Let me start off with saying that I am NOT a perfect parent; not even close. I’m almost certain that you’d find a picture of me wrangling a toddler next to the definition of a “meh parent” if such a phrase was found in the dictionary. From my many conversations with other moms, it seems that most of us feel this way, especially when it comes to the way we handle ourselves and emotions when our children act out.
Every age group has its fair share of behavioral issues, but today I’m focusing on toddlers. It’s a special kind of frustration when working with and understanding the wants and motives behind their meltdowns, mostly stemming from the lack in their ability to communicate effectively. (“You’re not speaking English!?! What do you want!?!”). Unlike being able to sit your older children and adolescents down and have a chat, what do you do in the wake of a tantrum filled toddler?
From my experience, my instinct is to want to scream and cry and wallow like my child. I’m tired and trying to run a household and now she’s exploding about God knows what! And when I finally feel the calm take over and go to figure it out, it always end with her pointing vaguely into the direction of the thing she wanted but couldn’t get. Incident after incident of this kind makes it increasingly hard to differentiate between when your toddler is having a fit or is genuinely upset. When that distinction becomes blurred, we begin to lash out and discipline our toddlers when it’s unnecessary and it escalates a situation where it shouldn’t have been.
First things first is to find the patterns in your children’s behavior. What does a hurt scream or cry sound like? What does a “give me what I want” scream or cry sound like? And what do I do when she or he wants something they can’t have and the screaming or crying escalates? To answer the first two, that’s entirely unique to your children and it takes some patience and understanding over time to know which is which. The last question is a little more tricky and where the idea of “losing the battle, but winning the war” comes into play. of course, like most parents, we want to teach our child that they can’t cry for what they want and when/if that can’t have it. We also want to teach them the concept of actions producing consequences, but when is the right time to implement our wisdom and when is it time to cut our losses as to not fraction the fragile relationship between us and our children?
As I’m writing this, my toddler is having a meltdown, why? Because she can’t quite get her shoe on her foot. I can feel my heart rate racing and my breathing picking up as she continues her tantrum, but this isn’t a battle worth fighting. Why should I punish her for expressing her emotions and frustrations? What I can do, however is giver her small encouragements and remind her that she can do it, because she’s done it before and I know she’ll do it again. I can remind her that staying calm will help her more than I or her father can in this situation. And as I’m finishing this, she managed to get them on (only to take them right back off to move on to another quest she gave herself.) Instead of mentally exhausting myself from the incident, I encouraged her to meet her goal and let her work it on her own.
Now what if it was her having tantrum because she pointed at the candy from Halloween and Dad gave her a solid no? Of course it’s time to roll up the wisdom sleeves! Personally, I like to start with a choice (“Are you hungry? Because if that’s the case then you can have this banana,if not you need to go into the playroom and play in there.”) If they continue to scream and fight I usually give them an ultimatum (“You can go into the playroom now or I can put you on timeout.”) and follow through with it if they don’t listen within a countdown, usually from 5 for our household. Say it ended with a timeout (1 minute, per year is recommended) its good to console them and explain to them in a brief manner as to why that happened and then offer them something to focus on, like their favorite stuffed animal.
Now, I can admit that I don’t always follow my path to disciplinary success and sometimes I end up yelling out of frustration. It feels like a wonderful pressure release when I finally just let it out, but when it’s said and done I feel the pang of guilt drop into my stomach and reflect on just how damaging to the relationship between me and her that moment could’ve been. What I’ve been learning, is in those moments it’s best to just walk away for a bit and let them scream and cry. I go into my room for a small bit, scream into a pillow and calm my breathing before returning to the scene and for the most part it gives me the clear head I need to handle the situation like an adult should handle a toddler.
When I’m at my worst, however, I may just let the situation go entirely. I’ll pick her up and put something shiny in front of her to distract her from the want she couldn’t have, because I know that acting out when I’m not at my mental best will leave lasting damages between us, which isn’t worth it, at least in my humble opinion. My final thoughts on this is when your toddler is acting out, especially when its happening as a constant at a point in the day, go down your mommy checklist and make sure that they are fed, changed, and well rested. For most of their meltdowns, that’s all it takes.