1. TODDLERS ARE DOING THE BEST THEY CAN WITH THE SKILLS THEY HAVE
Prior to the age of three, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is notably immature. This area of the brain is important for regulating emotions, controlling impulses, and solving problems. In this and myriad others ways, children are not tiny adults. They can’t reason like adults and they can’t make educated, calculated decisions like adults. No amount of punishment will speed up the process of brain development. Given that toddlers have limited skills, we can give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re doing the best they can in a given situation, and it’s with our coaching and guidance that they will acquire new skills. As Dr. Shefali Tsabary explains, “"we help [our children] most not when we try to banish their emotions, but when we equip them to navigate such emotions.”
2. MELTDOWNS REQUIRE EMPATHY, NOT PUNISHMENT
Tantrums aren’t necessarily pleasant, but they are inevitable. Toddlers are continuously learning what to do with overwhelming emotions in situations where they have very little control. This morning my son and I met some close friends at the park. My son wanted to swing, but our friends reached the swings first, and he quickly realized he would need to wait his turn. He became very upset because he didn’t know how long he would need to wait, and he had no control over when he could swing. He threw himself to the ground and began to wail. Something seemingly trivial felt very upsetting to him, and he expressed strong feelings about his predicament. Treating him punitively or ignoring him would have only escalated the situation and ruined our morning at the park before it had even begun. Besides, expecting him to react with skills far beyond his years is unfair. Instead, I validated his frustration, empathized with him, and when he calmed down I suggested ways we could pass the time until his turn on the swing. As L.R. Knost reminds us, “...caring about the little things that matter to little people creates big connections.”
3. TODDLERS DON’T MANIPULATE
There seems to be a common misconception that small children are devious. The fact is, toddlers don’t manipulate, they communicate. When we witness a behavior we might view as manipulation, it might help us to stop and ask, “what is my child attempting to communicate?” It could be an unmet need for connection or an attempt to test our boundaries. This doesn’t mean giving in to the demands for extra tv or a cupcake before dinner. Rather, empathize with your child’s inherent lack of power and give him reasonable options, “You love that show don’t you? You can watch it again tomorrow. Right now, we can read a book or you can play in your sandbox.” Providing empathic limits consistently will be more effective than doling out arbitrary punishments.
4. THE BEST SOLUTION FOR AN ATTENTION SEEKING TODDLERS IS TO GIVE THEM THE ATTENTION THEY CRAVE
We’ve all heard the parenting advice to ignore attention-seeking behavior. This always struck me as a little odd. When we ignore our children’s attempts to connect with us, the need doesn’t go away. Our children simply learn we aren’t going to give them what they need. Children are hard-wired to crave connection with their parents. When they don’t feel connected, they will reach out the only way they know how to get our attention. The best solution is to take the time to connect in a way that feels meaningful for the child. Spend fifteen minutes cuddling, playing, or reading books. When your child’s need for attention has been fulfilled, the behaviors we’ve all been told to ignore will likely naturally decrease.
Keeping our expectations of our toddlers realistic will help us to see their most challenging behaviors as an opportunity to offer support and emotion coaching. Through these strategies we can raise resilient, emotionally intelligent children who feel secure in our unconditional love.