Jill, as a mother of two and a psychologist specializing in 0 to 8 years old, you are uniquely qualified to give your opinion on toddler matters. In your personal and professional experience, what is the most difficult aspect of parenting a toddler?
Perhaps the most difficult part of toddler parenting is keeping your own emotions in check. It’s so easy to become frustrated with a toddler who wants to do more and say more than they are capable of developmentally, and losing your cool will only fuel a tantrum.
Toddlers are coming into a newfound sense of themselves as differentiated from their parents. In this crucial phase of development, toddlers are navigating their emerging autonomy while needing the security of their relationship with their parents. When toddlers come up against their own limits and the limits of their parents, frustration and disappointment can be overwhelming and seem very out of proportion to the situation. While this sometimes intense phase can feel like a train gone off the rails, your toddler is tackling essential and normal developmental tasks.
As a mother of twins, I have certainly fallen into the traps of a frustrated parent. One of my twins has the temperament of what we commonly call an “easy baby”, and even as a toddler this child’s feelings didn't lead to an extended loss of control. He easily accepted the comfort and assistance I offered, the ups and the downs weren’t so extreme, and all of my professional and personal parenting strategies worked. These interactions were gratifying and rewarding.
With my other twin, the same strategies didn’t result in the same outcomes. This twin, constitutionally, came into the world much more fiery and intense. It gave me the opportunity to feel the humility of learning to navigate that relationship and our fit.
All children bring their different and unique selves, and self-blame is such an easy trap to fall into as a parent. When you compare yourself to others, it's impossible to win. As a professional, observing the number of children I have in my career, I can assure you that there is so much variation in what babies and toddlers bring to the relationship. It’s about meeting your children where they’re at and knowing that they’re all going to be different, and what you need to do to meet the specific needs of your child and your relationship with them may look different than how another parent learns to be best respond to their unique child.
Ah yes, parental judgment, my favorite aspect of the job. That’s such a brutal one, because you can be judged by others, sure, but the judgment you place on yourself follows you home.
Exactly! I believe so strongly in compassion for ourselves. We are all going to be thrown by what our children present us, so it’s about having compassion when we fail over and over again. "Success" is weathering the storm as you show up in the best way that you can. It’s about striving towards how we want to be in our best selves as a parent, to each unique child. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t want to reach out for help to learn more effective ways to parent and to manage your own triggers that come up, but be easy on yourself in your self-judgment as you strive to learn more about your child and yourself as a parent.
The act of parenting is your opportunity to learn who you are in this evolving role and even to revisit your earlier history from a different perspective. Your worth as a parent is not dependent on what others think; know that kids are different, and it’s very easy for others to judge what they haven’t personally experienced.
Remember that your role as a toddler’s parent is to do your best to assist your child to calm down, to manage their big, irrational feelings and eventually those experiences of help in managing their feelings will result in the child developing the capacity to soothe themselves. As a part of healthy development, toddlers do need to push their emotions and your limits to the very edge sometimes, and just being present to help them calm down is doing the necessary work.
When dealing with a tantrumming child, remember that the tantrum will end, and that your value as a parent is not determined by whether or not your child throws a tantrum and for how long. You can neither reason with your child toddler about their upset, nor force the tantrum to end. No matter how “perfect” you are as a parent, your toddler will still have tantrums; stopping them isn’t the goal, staying emotionally connected with them through their ups and downs, while calming yourself, is. In fact, tantrums are normal and important work for toddlers.
Important life lessons about emotions and relationships come out of a tantrum:
- Big feelings are survivable;
- Feelings shift and change;
- Their parent is still there, a real separate person who didn’t fall apart or retaliate.
- Relationships can recover from hardship, their parent still loves them.
Know that after the toddler years, your child will have more capacity for reason, for being rational and for being socially and emotionally available in a different way. This phase does not last forever.
We all make “mistakes,” we all overreact at one time or another. Always remember that there is power in repairing the relationship with your child when you haven’t succeeded the first time (or the 10th time); it teaches your child that big emotions are survivable and that the love remains intact even when we have a disruption in our connection.
Acknowledging that every family is unique, what are some common ways you observe parents contributing to the sometimes brutal frustration of toddlerdom?
Trying to control the toddler’s behavior in order to manage your own emotions.
When your emotional state is dependent on how the child is behaving, that is often how power struggles begin. If you feel the emotional pressure building inside of you because of what your toddler is doing, it’s easy to become more insistent and controlling of your toddler in an effort to shift your own feelings and reactivity. When you are feeling upset, frustrated, saddened or angry, notice your reaction, take care of it separately, independent of what the toddler does.
Taking responsibility to manage your own feelings and not take your child’s oppositionality personally is a primary part of parenting during this period, especially because toddlers have embraced the experience of saying the word “no” as a way to experience their newly emerging personhood, as an individual separate from other people, testing out how their world and relationships work and hoping to find it predictable. While it may be greatly frustrating for you, your toddler is doing something utterly necessary for their growth as a human being, and it has nothing to do with good or bad behavior. And it has nothing to do with disrespect.
In the December 2015 newsletter you explained that “time-out” is counterproductive for most children. Can you please explain briefly what time-out does to the child mind at 18 months to 4 years of age?
Thinking of your child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment as the answer. Alternatively, thinking of your child as struggling to manage something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.
Even if we were to consider the merits of time-out as a productive form of discipline, it would not ever be valuable for a child younger than 3.5 because the parts of their brain that are necessary to make any use of something like that are not yet developed. A toddler is not yet able to go sit and think about what they did, that is not part of their capability and is not be part of the experience of being a toddler.
In general, connection with their important adults is the primary thing that helps toddlers calm down. Being forced to separate from their parents and to be alone can have the opposite effect, children become even more distressed and dysregulated.
So, in addition to whatever the original disappointment or frustration was, they now have to manage the disruption in the emotional relationship with the parent. Consequently, they can become so overwhelmed with that disruption in the relationship, that the likelihood of learning from the experience decreases dramatically. Now they are distressed by being isolated, but they are not aware of the cause.
Are you saying that toddlers are not yet capable of understanding consequence?
Often parents will designate consequences that have no relationship to what was going on with the child. The closer the consequences are to what actually happened, what we might call “natural” consequences, the more likely a child will make a connection between the consequence and the behavior. Then, the child doesn’t view the consequence as punishment, but part of a natural sequence of events spurred by the problematic behavior. The child then learns that there are rules, and that they can expect that the rules will be upheld, as opposed to learning that they are “bad”.
For example, your child is throwing a shoe in the house, and this is against your house rules. Firstly, say a few times, “We don’t throw shoes in the house because they are hard and can break something.” Then offer the toddler an acceptable object to throw (i.e. a little foam ball or a small stuffed animal), and simply say, “The shoe is going away”, and take the shoe away. Do not allow the shoe to be part of the equation any longer, as opposed to saying, “Now go on timeout!” or “No dessert tonight!” which is entirely unrelated in time and in associative connection to what actually happened. The timeout or the withheld dessert are independent of throwing the shoe, and this type of punishment undermines the learning of why the shoe was taken away because the consequence is not meaningful to the toddler mind.
Your child’s job is to be a scientist in the world--they need to push limits in order to understand the boundaries of the world. They will test the hypothesis that things will or won’t respond as they expect over and over again and this includes testing their social relationships. This is how the child learns that they are secure, that their relationships are lasting and strong. They are going to push and push and push against the limit in order to understand what the world is, and that it won’t be destroyed, and that they won’t be destroyed, . They will actually feel safer after pushing a limit and having it enforced in a way that is meaningful to the toddler mind.
It would be tremendously helpful to have some toddler parenting guidelines both for self-management and for child-management, please give us a shortlist of parenting tips.
I know it’s popular to publish clear “Do’s and Don’ts” on parenting, but I so strongly believe in compassion for ourselves, that I have a problem with this style of education. Here are some basic guidelines to help you through the toddler years; let’s call them “Try to’s” and “Try not to’s:”
- Find your calm. Your own managing of your own feelings in the moment is the number one thing that is going to be helpful. When you have stress hormones coursing through you, it has an effect on the stress hormones coursing through your child. Remember, you are needed as the secure base that anchors your child’s world, and if you collapse or get angry or hurtful back, your child’s anxiety—even devastation--about the rupture between you intensifies their distress and out of control behavior.
- Validate your child’s feelings. Even when we’re ignoring the behavior, we don’t ignore the child. We speak to the distress, “You really wanted the purple cup, and it’s not here, it’s so disappointing.”
- Give your child the words to express what they’re feeling. “I think you’re feeling really mad and you can say ‘I’m mad.’” That’s how they are going to learn to express themselves through words instead of through their bodies.
- Give your child reasonable choices. “The purple spoon isn’t here, so would you like the red spoon or the yellow spoon?”
- Offer physical comfort. The child may not be able to verbally express that they need comfort in the form of affection.
- Express reassurance. After the tantrum, reassure your child that you love them, that the relationship will be ok.
Try not to…
- Think of your toddler’s tantrum as misbehavior or disrespect.
- Reason or argue with your toddler. Logic will not work, a toddler is not capable of logical reasoning, even if they are verbal, so we often forget this and then feel manipulated, or compelled to negotiate.
- Give your child false choices: “Would you like to use the red spoon or go buy the purple spoon”, if you don’t intend to fulfill the promise.
- Punish your toddler for their out of control feelings. Try not to yell, scream or scold the child. Don’t put them by themselves and expect them to manage their distress on their own. Try to remain connected to your toddler through the tantrum: they are needing your support while they navigate their own intense feelings.
**Exception: If your own stress leads you to feel like you are no longer effective in the interaction with your child, if you aren’t able to calm down by remaining with your child or if you feel you might harm your child, put your child in a safe place, tell your child that you are going to calm down and that you’re going to come back,, then go take of yourself so you can come back and be more helpful to your child.
- Don’t collapse or retaliate. Don’t be so scared of the toddler’s feelings or behavior that you are willing to do anything to appease them, that shows the child that their feelings are more powerful than anything else, more powerful than you are. Don’t retaliate by getting angry and returning their aggressive or destructive behavior. For example, by hitting them if they hit you, or an older children will often say “I don’t love you” or “I hate you” and it is only destructive to say it back to them.
MEET JILL SULKA
Jill Sulka, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who specializes in infant and early childhood mental health. She provides parent consultation, infant-parent and child-parent psychotherapy, and child play therapy in her office and at home, depending on the needs of the family. Dr. Sulka has been providing psychological services for 20 years, and has directed several programs for parents and their children birth to 8 years old. She believes that every child and parent deserve the opportunity to develop a relationship together that best supports that child’s potential to grow well and love well. Jill regularly contributes to the Glow newsletter and her articles can be found in the Parenting section of our Resources page. She can be reached at (510) 326-2002 and firstname.lastname@example.org.