human being when you deal with a toddler. Their actions are not about you and are the result of their underdeveloped brains. When you consider it a personal affront, it makes it so you can’t think with an objective mind about a plan to respond to your child. Instead, you become angry, sad or (let’s face it, this one takes the cake most of the time) embarrassed. That makes thinking of a logical consequence for their actions much more difficult.
Being a parent is hard work. Sometimes, it feels like you should get a medal of honor for the heroic effort it takes to wrangle a toddler. Remember, soon this stage will be gone and, just like the newborn period, you’ll likely look back on it and think, “Well, it wasn’t SO bad.” Until then, focus on being consistent, on being logical and on being controlled as you approach your young child’s behavior. I’ll keep doing the same at my house.
Need more help with toddler tantrums? Check out our full toddler tantrum guide and the rest of our free resources here.
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