Little kids have big feelings. And while all the advice says that parents should stay perfectly calm during our toddlers’ meltdowns, parents are people, too. It’s natural to sometimes feel frustrated and even angry with a 2-year-old who is lying in the grocery aisle because you wouldn’t buy Froot Loops (not that this ever happened to me!).
The key takeaway for kids and ourselves is that our feelings aren’t the problem. It’s what we do with our feelings that matters.
Managing these feelings is tough.
Tuning In, a national parent survey from ZERO TO THREE, found that more than half of parents (56 percent) say that managing their child when he misbehaves is one of their top challenges. Moreover, nearly 6 in 10 parents (57 percent) say they struggle with figuring out the most effective way to discipline. Further, 60 percent of parents wish they had more patience, and 47 percent wish they could do a better job of managing their emotions.
So what can we do in those moments when our littles are losing it?
- First, make sure that your expectations for your child are right for their age and stage. Irrational behavior in young children is driven by their feelings and desires in the early years, so irrational behavior is totally normal. It can help to know that children are unable to show self-control until about age 4 — this gives some healthy perspective on why we see such big emotions and reactions in the early years.
- The meaning you assign to a child’s behavior influences how you react. If you think your child is purposefully breaking rules, you are more likely to react harshly. If you understand these behaviors are part of their normal development, you are more likely to respond with patience and compassion — qualities that also model good coping skills for children.
- Name those big feelings. Recognizing and naming feelings is one way you can help your child begin managing emotions in a healthy way.
- Manage your own emotions. It is important to notice and manage your feelings, because how you react in these challenging moments can either help to calm children down or wind them up more. Research (and real life) shows that when parents react harshly (emotionally or physically), children’s distress tends to escalate. Children can’t learn or calm down when they are upset or scared.
- All behavior has meaning. Trying to understand the root cause of a behavior can help you find discipline strategies that are sensitive and effective. Consider the factors that impact behavior: What’s going on in your child’s world — has she been sick? Not sleeping well? Is there a substitute caregiver at school? It’s also important to think about your child’s temperament. Is she a big reactor or a go-with-the-flow kind of kid? Temperament influences a child’s ability to cope with stressors.
- See your child as a partner in solving problems. Starting around age 2 1/2 to 3, children begin to understand logic — why things happen. Ask questions that will guide your child to a solution. For example, “Throwing balls at people is not OK. It hurts. What are other ways you can use the ball?” “Two boys, one truck, what should we do?” The more children feel they are a part of the solution, the more likely they are to cooperate.
- Avoid harsh punishment. There is overwhelming evidence that harsh emotional and physical discipline methods (e.g., verbal shaming, spanking) are harmful to children’s social-emotional and cognitive development.
The early years are full of lots of emotional ups and downs — for our children and for us! Learning to manage our own feelings and reactions helps us teach children to do the same: express and manage their feelings in healthy ways. (Even if they have to eat oatmeal instead of Froot Loops for breakfast!)