As I always mention, I have a bajillion kids – 5 biological/3 bonus kiddos to be exact – so I’ve been through the toddler stage quite a few times. I also was the lead pre-k teacher at an amazing early learning center for years, so I’ve been around every type of child with every type of personality. The funny thing though is that it was always the strong-willed, hard-to-handle, “untamable”, rough-and-tumble kids that held my heart.
My oldest girl, Macy, was independent but very easy to parent during the toddler stage. And then came my second… my boy, Maxton. This child made me cry weekly. He was as hard headed as they come, and I was constantly feeling as though I was in a tug of war. He was a handful and a half! But then he would put his little hand in mine and tell me he loved me, and all anxiety would melt away. I am and forever will be wrapped around his finger. My third son was close on his heels in age and attitude, but I had learned a lot from parenting his brother. Then Brynleigh came along, and I just THOUGHT God had tested me! She is something else. So much sass in such a little body! Terrible twos is not an accurate enough description for this little princess. Through this stage however, I did learn quite a few things that will help you survive and thrive.
The reason that things can go from sunshine and rainbows to an all out tantrum in the floor at Target is because at that age toddlers are incapable of regulating their emotions for the most part. I know these few years can bring out some emotions in you as well. My main goal is to help you positively parent, keep your sanity, and teach my three favorite things: redirection, distraction, and resetting with your little.
One of the best things I have implemented since my second child came along is that instead of saying “no” or “stop” or “don’t”, I use phrases I would like for them to do instead. Now, I am going to be very honest and transparent just like we are with the podcast. If we tell Brynleigh no, she immediately spits at us or yells no at us or throws something… If I tell her what I would like for her to do and give her direction, she doesn’t get frustrated. When we say “no running” all their little brains hear is “running”. They don’t know what to do instead. It makes it easier for them to understand when we effectively communicate what we want instead of what we don’t want. ***PRO TIP: This works for husbands too 😉
The kids also do so much better when I prepare them for what is coming next. If we have plans, I tell the kids that morning what the day will look like, I give them a 15-30 minute heads up before we transition to the next thing, and I keep them updated if plans change. This eliminates so many temper tantrums that I used to be met with. Think about it. You wouldn’t want someone coming to you and saying, “Hurry up and put shoes on! We have to leave right now!” and kids don’t either. When I give them some time to wrap up what they are doing, they are ready to go and waiting on the couch by the time I am ready to leave. Obviously, there are times when this is not an option, but when you can do this, I promise you will be met with fewer arguments and meltdowns.
We as adults are allowed to have feelings and emotions like I stated above. We would not want someone rushing us out the door with no time to complete what we were doing and no warning/no explanation, but we don’t think about the fact that it’s also hard for kids to comprehend and work inside those parameters too. Let me say this super loud for the people in the back: EMOTIONS DO NOT EQUAL BAD BEHAVIOR. Instead of punishing children for feeling, I firmly believe we should help them learn how to navigate those emotions. Let them feel. Connect to them, talk to them, and you might understand why they are acting the way they are acting. Even our seven year old has a hard time with this. I will sometimes ask him if he knows why he is upset and let him think about it. He always figures out why. But if when he got mad and threw a toy I just spanked him or put him in timeout, we would have never found out that he actually had a hard day at school or that on the bus he had been picked on. He was simply feeling all of that stress and was frustrated and upset. Of course we do address the throwing the toy because that isn’t what we do, and we discuss taking care of our property, but that isn’t the REAL problem. If it is that hard for a seven year old (or a 32 year old mother) to figure out what is actually wrong, how hard do you think it is for a toddler?
Kids feed off of our emotions too. When they are having a meltdown, invite them to join in your peace, not join them in their chaos. If someone yells at a child for screaming, the child is not learning anything. It is also important to get on the child’s level and to be aware of your body language when talking to them. A new study published in the journal Psychological Science found that babies not only pick up on their mother’s stress, but they also show physiological changes that correspond to the mother’s stress. When you get stressed out and anxious, it is affecting your baby, toddler, big kid, spouse, etc. also. Our toddlers pick up on our bodily responses accompanying our emotional state, such as increased heart rate and stress hormones, and immediately start to feel those negative emotions and have the same reactions in their bodies. Keep the calm in your home. You are their safe place, mama bear.
Two things that can also help them back to zero are deep breathing exercises and movement breaks. I learned this well before I had a gaggle of kids when I was teaching. It is difficult to teach a child this young to do these properly, and can have the opposite effect if you do not use the right approach, because some kids breathe in but do not breathe out or breathe too quickly which leads to being on the verge of hyperventilating. Things that I use to still get the same effect are bubbles – they breathe in before blowing and then blow until there are no more bubbles; pinwheels – basically the same as the bubbles; or stuffed animals – have them lay down and put the stuffed animal on their tummy. Breathe in to make the toy go up and breathe out to make it go down.
I realize that more often than not when the attitude or push back starts, that is when they are tired or overstimulated. Overstimulation happens when children are bombarded by more experiences, noise, and activity than they can handle. A toddler might seem tired, cranky, and upset. They might throw themselves on the floor in tears or anger. They might say they don’t want to keep doing what they are doing even if it is an activity they enjoy. Brynleigh and Maddox love the gummy bear song, but if you play it when they are tired, be prepared for them to suddenly hate it and possibly yell at you or throw a shoe at you while you are driving. Again, we do not condone that behavior, but I am just keeping it real! In the first five years of life, children’s brains develop faster than at any other time in their lives. Every experience your little has – everything they taste, smell, touch, hear, and see stimulates their brain which creates millions of connections. Obviously they need plenty of activities that provide stimulating play and learning, but they also need quiet time in familiar and predictable settings to feel safe, secure, and calm.
When Brynleigh or Maddox start getting cranky, or during the times Brynleigh and I are stuck in a hotel room waiting on my husband to get back when we have to travel for work, I run a big bubbly bath, throw in some water-safe toys, and they have so much fun. Plus, they are in an exponentially better mood when they get out and usually ready to cuddle. We got glow sticks for the kids and that was a huge hit in and of itself, BUT if you put those glow sticks in a bubble bath and turn off the lights, they have a blast! Who could be in a bad mood after that?! My kids also really enjoy the sand and water tables. They are great for sensory play, using their imagination, and getting them outdoors.
My mother taught me this next tip when I had my first baby and Macy had one of those days where she would cry anytime I put her down. It was a cold, rainy day, but my mom bundled up my daughter and took her outside to look at trees… Trees made this child happy when nothing else would. Going outside, even in the middle of a temper tantrum, works for the kids (and me too if I’m being honest) if only for five minutes. As an adult, if I stay indoors too long, I tend to just feel blah and sometimes that turns into a cranky attitude, so it really does help to reset you both. We also love walking around the subdivision – the littles take their light-up scooters and then we have the red radio flyer wagon for the walk back that carries their scooters and the kids when their little legs just are too tired. Going for a drive is a great thing to do also for a change of scenery. It doesn’t have to be used only as a tool to sneakily lull your child to sleep. You can drive past things that are fun to look at. Here in Georgia we live right down the road from a fire station and giant statues that my kids think are super neat. Both of those things make my boys happy! And in Alabama we live just minutes from scenic overlooks in the mountains that make the girls happy. Sunshine, fresh air, and physical activity all encourage good moods and reduce tendencies towards bad behavior.
It is important to help your child because behind their actions are hidden emotions that they are unsure how to communicate. Basically, no matter what season you are in, how old your babies are, or how many of those babies you have there will be challenging times. Give yourself and your child grace. This stage is difficult, exhausting, and completely magical! Enjoy every moment.
For more tips, tricks, and information check out The Speaking Treatment Podcast! Do you have any activities that work for you and your little one that I haven’t listed here? Do you have an idea that you would like to hear us discuss on the show or see mentioned in the blog? Let me know in the comments!