By Dr Karen Phillip
When our baby enters the toddler world, things radically change. Parents believe that their now two to three-year-old child is capable of informed decisions. They are not.
Two to three-year-old children are now acting more independently and talking to us reasonably well, using the toilet and eating independently; however, their brain is about 6 – 8% matured. We often hear stories that parents are struggling with their child at home while the preschool and grandparents tell us how wonderful they are. They are well behaved most of the time, tolerant, occasionally impulsive of course, but still pleasant to have around. Parents seem surprised at times and may wonder why their child is a little more reactive and defiant at home.
Understand the reason
There is a reason for everything, including the reason a young child acts the way they do at home. Overwhelm is often the reason. Overwhelm occurs when parents negotiate with their developing toddler. Negotiation is undoubtedly excellent, but negotiation of multiple choices can quickly overwhelm a little child. Negotiation with two choices only (perhaps three) is needed for their mind to process.
As an example, the child wants something to eat. The parent, being kind and considerate, opens the cupboard or refrigerator and asks what the child would like. This is often overwhelming for the child. Of course, sometimes the child knows what they want and can state or select this; however, often the child doesn’t know what they want, and selection is just too much. The toddler can then become overwhelmed, struggle to choose from too many options, become frustrated, upset and angry.
A tantrum erupts. The parents are left wondering what happened; they were offering anything the child wanted as a selection, yet a tantrum follows.
Processing at warp speed
The young brain of the child is processing at warp speed to comprehend all the choices they have. Sometimes a child may be able to choose yet other times they act out like Godzilla on a horrible day. Why has my gorgeous, loving toddler become a little monster?
When we can offer two things to the child, their selection becomes far more manageable. Bear in mind they may have a choice in their mind that they may be able to articulate, yet so you may get a no for both. If this happens you give one more choice, then say if they can not choose, you will do it for them. This is often the time they let you know or show they you precisely what it is they want; they will make the decision, not you.
If they want something inappropriate you can answer “Yes, I understand that is what you may want”, and “Yes you may be able to have that after or later on and right now this is your selection and if you can’t decide or be silly then I will make a choice for you.” They want to make the choice, and they usually do. (Remember young children have no concept of time so after or later on maybe tomorrow or …).
This independent choice part of child development is healthy and required, regardless of how frustrating parents find it. The toddler’s brain is developing as it should. What needs to be remembered is that although a young child may be able to articulate many things, their brain has often not been able to catch up, especially if overwhelmed with items, choices or emotions.
The reason a child erupts is not that they are bad, not because they are naughty or unloved, not because they haven’t been raised correctly or lovingly. It is because they are developing and have not yet learned control of self.
First are the clothes choice
Choosing clothes and shoes is one very frustrating and funny time for parents. Of course, most toddlers have no colour or dress sense, yet they know what they prefer and what they like. Now you can have the continued argument of what they should wear, or simply give them two choices, three maximum, and you layout their items to select. Or just let them go if it is just an ordinary day without any special event.
I remember one of my kids, a smart, driven toddler, who wanted to choose his own clothes and outfits. The day of his brother’s christening, I had to guide him toward shoes instead of wearing gumboots; he had interesting choices. I didn’t bother arguing if my child wanted to wear purple socks, green shorts and an orange t-shirt to playgroup, which he sometimes did. The other mums would smile and ask, “Did he choose his outfit today?” “Yes”, I would respond, “and doesn’t he look sensationally handsome.” As we all know, pick your battles and use your common sense to guide, not fight.
When a child erupts, what do we do?
How do we respond to the tantrums? We stop, wait or redirect. If a child is throwing a tantrum because they can’t get their own way, rather than anger or sending the child to their room to ‘think’ about their behaviour (which we know they can’t do), the parent can redirect them.
Redirecting means changing the subject or topic of frustration completely. Perhaps you could ask what their favourite character is doing currently such as
- “I wonder what Fireman Sam may be doing right now” or “Do you think Peppa Pig is playing in the mud right now and getting dirty?” or “Gosh, maybe Nana might knock on the door in a minute”, before walking to the door to see if she is there.
- Perhaps it may be “Could you help mummy put some water into the water play trough please, I have to do it right now?” before you walk toward the door and say, “Oh well I guess I will have to do it all by myself” if they don’t come.
- Maybe you might see the toy on the floor and say, “Wow, I wonder if I can build this up to the roof” and you start to construct.
- “I wonder if this blue car can speed faster than the red car”, and push away
- Or, look at the cooking corner and say, “Oops, is the food burning on the stove? I have to fix it quickly to make sure it’s ok. Can you help me, please?”
Many of these types of statements allow the child to think outside of themself. They can transfer their thoughts to something other than them and redirect their mind quickly; hence the tantrum stops.
All toddlers need clear rules and boundaries. Parents often become tired after hard long days and can let rules slide at times. This confuses a child and their understanding of rules and boundaries become jaded and cloudy. One of the toughest parts of parenting is consistency in boundaries. If you said it, you enforce it. Therefore, if you say “If xxx happens, xxx will occur” it needs to occur. So being mindful of words becomes imperative.
Rules and boundaries should be discussed one at a time, never three or more, as the child’s brain is unable to process and they will absolutely forget or not even hear it. Remember the one-step rule: one thing each year of the child’s age to a max of four or five regardless of how old the child is. This works for adults too: we tend to max out at four or five. Telling them or reminding them of rules, in excess of a one or two, can overwhelm them and create frustration for you and for your child.
Overwhelm is so common an issue yet one often missed. Small choices; few options. This way, their mind has a chance to process. Then add redirection and your little one can be who they are meant to be: the kind, considerate, loving, gorgeous little person you created.
Dr Karen Phillip is the author of Communication Harmony. For many tips on how to eliminate all conflict from your home, your relationships with partner, kids, everyone, please have a read of her latest book Communication Harmony. It is filled with techniques and strategies that will lead you to a more calm, happy and connected life with those you love. It is easier than you think!