Ah toddlers. Terrible Twos, Threenagers, Ferocious Fours. These delightful titles are bestowed upon our little people as they transition from wriggly babies to babbling toddlers and parents of children these ages will undoubtedly understand why. (For the record these are the more socially acceptable ones I’ve heard.)
But why are toddlers so egocentric, grumpy, demanding and bloody difficult? While I am most certainly guilty of (frequently) bemoaning the ‘challenging’ aspects of Toby’s personality, in the difficult times I desperately want to try and bear in mind why he’s being such a nightmare displaying these typical toddler qualities. How can Phil and I can help him to develop?
Put simply, Toby – like his peers – spends much of the time focusing on his own needs and wants. He’s is rapidly learning what makes him happy, sad, angry, excited etc and he is creating a world that fits those emotions. Imaginative play makes him happy, so when his sister crawls over to climb inside the box he’s using as Blaze the Monster Machine all hell breaks loose. Toby will scream, he’ll hit, he’ll push, he’ll cry, he’ll grab the box away from his bemused (and then upset) little sister because to him, she’s ruining his Blaze. To Martha, she saw a box and wanted to climb in it but Toby stopped her. To Phil and I, our baby girl just got unceremoniously shoved by her wailing big brother and our protective nature clicks in, resulting in shouting at Toby and exacerbating the situation.
Three different perspectives of one situation. No wonder we all end up stressed out over the bloody cardboard box that should have gone to the recycling centre weeks ago.
Toby sees his Blaze, he sees the world that he’s playing within, he sees his sister invading that world and he reacts. Badly.
Someone I admire greatly is the face of Gentle Parenting, Sarah Ockwell-Smith. Now, if you read my recent blog post about sanctimonious mummy groups on Facebook, then you’ll know that my particular issue was with members of a gentle parenting group. I don’t however, have an issue with gentle parenting as a concept and many of its points are things I believe in as a mum. This quote from one of her blog posts really resonated with me in helping me to see why I need to stop fighting fire with fire when Toby is screaming and causing a big scene:
“The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control, social regulation, emotion regulation and analytical and hypothetical thought (the bit that allows you to think “what would happen if I did that?”) are just not developed in toddlers. Imagine how it feels to be overwhelmed, out of control and surrounded by forbidden fruit when you simply cannot control your response.”
Above quote taken from ‘Why We Need to be More Tolerant of Toddler Tantrums’
I’ve been reading through Sarah’s ‘Gentle Discipline’ book in the hope of finding calmer methods for dealing with Toby’s typical – albeit very challenging – toddler outbursts. In essence, the concept of gentle discipline is that we can use teaching and learning tools to deal with childhood behaviour, rather than heading immediately to shouting, crying and punishment. I have had to go into this with an open mind, because as a (horrible feeling) shouty mum and a user of time outs when Toby has smashed his sister around the head, I have found myself trapped in a cycle from which neither Toby or I are actually moving forward very much.
I’ve stayed calm during some really bloody challenging situations in previous jobs. I’ve had teenage boys punching the living daylights out of my or my colleagues (I worked in a residential college for young people with ASD and challenging behaviours) and yet stayed calm on an external level and dealt with the situation. Why, then, can my not even 3-year-old, reduce me to a screaming wreck who then swiftly bursts into tears at having shouted so severely at her beautiful little mini human? I think it’s the emotional connection – I am inextricably connected to my babies and their behaviour, their highs, lows, achievements and struggles are my own. Thus if I react badly to them, I react badly to myself as well.
In the very beginning of this book, Sarah talks about being good teachers and role models to our children and it makes so much sense; I’ve even told myself on countless occasions that shouting at Toby to try and stop him from shouting is utterly ridiculous! Sarah sets SPACE goals as the basis for how we can better cope with the challenges our children present us with:
- Stay calm
- Proper expectations
- Affinity with your child
- Connect and contain emotions
- Explain and set a good example
One of the mindfulness techniques my CBT therapist taught me was to take my mind away from a stressful situation by looking at something else – a flower, a photo, a piece of furniture – and quietly analyse it for a few seconds. It gives your brain a break from the stressful situation and when you return your focus to your screaming, thrashing child, you aren’t as worked up. I won’t pretend that I’ve managed it every time, but when I do remember to do this, it works. If I’m calmer, I can better react to Toby (and more frequently Martha!).
Toby is a strong, clever, funny, spirited child who questions everything and has such an amazing outlook on the world. I’m sure that his brain works a lot quicker than his emotions can keep up with and that gap between his knowledge and his emotional development leads to a lot of challenges. From reading this book, I’m trying to remember that part of our job as parents is helping to guide those emotions when our children can’t do so. Lately I’ve been taking deep breathes, giving Toby a moment to gather himself too, then sitting with him on the floor or sofa – picking him up doesn’t go down well – and asking him what made him feel sad or angry. I’ve noticed that he can often pinpoint what made him start screaming and we can then talk about it. Another result of this is that he’s starting to figure out what ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’, ‘Scared’ etc feel like, so he’s slowly being able to recognise those emotions in himself. It’s definitely a marathon and not a sprint, but there are improvements.
We looks to people in positions of power and authority to constantly seek to improve our world, to challenge the ‘norm’, to ask the difficult questions and yet when our mini humans do it we become frustrated. Well no more. I want Toby to question things, to challenge what he views as wrong or unfair. Even if his perception of ‘wrong’ is actually more of a misunderstanding then it’s another learning opportunity. Lately Martha is a lot more interested in toys and Toby came running over to me crying about Martha being in his playroom. Now it’s obvious to us that the playroom is both of theirs, but clearly Toby will view it as his because he’s been the only one really using it since we moved in! I don’t much like him pushing and hitting his sister when she’s “Grabbing my toys”, but as hard as it is for Phil and I to overcome our instincts to protect our baby and come down full force on anyone who hurts her, we’ve been encouraging Toby to ask for help. If he feels like Martha is doing something wrong, we’re teaching him to say “Mummy, Daddy, help please, Martha is doing X,Y,Z” and we will then figure it out together. Again, it’s not an immediate success but through regular reminders and high fives when he remembers to come and ask for help, we’re getting there.
Parenting is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done and I know that for the rest of my days on this earth I will continue to make mistakes, lose my cool sometimes and be a very un-perfect mum. But can the same not be said for all of us? This is why I’ve set up a Budding Smiles Parenting Community, it’s the antithesis of sanctimonious and judgmental groups who attack people who don’t fit an admin-defined mould. It’s a safe place for parents to openly talk about the good, bad and ugly of parenthood. To share stories, articles, memes or whatever else they find helpful, funny or inspiring. If you fancy joining then click here and I will approve people who I can confirm are really both human and parents!
** I received a copy of The Gentle Discipline Book free of charge. All words and opinions are my own. **