Posts tagged toddlers
A New Way to Think About Toddler Tantrums That Will Turn Your World Upside Down

A Letter…

Hi Aubrey, 

I’m contacting you because I feel like I need help with my toddler. I’m hoping you can give me any advice that can help both him and I. My son is 22 months. He is very outspoken, a trait I love about him, but we are struggling. I feel like from the moment he wakes up to when he goes to sleep, we are constantly dealing with meltdowns.

I don’t know what to do. I offer choices, I try to help him take deep breaths, I don’t shut down his emotions, I acknowledge them and try to help him get through them, I even have tried to give him alone time to see if that helps calm him.

I know he’s not acting this way on purpose and it comes with this age, but, it’s gotten to a level where I feel like I am not being a good mother. I can’t help calm him and it’s gotten to where we are both crying.

What can I do? Just this morning, while making the bed, he wanted to play under the covers, which I understood and played with him, making forts, etc, for an hour. It had gotten to the point where it was time to get the rest of the day going and I told him we were done playing. He didn’t like that and the meltdown started.

Next, I offered him two choices of outfits; he threw them on the floor and had another meltdown. What do you advise? I’m with him 24/7 and I feel like the constant meltdowns are making me short fused and I know that he doesn’t deserve a mother who snaps out negative at his emotions. 


Dear, Sweet Mama…

I can tell by the way you write that you have boatloads of compassion for your child. You know from your research that children who are tantruming or melting down are really having a hard time emotionally, and that resonates with you so deeply that you feel it in your soul.

Your Parenting Toolkit Is Full of Good Stuff

You have good strategies in your parenting toolkit already! You offer choices first, you take deep breaths, and you do your best to help your child calm down, knowing that what most children need is more love and not reprimanding when they are hurting inside.

I would say that you already have the golden ticket here with your approach. You’re doing great, mama! Honestly, there are just a couple of things I think you might be missing in your bag to help you deal with this situation more effectively.

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The Mindshift You Need: Self-Compassion

When I read how you are framing yourself, it is a story of a mom who is feeling inadequate because she is unable to calm her own child. You see yourself becoming “not a good mother” when you’re stressed, and you “can’t help” him, despite throwing your entire being into the effort. You’ve tried everything you can think of, and you still can’t do it.

These feelings of helplessness are causing your anxiety and frustration to spike during these difficult moments.

...and it’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The more your child melts down over the little things, the more helpless and frustrated you feel. His behavior is both developmentally normal and influenced by yours. No doubt you are aware of this, and the more uptight you are about it, the longer his tantrums will last and more frequent they will be. The more you expect them and worry about them, the more likely they are to happen.

Conversely, and most importantly, the more relaxed and easygoing you are during his meltdowns the easier they will be for both of you.

So how are we going to help you get more relaxed about this, mama?

I want you to take some time to reflect on our conversation. Go on a long walk alone or with your partner and stew on it, do some journaling, talk about it with some IRL friends at the park while your children play, or do some restorative yoga poses in the evening while you meditate.

I also want you to do some research into the concept of reframing negative self talk. If you choose, you can change your habit of thinking of yourself as a bad mother when things go awry. 

Not to sound like a Negative Nellie, but mama, there are a lot of tough times coming your way in the future. 

Talk to any parent who has a child older than yours and you will find that parenting can be a very emotionally painful experience - especially for those who are like us: sensitive, empathic people. From the occasional terrifying illnesses to the first time his romantic crush rejects him, you will feel it.

If you don’t intentionally reframe the way you think about yourself as a parent now, all of these future experiences will be internalized through a screen of guilt and inadequacy. I am not chiding you. I know this from experience, and I so wish that someone had told me this flat out when I had my first toddler.

Don’t Fear Those Meltdowns

I wish I could tell you exactly why some children tantrum more than others at different ages. We have all kinds of suggested labels for different types of common childhood behavior and there are many ways we can help.

For example, tantrums and meltdowns can be caused by...

  • Anxiety - in general or caused by a specific event

  • Insecurity - because of lack of enough boundaries

  • Disturbed sense of order - routine disrupted

  • Frustrated by own inability to do things he feels he is capable of

  • Being asked to do something he feels he is not capable of

  • Overly hungry or tired - not enough sleep?

  • Illness - a cold/virus is not yet obvious

  • Sensory overstimulation or understimulation - not just for those with “sensory processing disorder” but this can happen with any child

The key to helping him in the current moment will depend on your ability to observe, wait patiently, observe again, try something new, observe again, and try something else, and then wait and wait.

Follow your gut. If you feel like the tantrums are way outside of the norm and an indicator that something is seriously wrong, please find in-person help from a counselor or at the very least consult your child’s doctor — but many children do go through a very normal tantruming phase that is no indication of any more severe problem. Trust your intuition here.

On patience…I know that it’s hard to wait. You want to solve his behavior immediately. The truth is that sometimes we never know what causes our childrens’ meltdowns or the “right” thing to do to help. We have to ride the wave with them.

You Are Already What He Needs

You are the best mama for your son - the only mama he ever needs, the one he absolutely hands down no doubt whatsoever deserves, and you are a good mother - even when you are short fused, even when you feel like you can’t do anything to directly calm him in the moment. He is a lucky, lucky little boy.

You are not letting him struggle alone. You are there with him in those tough, frustrating moments, and maybe you are letting his emotions dictate yours a bit - it’s true. But you know what? There is a LOT of parenting advice out there telling us that in order to properly handle our children’s meltdowns we have to be these cool, impassive, emotionless beings, and I just don’t buy it.

Lean in to it. If you’re a passionate, sensitive person, it makes sense that your son is, too! He is feeling the unfairness of the world intensely right now. His brain is not yet developed to understand logic and reason, so he is just...feeling.

While tantrums look really dramatic on the outside, they are just outside expressions of inner emotions. They’re nothing to be afraid of.

The two of you are still intertwined emotionally. It’s been a year or more since he left your womb, and yet your heartbeats and breaths still sync when things are good, and also when things are bad.

I am so touched that you reached out to me and I am rooting for you and your little darling. I know things will get better soon for you both. You’ll make sure of it!

Love,
Aubrey


Here’s Your Free Parenting Checklist

Get my free checklist of the most common reasons why your child might be tantruming.

Here’s a sneak preview…

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Here’s what to do next.

  1. Download the checklist. You’ll get the list, plus, when you join my community of readers, you’ll also receive gentle, compassionate parenting tips and information about educating your child at home.

  2. Save it digitally, print, or share it with a friend.

  3. Put it on your fridge or in a special place and use it when you’re feeling stressed and need some objectivity.

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    Your Parenting Journey

    Boisterous or clingy, shrieky or shy, our toddlers give us the wildest ride of our lives and win our hearts forever.

    Your parenting journey, just like your toddler’s personality, is unique.

    In this excerpt from the Introduction of Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage, you can get a glimpse of my own pathway toward compassionate, gentle discipline.

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    Excerpt from Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage

    He glares at me from across the kitchen, eyes squinting in fury, face reddening as he holds his breath. Headfirst and full force, he runs toward my belly, and upon contact, mashes himself against me. His arms are flailing, and I can’t tell if he’s actively trying to hit me or if he’s just out of control. My biceps are still stronger than his so I use them to hold him at bay without hurting him. He screeches in protest and reaches for my waist. I can see tears forming in the corners of his eyes. I feel awful inside.

    In my head, I am running through all the discipline strategies I know and I’m second-guessing all of my decisions. Did I make the wrong choice by setting a limit? Was I too harsh or unsympathetic? Am I a pushover? And the worst thought of all—am I failing as a parent?

    I give up fighting him. Heart pounding, I reverse the energy flow and hug him tightly instead. I yell, “You’re mad at me! You’re really, really mad! I’m sorry we’re fighting. I don’t want to fight. I love you. I love you so much!” His body goes rag-doll limp. He takes a shaky breath and lets out a sob. We melt to the floor together, a tangle of bent knees and bowed heads. I still don’t know if the way I handled the situation would seem right or wrong in anyone else’s eyes, but my own uniquely impulsive and intensely emotional child accepts the cuddle. I rock us back and forth for a long time, whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

    Every time we interact with our children, we have the opportunity to coach them on how to manage their own emotions and behave appropriately in social situations. It isn’t easy; our own personalities and insecurities greatly influence how we address a challenging behavior in our children.

    As the daughter of a Montessori preschool teacher and a psychologist, child development was a frequent dinner table topic. By the time I was thirteen, I was completely hooked. My childhood heroes were Alfie Kohn and Madelyn Swift, two fierce proponents of a more positive, compassionate approach to discipline. I also became aware that I was being raised differently from many of my peers: While my friends and cousins were spanked or grounded, I was counseled. But it wasn’t exactly easy to come clean and reveal my emotions and mutually agree upon solutions, and sometimes being punished seemed like the easy way out! Still, I grew up with a heavy appreciation of the time my parents spent with me to offer their guidance, and the fair and respectful treatment of children became the golden, wrapped-up package in my soul.

    After several years of teaching kindergarteners and a whole lot more personal research on disciplinary techniques and strategies to handle defiance, effective parenting seemed so easy. When I saw a child having a tantrum in the grocery store, I assumed that if the parent had been proactive in the right way, the whole embarrassing conflict could have been avoided. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that, now.”

    The first time I had to handle a tantrum from my own child, I was knocked flat off my feet! All the strategies I had learned by heart now had to be implemented in practice, not just preached. The complete lack of objectivity had rendered me a newbie in the field. What I had learned to be true from the books now had to be learned all over again from experience. And so, my children set about teaching me the right way to parent them.

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    Now, as a parent coach and educational consultant, I listen to the concerns and anxieties of many parents in the thick of those tough toddler years, and my heart aches in remembrance. Parenting is a humbling experience. Children pass through such a quickly progressing succession of developmental stages during the first few years of life that it’s hard for us to keep up with their current needs, much less anticipate what changes will occur next. As my mama always said with a bit of cheekiness, “If you don’t like your child’s behavior, just wait a few weeks for a new developmental stage. By then, you’ll have an entirely different problem to figure out!”

    In addition, most of us have no real memories of what it felt like to be a toddler. We can only imagine the intensity of their emotions as they push toward independence and simultaneously demand the safety and comfort that can only be provided by a parent.

    You, like your child, are on a path of becoming. Your quest: to nurture your child’s potential, and while doing so, learn how to become a stronger and more compassionate human being yourself. Every day, you bravely face the possibility of tantrums and acts of defiance, obstacles that would ruffle even the most heroic among us. Yet you are never alone in these woods.

    Unlike a fairy tale, there is no magic wand or spell that can skip to the happily-ever-after; however, what I can offer you is a map that reveals your child’s natural developmental path. I can also help fill the backpack for this journey with discipline strategies to pick and choose from as you learn what works best for you and your child. I can give you a heads up about the issues parents commonly face during each year so that you know what to look for. And I can reassure you that there is no such thing as perfection. We all make mistakes and learn from them. Our children’s capacity for forgiveness and acceptance of our faults is unfathomable. As long as you are meeting your child’s basic needs for health, safety, and love, you will walk right out of these dark woods into the sunlight. I promise.

    Toddler Fears are Normal: Calm Them With Kindness

    Whyyyy can’t they install nice, affordable, universally quiet air-based hand dryers in our public restrooms? Or toilets that flush without filling our ears with a sudden burst of static? All the parents of toddlers I know would be ever-so grateful. Both adults and children would exit the room feeling a good deal less stressed.

    Can we make this happen now, please?

    And then can we apply what we’ve learned about helping humans peacefully enter and exit public places to airports, grocery stores, malls, and schools?

    Libraries, just hang tight for this conversation. You’ve got it covered already. ;)

    Of course, even if human-designed areas of our world were created with a calmer, more natural mindset, our children would still find things to be scared of. As a mom of two, I’ve seen my own children experience both little fears and bigger anxieties as they entered and exited toddlerhood.

    There was the year that dogs became a huge issue and meeting a dog-walker in the neighborhood ended in my child running away and hiding behind a bush. There was the year that hard candies were banned (lest a family member choke on them). And, of course, we had our fair share of bedtime battles because nighttime itself is dark and scary.

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    Childhood Fears Are Common

    When parents share with me the things their children are afraid of, common themes always emerge:

    Animals, like…dogs, cats, insects, spiders, snakes, or roosters.

    Being Separated...like at a playground, in a grocery store, on a crowded street, or while attending a class.

    Unexpected Lights or Voices...battery-powered toys, talking electronics (Siri / Alexa / Google Home / the car GPS system), talking baby dolls, or alarm clocks.

    Excessively Loud Noises, like...car washes, jet planes, hair dryers, blenders, lawn mowers, garbage disposals, toilets, or vacuums.

    Fantasy and Masked Characters, like....people in holiday costumes like Santa or the Easter Bunny, clowns, or cartoons. (And let’s not forget monsters!)

    The Dark… Who are we kidding, though? Even most adults feel uncomfortable in the dark. Fear of the unknown and unseen is part of the human experience. So if we feel a little creeped out and vulnerable ourselves by burglary noises in the dark, scary clown pictures, or being alone at the park, how do we help our children overcome their anxieties?

    Acknowledge the Reality

    It can be tempting to dismiss the fear entirely -- especially if you know that your child is safe. However, just telling her not to be scared isn’t going to be effective.

    Instead of saying, “Don’t be afraid,” or “You’re okay,” acknowledge the intensity of her emotions.

    Describe what you see. For example, “Your body is very rigid and you’re hiding behind me. The noise of the hand dryer is very loud, isn’t it? You’re scared. Lots of people are afraid when they hear loud noises. I understand how you feel.”

    Offer Comfort

    Some children will need a simple hug or cuddle after a frightening experience, and that simple physical contact will assure them that you are there. Other children may appreciate some kind and comforting words, like “I love you so much, and I will keep you safe,” or “I am confident that the hair dryer will not hurt you.”

    Give Information

    What’s behind door number 1? Is it a tiger? If you open that door and engage your child’s natural curiosity, you are allowing her to consider new possibilities to reframe her own fears.

    If a dog bark sends your child into panic, talk about how animals communicate with one another and what they might be “saying” if they could express themselves like humans do. Show how high pressured soapy water and a soft brush can rinse away dirt, just like the automatic car wash does.

    By revealing the truth behind the object of anxiety, you are allowing your child to choose whether to be afraid or not.

    That’s real empowerment! You’re being supportive, empathetic, and kind when you educate about reality.

    The fears may not go away completely, but your attitude toward them will make a world of difference for your child.

     
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    Need Help With Your Toddler?

    Read the introductory chapter to my book Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage for free.

    Ending the Neverending Bedtime Battles
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    A letter…

    “Hi, Aubrey! We are struggling at bedtime. My son’s bedtime routine is dinner, playtime, bath, and books. We read 5 books after bath and usually one story after.

    I’m happy to stay with him after that until he falls asleep; he can be in my bed if he wants, but as soon as the story is over, he demands more, and if I say no he starts to be very loud waking his baby brother, he suddenly needs to get a drink, go to the toilet, or anything to make it longer.

    Sometimes he runs back downstairs. I do not know how to reinforce the routine in a gentle and respectful way.

    We tried letting him stay up in his room but he will stay up for hours, frequently coming back downstairs until I go back and read again. Then he is tired and miserable the next day. Any advice please? Thank you.”

    - Teri, mama to 4 year old Teddy


    I hear you, mama…

    If only we could just create a consistent bedtime routine and be done with the battles! The age-old wisdom is correct: routines are important. You are already one step ahead by thinking through and implementing calming, consistent just-before-bed habits to help him wind-down.

    Physically, you know that his body is prepped for sleep.

    A full belly, an engaged mind, some warm, muscle-relaxing water therapy, and a good cuddle should do it. You’ve got the physical needs covered.

    If anything, I’m wondering how long this routine takes. If you’re completely exhausted by the time “sleep” is supposed to be happening, consider shortening it or starting the whole thing a little bit earlier to allow for more flexibility (and emotional capacity) on your end.

    Empathy and Exhaustion

    I can tell by your descriptive words to me -- “I’m happy to stay with him” and “if he wants” that these are also empathetic words you use with him. Gentle, respectful parenting is important to you, and you work hard at it. I can also tell that you are feeling exasperated by the time bedtime rolls around.

    The words “demands” and “miserable” speak volumes, even though you are talking about your child and not yourself. These are not easy times!

    Empathetic as you are, emotionally, your child is obviously still struggling internally, and it likely has nothing to do with what you are or are not doing. This one is not on you.

    Developmental Changes

    Four-year-olds are going through a pretty big developmental transformation that can greatly interfere with sleep. While they can, if they choose, be quite amicable, they are also prone to engaging in power struggles, even when you are giving them no real “reason” for one.

    New fears often emerge at this age - of scary noises in the dark, worrying about being lost or alone, thinking about what would happen to him if you died, the uncomfortableness of the transition from awake to asleep.

    What if a terrible event occurred while he was helplessly asleep, or even worse...what if something amazingly exciting happened and he wasn’t awake to witness it?

    Friendships are especially exciting and anxiety-inducing at this age as well. If he couldn’t figure out how to properly join a game of tag at the park the other day or had a disagreement with a good friend, it may take a little while for him to sort out his feelings.

    These thoughts are often swimming around inside the typical four year old’s head, and it’s new and different for him. None of this entered his consciousness last year at all!

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    Finding Solutions

    Because four-year-olds are good at communicating the lack of desire to go to bed but not actually so good at communicating those deeper worries, you will need to be a detective. How are you to know what’s actually bugging him just before bedtime? You can’t see into his mind, and you may never know exactly what the issue is. Chances are good that it will resolve itself as he processes and adjusts.

    Don’t go changing up his routine again too much. You’ve got the basis already, and consistency is still important at this age. I wonder if you might be able to have some heart-to-heart discussions with him about why bedtime is so hard right now. I’d recommend that you do it during the day and not in the middle of a bedtime battle.

    See if the two of you can find some time to talk about the problem. If you do, you should make sure you are not in a chastising type of mood. This is not a lecture. For some children, it works best if you are deep in a snuggle after reading a story - whether on your couch under a blanket or in your bed. For other children, it could work best while their hands are engaged in an activity they love and find comforting, such as playing with legos.

    You really want him to open up and talk to you and help you find a solution. “I am concerned about how bedtime is going recently. I’ve noticed that sometimes you have a hard time getting to sleep, even when I lay with you. We read our stories, and then it seems like you’re getting up a lot. Will you talk to me about that? You used to go right to sleep. What’s going on at night?”

    He doesn’t have to answer you verbally. He may be answering inside his head, and if there is silence after a bit of wait-time, you should move on to possible solutions.

    First, remind him of the rules (four-year-olds are absolutely still comforted by family policies and consistent boundaries). “Our family rule is that after 5 stories, we go to sleep. What can we do to help you do that?”

    You can also offer some child-friendly suggestions, such as…

    1. You could choose a stuffed animal to cuddle with us.

    2. We can stop after 3 stories and go to the toilet one more time and then read the other 2.

    3. We can put a water bottle next to the bed so we can drink some water.

    Either way, with enough love and patience, you can get these bedtime battles and your responses to them under control with the gentle, respectful way you are aspiring for.

    Love,
    Aubrey

     
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    You can find more effective strategies to tame tantrums, overcome challenges, and help your child grow in my book, Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage.

    There is no degree in parenting. But there's this.
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    I loved my mother so much I wanted to grow up and be just like her. I can close my eyes and I still see my five-year-old rosy cheeks and pigtails in the mirror. The answer to the age-old whaddya wanna be when ya grow up question was suddenly clear as day.

    I looked right into my own hazel eyes and announced the epiphany out loud. “I’m going to be a mom!” My voice echoed off the old olive-green tiles. I whispered it again for good measure. And then I went into my backyard and twirled in the sun, happy and fulfilled, secure in my future career. I wonder how many other children had a similar adorably innocent moment.

    Unlike other life-altering career decisions, like my own foray into classroom teaching, there is no degree to obtain in parenting. There are no certifications to pile up. No professional development hours to accrue and turn in. No one hires you or fires you. No one gives you a to-do list or evaluates your performance.

    You can read about the right way to discipline children and even study child development before you give birth to or adopt one. These formal studies can certainly get you philosophically centered and ready to face challenges head on, but in the end, as new parents, we are all more or less on the same playing field. Newbies mucking about together, hoping for the best.

    Parenting well takes constant introspection and empathy - for when we learn to see the world through the eyes of our children, we start to understand why they behave the way they do. And then we can modify our reactions to meet their deepest needs.

    If we are trying our best to parent with compassion, with respect, with loving guidance, with gentle encouragement, with supportive limits, and with a good deal of humility, I truly believe we are all on the right path.

    Even so grounded, many parents have come to me over the years and asked me for specific strategies to try when their toddlers and young preschoolers are throwing tantrums, refusing to cooperate, throwing toys, hitting, or biting, among other behavioral difficulties.

    I’m happy to share the wisdom I’ve learned along the way - from reading books, chatting with my mama friends, and by watching my husband work his own parenting magic - but it is impossible disregard information about the development of the child in lieu of a specific method. They are both essential to solving a problem.

    In my new book, Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage, you’ll find practical strategies for overcoming common issues faced by parents of 1-4 year olds right alongside insight into your child’s developmental stage. It was a genuine thrill to write and brought back so many memories of my own children when they were little!

    You are the perfect parent for your own child - just as you are. You know that, right? I hope you do.

    I know you might not always feel like one. Most of us struggle with periods of self-doubt and even cry about it in the bathroom or get unreasonably cranky. Recently, I re-watched the animated film Tangled again and was struck by how much I identified with the evil witch (“mother”) when she fell back into her chair in exasperation after yelling and said in regret, “Great. Now I’m the bad guy!” Oh, how many times have I been that bad guy, goaded into losing control of my own emotions!

    All of the fretting, the exhaustion, and for some of you (myself included) even the yelling…this is life handing you an opportunity for learning. Every good story has an internal struggle. It wouldn’t be a story without one!

    But with dedication to learning and the willingness to embrace the ups and the downs, your child will respect how hard you tried and may even look in the mirror and decide to one day take the journey, too.

     
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