Have you ever had one of those days when you're out in a public place and your child starts acting out? It feels like everyone is staring at you and judging your parenting?
I can remember times like that when, despite my experience working with other people's children, I didn't seem able to deal effectively with my own child. I wish I'd known then what I know now about how the human brain develops, beacuse I would have been able to parent in a calmer, more helpful way.
What to Remember when Your Toddler’s Having a Meltdown:
1) Your toddler's brain is still "under construction". This means the toddler cannot reason like an adult. She doesn't have a concept of time. She doesn't understand that you have deadlines to keep or chores to complete. Trying to explain your agenda to her when she's demanding won't help.
2) When she's upset, she's emotionally flooded, she can't reason. The "fight or flight" part of her brain has now been triggered. She's not reasoning—so trying to logically explain things to her is only likely to increase her frustration—and yours.
3) The young child cannot self-regulate. In other words, she is physically not able to calm herself down. She might cry to a point of exhaustion and then stop—and that's very different from you calming your child. The ignored child's exhausted body is still overloaded with nasty cortisol! Leaving your baby to cry without giving comfort and attention is tantamount to leaving her in a closed room with toxic paint fumes.
What to do instead? Here's 10 tips for dealing with an upset toddler:
1. Stay emotionally connected to her. When she's upset she's trying to let you know she needs your support. At times the young child is emotionally overwhelmed and can't cope without your support support to calm her down.
2. Choose to be calm. Get down to her eye level and make eye contact (if she will) with a "soft gaze". Your toddler physically can't calm herself down when she's upset (she can't "self-regulate"). Her immature nervous system relies on an adult to calm her. So if you choose to be calm it will help to calm her.
3. Remember her behaviour is about her—your response is about you.
4. Focus on your breathing; be aware of the ground beneath your feet. Remind yourself this is a young child needing support. If you have a key phrase that reminds you of the sort of parent you choose to be, say this to yourself.
5. Choose to send a "connect" message through your tone of voice/body-language, and facial expression. Young children learn by what is modeled to them. And they sense your motivation far more strongly than they hear your words. If she senses your intention is to connect, rather than control, she's far more likley to cooperate.
6. Focus on seeing the situation through her eyes, rather than trying to explain yours.
Let yourself reflect the same words/energy/simple phrases that she does, following her conversation and focusing your attention on connecting with her.
Child: "I want the toy."
Parent: "You want the toy."
Child: "I want it!"
Parent: "You really want it."
7. You don't need to give her what she's demanding—just acknowledge what she wants.
8. If she uses attacking words, like "Silly Mummy’" reflect the emotion below these.
"You're cross with mummy."
9. Give words for your child's emotions. Over time they learn to "name, claim, and tame" their emotions. As we model this, our children will be more able to use reason to deal with emotional upsets—they will learn to find words to express strong feelings instead of resorting to an out-of-control discharge of strong feelings (aka tantrum!).
10. It's okay for your child to cry. Don't try to stop the tears, just be there alongside your child. Let your body-language, your tone of voice and your words show that you are there; that you care and that you want to connect, when your child is ready to do so. When we cry when we're upset, the tears are chemically different to the tears we cry when we're peeling an onion. Our "upset tears" contain stress hormones. So having a "good cry"/"crying it all out" makes sense.
Why does this matter?
A toddler's brain and nervous system are still "under construction". She is reliant on a carer to calm and regulate her young body. She is not out to make your life difficult—she's doing the best she can. Her crying is trying to communicate to you that she's needing some extra support here. Her behaviour is about her—your reponse is about you!
If everyone knew what toddlers need to thrive, we'd help to create happier, healthier children who will grow into more successful adults and therefore create a generation of well adjusted individuals.
The bottom line is babies and toddlers need to consistently experience you as caring and connected, particularly in times of emotional stress. The times when it's hardest to show your care are the times when your child needs it the most.
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