Why do we expect toddlers to deal with their emotions and challenges in the same way adults do? Is it fair to expect them to understand how they feel and concepts that even we as adults struggle with sometimes, like disappointment or anger?
It’s easy to dismiss a “tantrum” or to get frustrated by your toddler throwing themselves on the floor because you’ve asked them to do something or you say no to them. I’ve had to go and have a few seconds in another room while I’ve calmed down on more than one occasion. I’ve likewise got annoyed with others who’ve given their unsolicited parenting advice or judgement about what I think is perfectly normal behaviour for a two year old.
I’d like you to imagine a scenario.
You’re happily sat reading a book that someone has given you. They’ve told you it’s a good book and that you’ll learn a lot from it. They’re right. You enjoy it. The words and pictures make you happy. You’re glad they gave you the book.
Then something happens.
The same person comes and takes the book from you, takes your hand and tells you it’s now time to go into another room and eat. You’re not hungry but they insist. Words don’t come although you’re certain you are making sounds. The bowl is full of the grainy, green gloop they sometimes make you eat. You never eat it but yet they keep giving it to you.
They pick you up and strap you in a chair. There’s other people there now and the other girl is sat next to you who always cries. It makes you feel upset. You don’t know why but it’s frightening.
You try to wiggle from the chair. You don’t want to be sat in the chair. You like the other one by the window. You point to it but they just starting smiling and chatting to you like everything is perfectly normal. You’re tired and you just want to get down and go back to your book. Okay, maybe you’re starting to get a bit peckish but you don’t want to be in the damn chair. Can I just take the bread and go back to my book, you ask. But they’re just telling you to calm down and telling your it’s okay. Why aren’t they listening?
You throw the bowl of green gloop onto the floor and try screaming. They just bring more and begin stroking your hair. That’s better than them ignoring you like they did the other day you suppose. Eventually you get tired and look at the fresh gloop but eat the bread. Your heart is racing and your eyes sting.
Do I need to go on? If that happened to me I’d feel anxious, frustrated, upset and probably a bit angry. Yet as adults we often get frustrated by our child’s frustration, making the whole thing worse. I’ve been there so many times, particularly in social environments which Small Boy can sometimes find challenging. Like many two year olds he isn’t keen on being told he has to do a particular activity at a specific time, and he’s not a fan of lots of noise or new people either. Some people have made me feel like it’s unusual but I know a lot of parents, and it’s not. He’s just two and some things are challenging.
I am NOT a perfect parent. I get plenty of things wrong, but I do know my child. If I’m completely honest I do understand why he gets pissed off sometimes. I feel like it’s my job to help him navigate these feelings and find ways to mitigate against them where possible. His Dad and I are both on the same page with this. Neither of us are particularly conventional and I’m a very unusual type of introvert, so we get it. We often talk about environment being important to adults, yet I don’t often see this raised as important for kids. It’s just always about rules and routines – not dissing those, but humans are complex, even children.
In our case, we need to help him prepare for transitions in environments or activities with a bit of notice. For example, we give him a countdown before bed, so he knows that we will do X, Y and Z and then it will be time to go to bed. On the whole this works. I ask him which seat he would like to sit in for his lunch. I ask him if he wants it now, or if he wants to wait five minutes until he’s finished that particular activity. He still has plenty of rules but since taking this approach we’ve really cut down on “tantrums” at home (I hate that word by the way).
We still have meltdowns – usually in nursery or loud social situations with lots of other kids. They’re pretty overwhelming for him and if you follow my Weekly Wins you’ll know how proud I am when he participates in a group environment. This is a work in progress and has taken a lot of difficult conversations with our nursery to find ways to help him. I don’t believe in ignoring him, nor do I believe in giving in and giving him whatever he wants, but I do believe in acknowledging he’s hacked off and staying calm while we explain what’s going to happen next and why.
There still rules, but there’s also a shared understanding that his emotions do feel huge and very real to him. I have an occasional lapse and get frustrated myself but I don’t feel like it’s a battle anymore. In the words of a popular animation, you’ve got to find a way to let it go.
Does any of that sound familiar? I’m sure I can’t be the only parent who has thought this.