Recently, some of my mom friends and I were discussing how difficult it is to live with a little human who is developed enough to have strong desires and emotions but hasn’t yet developed the ability to manage or even understand all these big feelings…in other words, how hard it is to parent a toddler.
As our kids are nearing 2.5 years old, this has become a more frequent topic of conversation amongst my mom friends.
While I’m glad to talk it through with them, I also feel like it’s a year overdue. A year ago, I remember feeling loneliness and even despair as I struggled with how to respond to my daughter’s emotional and expressive behavior (ie, tantrums). At the time, it seemed to me that my mommy peers were more relieved to be past the intensity of the baby stage than worried about the new responsibilities of toddler parenting. I think my feelings at the time were compounded by the fact that I had just returned to full time work.
Since I’ve felt challenged by my daughter’s toddlerness for over a year, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned and how I’ve coped along the way.
In the past year, I’ve grown significantly more confident in my approach to “discipline” over this period. I try to remember I’m always learning as a parent too. Each new challenge is a chance to hone your parenting technique, practice your patience, and grow your compassion; and each phase passes.
It does get better, and now I joke that instead of the terrible twos my daughter had the terrible 1.5 to 2.5, though I know it’s not really over yet.
Here’s how we approach it (cliff notes of the whole brain child!):
Connect and Redirect
I know that my daughter will continue to have emotional outbursts, but I also know the quickest way through them for us is to connect first, then redirect – we try to validate her feelings, calmly tell her why she still isn’t going to get her way right then, and then offer her some acceptable options so that she can feel she has some control.
Sometimes, the emotional storm is over in under a minute, and other times it may take several minutes or last for much longer, but we stay firm and consistent with what we had said… reminding ourselves that giving in reinforces the behavior because random rewards are the strongest behavior reinforcement. We use this approach with physical restraint if it’s a safety issue, going through the same steps verbally while holding her, and using language and tone to convey empathy and support.
For things like getting out of the house to get her to school and us to work, we try pretty hard to give her choices, but ultimately will talk her through it while putting her in the stroller or changing her clothes if needed. Routine helps reduce the tension over this, too.
I can’t say we’ve got this “getting out of the house” thing down too well yet, though. We’re still often late for things.
Do What Works For Your Family
Sometimes other parents I talk to stress over their children’s routines or the ways that their parenting practices aren’t living up to what they expected of themselves. To this, I suggest: don’t be afraid to pick your battles and do what works!
An example for us is how we manage sleep. Our toddler’s sleep habits lately have led to some no nap days and too many late nights. She sleeps great with people other than Mama and Dada. With us, she will usually fall asleep in the stroller (I think because it’s the only place where she’s restrained and can’t just get up on her own), so that’s been my go to for weekend naps. We may try to change this when the time seems right, but right now, this works for us. So that’s what we do.
Remember Brains are Always Growing and Changing
Truly, it’s not easy. I used to worry a lot more about how well my parenting choices were setting my daughter up for a successful life, but I’ve come to believe that with our kids only 2, we have lots of time to iterate and refine and undo whatever habits our kids have. Their brains are still sooooooooo young, and they have just barely begun to build the capacity for reason. The real reason workhorse of the brain, the prefrontal lobe, doesn’t begin developing until 4 and isn’t done maturing until about 25. Even after 25, science has discovered that our brains continue to grow new neurons and change throughout our whole lives.
Therefore I say, no need to burden ourselves with immense pressure of getting it right, right now.
A strong beginning is great, but even more important is the daily involvement, guidance, and support that we will give our children throughout their childhood, adolescence, and beyond.