One of the greatest challenges of having a toddler is setting limits and expectations, and maintaining consistency in the face of behavior like public tantrums and in-your-face defiance. A couple weeks after Jim turned 3-years-old, it’s like a door was opened and out flowed a whole new level of control seeking tactics. They don’t refer to this age as a threenager for nothing.
I’ve experienced some of my least proud parenting moments in the last few months, especially with a baby in my arms 24/7. In my struggle to find ways to handle these changes, I found a free webinar about stopping yelling/nagging (as my own coping skills literally exploded out of my mouth) through Amy McCready of Positive Parenting Solutions (I am not associated with her site at all, merely follow her on Facebook). I don’t in any way want to take people away from hearing her speak directly, but I will share my two biggest take aways from her webinar (well it’s really one but it covers two needs for every child):
Kids basically have two buckets that they are trying to fill: attention and control. Adults have the same desires but have the experience to reign in their needs. In any given day, kids will seek your undivided attention and control of their world. If your child doesn’t get enough of either of them, hello here come aaaaaaallll the feelings: anger, disappointment, sadness, you name it. However, this does not mean you have to give all your attention and give up all control! What I do is try to find a balance that works for everyone.
Giving your child attention doesn’t always mean a full hour of play, it can merely be a moment of hugging, speaking with eye contact, praising an effort or any other way to acknowledge you are there, you see them and you want to be with them.
I also give my son points of longer, concentrated attention throughout the day. When my son asks me to play or interact, I decide (based on my tasks for the day) to go with him or tell him “I hear that you want to play, but mama is busy right now doing <blank>. I can play as soon as I’m done in <blank> minutes.” I acknowledge what he wants, state why I’m not available and then a timeframe for when I can play.
Now, this doesn’t always work. But the more I am consistent and follow through on my promise, he is coming to accept when I’m not available (and is nearly giddy when I’m available right away!). We all also know that if you say 15 minutes, your child may be back in 2 minutes to ask if you are done. My tactic is to call out “10 minutes to play time” then “5 minutes to play time” to stop some of the interruptions. When he does come to see if I’m done, I will also make sure to call out how frustrating it must be to wait and how waiting can be hard, then suggest things he can do while he waits.
It’s truly an amazing time in parenthood when your child will actively seek your love and attention. Each and every one of us has been told over and over to cherish these early days of their lives. In theory this is great advice, but there is just no way to give 100% of your attention to your child every day. Sure, maybe the dishes or laundry can wait until later, but then “later” comes and you still have to do it (while your child is awake or asleep is up to you and your schedule). You know your child better than anyone else and can gage how often he or she needs you to stop what you are doing to play. Who knows, maybe you both will have fun!
Although your child doesn’t know it, there are only 3 things he or she 100% controls: sleeping, eating and pooping/peeing (yes we call them by name in our house). Parents have no way to force our kids to do any of them. We can coax, we can bribe, we can beg, but ultimately it’s up to your child.
When it comes to everything else, we are in control (even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes). To fulfill my son’s need for control I try to offer him choices: I ask if he wants to eat blueberries or strawberries, play upstairs or downstairs, blue or red cup, leave the house in 5 or 10 minutes (offering only two choices but fully in his power which to choose, but both choices still reach the same goal – like eat some fruit or leave the house). When my son is given these small choices throughout the day, he tends to be more content and less control hungry (though it doesn’t always fill that need and there are the dreaded tantrums). Find big and small ways for your child to discover moments when he or she can gain control without them acting out for what they need.
The Inevitable Conflict
Preschool-age kids lack the ability to self-regulate their emotions, meaning, for example, if a child gets angry he or she doesn’t know how to stop being angry. Their strong emotions send them straight into fight of flight mode and almost nothing you do can help since trying to rationalize with someone still in fight or flight mode is near impossible (meaning your words will go in one ear and out the other). Sticking to a basic routine may dramatically help your child through this challenging time by providing some predictability to their lives.
In the middle of a tantrum or meltdown, all you can do to help is be there to make sure they are safe and know you are there to support them as their emotions rage through their little bodies and minds. My son will scream, yell, throw things, throw himself on the floor, hit, anything to get his emotions out (usually what gets the largest reaction from me and his dad). No amount of talking or hugging is going to stop the avalanche (as a matter of fact he will yell “no” to anything and everything we suggest).
Once the tantrum has run it’s course, try to take the time to acknowledge the emotions as completely normal! How you discuss the meltdown with your child will be determined by his or her comprehension of emotions in general and knowledge of words (meaning either what you say or what he or she is capable of saying). I suggest searching for ways to speak to your child that match both your own philosophies and your child’s developmental age and abilities.
I found this article (“10 Ways Kids Appear To Be Misbehaving When They Really Aren’t”) to be a short snapshot into the mind of your child. Empathy is a great tool to use to help you and your toddler, though I know from experience how ineffectual empathy can be amidst a meltdown that just won’t end no matter what you try. Keep researching and find positive ways to handle tantrums for yourself and your child.
Most of all, find mom or dad friends you can call on to talk things through. Times will get tough and your going to lose your cool (I know I do!). Together, we can all help see each other through this challenging but necessary step in our children’s lives. And remember, this is all temporary. This too shall pass. And getting through the tough moments make those wonderful, heart filling times so much sweeter.