I’ve heard a wide range of parenting concerns, worries and questions over the years. Common themes arise again and again, in different forms but with similar challenges. This month, I’ll address something parents of toddlers are all familiar with: erratic behavior—you know, when your child suddenly starts acting like a monster that you cannot control.
I recently received this email from a frustrated and worried couple: “Our 4 year old son is a happy, talkative, sweet little boy. But, in the past two months he has become a surly, easily upset kid. He gets mad, screams, yells and makes outrageous demands including that one of us do everything for him in no time. He has changed… and we are missing the child he used to be and are not sure if we should be worried. Is something wrong? And how do we help him?”
When I questioned further, the parents agreed that yes, he still had his ‘sweet side’, but this other side of him appeared ‘out of the blue’ and was becoming intolerable. They worried that his personality had changed. I hear this often, parents worried that their child has an altered personality that is now their ‘true’ way of being.
These situations worry parents greatly and I understand why. No one wants to be around a whining, demanding child. And thinking this is who your child will be forevermore is a frightful proposition. After all, you don’t want the sassy, demanding little person to be a permanent fixture in your household.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
Let’s take a look at this behavior from your child’s point of view to help you better understand what is going on with her up and down moods and how best to handle them. Two things are happening at this stage of toddler development.
1) Your child’s growing independence means he has his own ideas and desires separate from yours. And guess what? He wants you to listen and go along with his desires. When our children discover that their own ideas and wishes of the moment are not necessarily in synch with mommy or daddy’s ideas, they can become frustrated. The seemingly smallest moment can trigger them. And when they realize their limited skills can’t accomplish their goals, from completing a puzzle to reaching the crackers on the shelf they can become even more enraged. Their heightened emotions easily turn into bossy, often unreasonable demands. Your child feels out of control and seeks to regain it by any means possible.
2) In addition, their brains are still new, under-developed and growing. The parts of their brain that will eventually be wired to handle and control emotions, think logically and act reasonably are developing gradually but slowly during the toddler years. The brain’s prefrontal cortex has a long way to go before it will be fully intact (until their early-20’s), so when your child becomes frustrated or emotionally charged in some way, he will show it (rather than handling it reasonably as we hope she will one day).
WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY: Don’t panic. Your child gets overwhelmed and needs you to stay steady. And I assure you it won’t last forever. Your child can still be the same lovely person, now blossoming in a new way.
I remember thinking at one point during my own toddler years that my son was becoming so obnoxious that he’d never have any friends. He was a mini-dictator at home. “I need this now!” “I don’t have to listen to you!” I forced myself to take a step back and remember how little he was, that he was the youngest of three children and that his behavior at home was likely much different from how he interacted with his friends or teachers at school.
Stay calm and keep your responses light. I know this can be hard, but when you respond in a reasonable manner, your child learns over time how to be reasonable, too. When our children yell or act irrationally, it is easy for us to take it personally and get pulled into the toddler vortex. Instead, do all you can to stay calm, recognizing their frustration for what it is, “I hear how badly you want to go outside. I wish we could right now. After lunch, we will.” Use a tone that conveys you truly understand and hear them (toddlers know when we are insincere). If you can’t meet their desire, that is okay. Genuinely recognizing their wants and needs is what’s most important.
Label emotions. You’ve likely heard me say this before, but it’s important to reiterate. Children learn to handle their emotions by having them validated. You do this every time you put a name to their feelings, “That is so, so frustrating! Puzzles are hard to do, how frustrating.” Naming the feeling won’t necessarily stop their frustration, but letting them know you understand what they’re feeling helps your child learn to handle the emotion better over time. Allowing and recognizing negative and hard feelings fosters their resilience.
Allow some control. Children feel safest when they know the grown ups are in control and yet, they want some for themselves. Find ways to give your toddler a sense of control and you will discover that their demands become less intense. During mealtimes, for example, let your child choose which cup to use- blue or red? Leaving the house? Ask your child which pair of shoes he wants to wear (out of 2, no more) and invite her to pack a bag with 1-2 toys of her choosing. Simple choices let your child feel in control while feeding their desire for independence at this age.
Finally, as I remind every parent, this phase won’t last forever. This was the mantra I used for myself during my own years of raising toddlers; and it helps with teenagers, too!
Have you made your own tricks for living with the toddler beast? I’d love to know what they are and how they’re improving your relationship with your child. Please connect and share them with me on Facebook or Twitter.
Looking for a preschool or day care? Check out my tips: How to pick a preschool: 9 qualities to help your child thrive.