Ok, that title was meant as a joke. But only a little bit.
If you have a toddler who is going through a phase of testing behavior and frequent tantrums, it’s not so funny. It can feel desperate, impossible, and disastrous.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned from making it through to the “other side” of this phase of parenting a strong-willed, spirited toddler.
1. Stay Calm
Stay calm? Ha! Easier said than done, right? I know. I mean, I really know. It’s so hard. Toddlers seem hardwired to observe what sets us off and then push that button over and over, right? That’s why they call it testing. They are literally testing to see if their behavior will elicit the same response from you each time.
If you can’t respond in a calm, gentle manner, it’s better to take a time out for yourself. Yes, even if that means that you both have to cry in separate rooms. I learned this the hard way. Better I deal with my anger and frustration and let my child spend a few minutes alone than allow pent up frustration to result in a less than desirable outburst on my part.
2. Get Down to Their Level
It’s amazing how crouching down to a child’s eye level can change the dynamic of a tough conversation or meltdown. Look them in the eye and address the misbehavior, and give them an alternative as a distraction. For example: “I won’t let you throw that toy across the room. Would you like to go outside and throw a ball to get some energy out?!”
3. Never Ask Why
Too often, when I toddler is getting geared up for a melt-down, they have no idea why.
“Why would you hit your sister like that?!” may seem like a reasonable question for an adult, but for a toddler, it’s like asking why the sky is blue. A better response might be, “I won’t let you hit your sister. Did you want to get my attention?” or “I won’t let you hit your sister. Are you feeling angry? Can you tell me what is making you angry?” And then listen.
4. Identify the Root Cause
At some point last year, I was completely at my wit’s end with my toddler. We were having daily battles that ended with both of us in tears. I wanted so badly to understand why he was behaving this way, but I was so much “in the thick of it” that I couldn’t stop to analyze the situation with any clarity.
Looking back on it, I can see that it was an incredibly stressful time in our household; of course our bright, intuitive 3 year old was picking up on the tension. He was looking for consistent, reassuring reactions from me and wasn’t getting them, since I was so preoccupied with the emotional energy I was pouring into other things. Once these things resolved themselves and our entire household was more peaceful, the testing behavior diminished drastically.
The lesson here is not to underestimate how much outside stresses affect small children. They are incredibly intuitive, and when they sense stress, they need to be reassured by their parents that all is right with their world.
5. In Calm Moments, Help Them Name Their Feelings
Toddlers are often frustrated because they have such big feelings and their limited vocabularies don’t have enough words to express them! Frustrated, Disappointed, Sad, Tired, Angry, Too-Silly are a good start. Being able to put a word to a feeling can take away a lot of it’s power for a small child and help him regain control.
6. Practice Methods for Calming Down
Again, when they are happy and calm, talk about some ways to start feeling better if they’re upset. Show them how to take nice deep belly breaths, sing a sweet little song, have a sip of water, or make a silly face. (You’ll have to see what works for them- all kids are different!) Once they get the hang of it, you might be amazed at how they can do some of these things without any prompting from you.
7. Make Sure They’re Well-Rested
Did anything good ever come of an exhausted toddler? Enough said. Same goes for hunger.
8. Model Saying Sorry
I’m not proud of it, but while we were going through a particularly challenging time with our toddler, I often lost it. I yelled. I was desperate and angry and acted from those emotions. But each time — without fail — once I had calmed down, I sat down and said, “I’m sorry I yelled, buddy. I’m going to try not to do it again, ok?” Almost always he would respond, “I’m sorry, too, Mama.”
In this way, I was able to model both repentance and forgiveness. Being a parent doesn’t mean never acknowledging your mistakes to your kids. It’s ok to tell them you behaved in a way you know you shouldn’t have. It lets your kids know that it’s ok when they lose their cool sometimes, too, and it’s never too late to apologize and move on.
9. Give Yourself Some Grace
I can’t stress this enough. While it’s important to say sorry to your child when you lose your cool, it’s also important to forgive yourself. Feeling guilty about mistakes you make as a parent will only make it harder to go through a tough time with your child. If you say or do something you regret, apologize, try not to do it again, and move on. Treat yourself with the same gentleness that you want to give to your child.
Do you feel like it would take a miracle to get your child to stop having melt-downs and pushing your buttons?! Then pray for one! You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to pray a full rosary, but when you sense things “heating up,” pause for a moment, and simply say, “Holy Spirit, please guide my words and actions.” Or, “Mother Mary, help me to be patient and loving, giving my child what he/she needs in this moment.” This immediately puts me in a calmer, holier mindset, and we can move forward with the graces that even a simple, short prayer affords us.
Image Credit: David Castillo Dominici (freedigitalphotos.com)