I recently had a conversation with a mom of a two and a half year old who asked for advice about discipline and getting her son to cooperate at naptime. As I asked questions about the specifics of the nap routine and other details of her situation she made a comment that stuck with me. She said, “We’ve had a great few days, I’ve been in a really good space but today he started testing me again.”
What resonated with me was that she said that it had been a couple of good days because she had been in a good space. It seems that we often pin the label of a “good behavior” or “bad behavior” on our children when it may have much more to do with the glasses through which we are viewing their behavior. The deeper we dug down to the source of her son’s good days the more my friend admitted that it had more to do with her than with him.
TODDLERS ARE SUPPOSED TO CHALLENGE US
It’s pretty common for parents of toddlers to feel overwhelmed. Many parents describe feeling they are forever policing their little one and are constantly correcting behavior in an endless battle of the wills. Fortunately, this is normal and toddlers are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing! Not comforting? Well rest assured, it is a legitimate developmental stage and is a crucial stepping-stone for autonomy and for learning more advanced skills later on.
This phase of development (18 to 36 months) is known as the autonomy stage according to the Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. His book, Childhood and Society broke ground when it was published in 1963. This stage requires children to actively and physically explore the world (and your boundaries) in order to develop a strong sense of independence (‘No!’) and of ownership (‘Mine!’ ‘Me!’). According to Erikson, if children are shamed while learning these important new skills, they may doubt their capabilities and have poor self-esteem.
A big part of appreciating toddlers is having appropriate expectations for this age group.. I’ve found that focusing your attention on the actual skill your toddler is learning rather than on what you see as defiant behavior, can shift your experience in a more positive direction. For instance, when a two-year-old is insisting on ‘doing it herself’ despite her obvious need for assistance, she is actually practicing the critical skill of learning self care. It’s tempting to get frustrated with her stubbornness when you are just trying to get out the door, but it won’t be long before all that practice pays off. That insistent independent behavior will lead to incredible feats that will make your life much easier: dressing herself, toilet training, brushing her own teeth, and feeding herself, among other exciting milestones that are on their way. (I promise!)
SET THEM UP FOR SUCCESS
Have you ever noticed that when a two-year-old gets excited he feels it in his whole body? He squeals, jumps around, waves his arms. Toddlers do pretty much everything with their whole bodies; they experience life on a physical and emotional level rather than a cerebral one, unlike older children.
Gentle physical guidance is the way. The most effective way to communicate with a toddler is by guiding in a gentle but physical way. Have you noticed that an 18-month-old struggles to follow your verbal instructions to put the toys back in the box, but is able to understand your direction better when you hold her hand and demonstrate what you want her to do. This age group needs lots of connection with you and lots of physical activities. Toddlers respond very well to hands-on activities that satisfy their strong need to learn by touch, feel, sight, taste and smell.
Anticipation is the key to sidestepping the many potential power struggles with toddlers. Pay attention to the most frequent ‘fights’ and think about how to prevent them. For example, if your child loves to climb on the couch and jump off the back, find an alternative such as piling the couch cushions on the floor to create a makeshift jumping platform that has a soft landing and is not dangerous. Child proofing your house and creating safe spaces to play both help to avoid conflicts.
Pick your battles. It’s completely normal toddler behavior to test limits so there will inevitably be some minor disagreements during any day. A good way to avoid a full-blown power struggle is to be specific about what you want your child to do rather than what you want him not to do. For example, instead of pointing out what you are unhappy about, “I told you not to jump on the couch!” you could suggest, “Why don’t we pull the cushions off the couch and jump on them on the ground instead? Here, I’ll help you.”
Create projects that let them use their hands. Toddlers typically need a lot of outdoor physical activity so when you can’t be outside its useful to find other ways to keep their minds engaged and their bodies stimulated. Basic art projects, puzzles, cooking and baking, art projects and pretend play are all ways that toddlers learn important skills.
SET YOU UP FOR SUCCESS
So how can we keep the joy alive in our everyday lives? What I suggest to other parents of toddlers has worked for me. At the end of each day, think of three to five joys you’ve experienced with your toddler that day. Do this for 40 days. It could be something small like getting her shoes on without protest (or perhaps that’s considered a big one this week), maybe it was a moment you both shared during bath time, or something funny he said that day. It could be anything; the point is merely to take note of the special moments we experience all day long that are often overshadowed by the tougher ones.
A great way to open the space for more of those special moments is simply being affectionate with your little one. Cuddling can give both you and your toddler the fuel to carry on with the day and also sets the stage for more positive interactions.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Lastly, a good way to help keep us in that patient, loving place with our children is to have some time for ourselves. Since we all know that time can be tough to get, I suggest reassessing what qualifies as “me time.” If it traditionally meant getting a massage or an afternoon off, that may not be in the cards on a daily basis right now. Instead, think about savoring the little moments that are available everyday and making those count. Your ritual cup of tea or coffee in the morning or perhaps a quiet moment in the car listening to music if your little one happens to fall asleep—these all count.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the battle of the wills but pay attention to the joys and you may be surprised how many you find and how you can change your mood.