Tantrums, defiance, moddiness ... it's all part of being a toddler. He just needs guidance from you.
When the dog steals a cookie from 2-year-old Ezra, he hits the dog and wails. Toddler life is all trial and error, and on difficult days it feels like mostly error. Toddlers hit, bite, resist and throw fits. How parents respond to this behavior and anticipate these undesirable actions determines the foundation of a child’s emotional intelligence and it will carry them through a lifetime.
Ezra’s immediate and extreme response is about emotional regulation. Sharon James, senior parent coach at Beech Acres Parenting Center explains, “Different parts of your brain form at different times of your life and the parts that help us pause before we react to something have not developed yet in toddlers.” This makes trying to rationalize with them futile.
This doesn’t mean parents have to wait until the developmental storm passes. It means parents should create the learning space so the child begins to understand what’s happening. Labeling feelings helps them begin to cope. Take Ezra and his cookie-stealing dog. Ezra’s parent should tell him, “You’re mad so you hit the dog.” James says, “You don’t say it in a way that’s derogatory or judgmental but you’re very clear about the action.” You’re labeling the emotion and connecting it to the action. The next step is to correct the behavior by saying, “We don’t hit.” James is quick to stress, “Be careful that it’s NOT something you do in the house because that can be confusing.”
The message has to be consistent and clear. “A parent can’t hit their child and then say we don’t hit,” she explains. The same goes for yelling or any other undesirable behavior.
James cautions to keep expectations realistic. She says, “In that moment, you may not be able to get the child’s attention beyond stopping the behavior.” In the moment, you’re protecting them and you’re protecting the other person (or dog) while you help them label what is happening. “You’re angry, that’s why you hit, we do not hit in this house.”
April Kandil, LPCC-S, Director of Campus Based Programs for The Children’s Home of Cincinnati says, “It’s important to understand how much these foundations are helping develop a child’s emotional intelligence.” We talk about emotional intelligence as adults and Kandil says, “It’s not that it doesn’t exist in a child, it’s just often stifled during those early years or not validated.”
MODEL DESIRED BEHAVIOR
Let’s keep following Ezra and his cookie. Once things calm down, a parent should get down on the floor with their child and model a desirable strategy. Explain in simple language, “The dog wants my cookie. The dog likes cookies, just like we like cookies. The dog doesn’t know that taking your cookie is bad. How can we help the dog get her own cookie?”
Next time, Ezra might ask for the dog to get a cookie of her own or he may tell the dog, “No. Sit!” because he’s been taught those options. Then, parents can celebrate his success. “Good job, Ezra. I like how you were kind to the dog. We love our doggie.” James says, “Instead of being mad and frustrated and punishing, you want to celebrate his successes.” A child will want to keep behaving in a way that pleases his parents, and that reshapes their behavior.
Sharon James says the number one complaint she hears from parents of younger kids is “How can I get my child to listen?” However, James explains that this behavior is a little more difficult because it’s not about the child not listening, it’s about what the parent is trying to make happen in that moment.
She says, “You have to do a little bit of soul searching and figure out what it is in that moment that you need the child to hear.”
Kandil agrees. “Understand what your child needs in order to prepare for the next step. If it’s a routine that happens everyday, it’s about setting up the expectation at an age-appropriate developmental level.” Know your child’s needs and Kandil stresses, “If you’re going to start something, make sure you have time to finish it.”
Two-year-old Amy gets upset just by her mom putting on her shoes. Amy cries, “No bye-byes!” Even if they are leaving to pick up her brother from school just like every other day. Amy needs transition cues. Kandil says, “If it’s an activity that they don’t have any choice in, make sure you spend the time helping them transition.” James recommends making tasks playful when you can. It helps reduce defiance. If it’s time to clean up, for example, make it into a race: “How fast can you get your toys in the basket?” Then when they’re done say “Good for you, you picked up your toys.” This way, it’s not just a battle of wills.
Children also need to know that being defiant has consequences. The bottom line is they do need to pick up their toys. James says, “Let them know it’s their choice and something happens if they don’t get it done. It doesn’t have to be a big deal but they have to ‘get’ that it’s their choice to not do it.”
Kandil says when rewarding positive behavior, “Focus on relationship-based rewards.” Parents don’t have to buy toys or give candy and stickers all the time. They can take a walk with a child. Time and attention from someone who loves them is the best kind of reward.
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY, IT’S HOW YOU SAY IT
How you frame things matter. James says instead of saying, “If you don’t pick up your toys then you can’t watch your TV show,” say, “When you pick up your toys, you get to watch your favorite show, I wonder what they’re going to do today?” Focus on the whatever the fun thing is that they get to do and minimize the conversation about what task you’re trying to get them to finish.
Not everything can be a game and it’s OK to say “no” to something that’s inappropriate but it’s equally important to follow that up with options. If all a kid hears is “no” they don’t know what else to do. “A child is brand new to life,” says James, “so when they hear ‘no’ they know that what happened wasn’t OK, but they don’t know what to do instead.”
Kandil agrees. “Tell them what to do and not just what not to do. Give direction at an age appropriate level and set realistic expectations.” James explains, “We’re helping them build coping skills from the moment they come into the world.” She recommends, “Give kids an opportunity to discover coping skills that work for them because every child is different.”
Use their strengths to help them discover solutions and then you get to be a champion. James cautions, “Just remember it might not go well the first time. They will fumble but if you’re encouraging, they will keep trying.”
GET AHEAD OF MELTDOWNS
Three-year-old Theo bangs his head on the tile floor when he is overtired and called to task. His mom feels he keeps doing it because it gets such a strong, immediate reaction. Kandil says this is when replacement behavior for what has become a release for Theo can help.
If a parent knows their child melts down when they are hungry or tired, they should anticipate and prepare for those trouble spots. James says, “You have to know your child and his triggers.”
Toddlers are easy to distract at this age. Engage the child and, James says, “Be aware that as your emotional temperature rises, theirs will as well.” Staying calm is really important because parents need to model self regulation. If parents fly off the handle or react strongly to a certain behavior, then they can’t tell the child to stay calm.
The grocery store is a common trigger. Everyone has seen a child melt down over an item they couldn’t have. Kandil says it helps to give kids limited control.
“Create opportunities for them to choose. Let them pick the type of pasta, for example.” Does it really matter if you get corkscrew pasta or shells? Let the child choose and they feel like they are involved.
Kandil says, “Tantrums are about seeking attention and/or getting needs met. What we want to do is show kids that they don’t have to act out in order to get that attention.”