If you’re a parent of toddlers, then this scenario will sound familiar. Time is limited, you have to get your toddler fed and ready for school. He requests toast for breakfast and you put so much care into the toast because you KNOW he’s particular about it. Have you ever thought so much about toast? You present the perfectly prepared toast cut in triangles to your child only to then watch him explode in rage. Tears soak the toast. Your child shrieks, “NO TRIANGLES! NO TRIANGLES!” To an adult, this makes no sense and you feel like you’re walking on landmines, doing all you can to avoid a meltdown. In this moment and so many others with a toddler, what do you do? I recommend to parents of toddlers to use a simple two-step approach: 1) Reflect and Acknowledge and 2) Redirect. But before we get into the method, it can be helpful to understand a little bit about the brain.
The Right Brain Rules the Show
Our brains are divided into two sides. The left brain is methodical, detail-oriented, logical, and helps us to listen and remain calm. The right side is responsible for fast decision-making, face recognition, and is impulsive, distractible, and emotional. In older children and adults, the brain is in balance. For toddlers, however, the right side is running the show. Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and author of Happiest Toddler on the Block compares toddlers to cavemen and states in his book: “…toddlers aren’t really cavemen, but they do exhibit lots of pretty primitive behaviors, like grunting and pointing, wiping their noses on their sleeves (or yours), scratching and biting when angry, and peeing anywhere they want…[And] your toddler’s brain gets thrown even more off balance when she’s upset. Big emotions instantly shut down the thoughtful left side and dramatically amp up the primitive right” (Karp, 2008). So knowing this, we can better learn how to diffuse tantrums and build emotional intelligence within our toddlers.
Reflect and Acknowledge
I encourage parents when talking to an emotional child to get below their eye level. We tower over our children and when we get below their eye level it is less intimidating, eases power struggles, and is a sign of respect.
I then encourage parents to keep it simple. Toddlers’ vocabulary is extremely limited and parents get in the habit of communicating with toddlers as if they are little adults. Their little brains are not able to process so much information, and while you’re making a valid point about why it doesn’t matter how toast is cut or that you have to leave for school soon; you’ve already lost them. So, sentences should be simple.
I encourage the parents I work with to address a tantrum by reflecting and acknowledging the feeling. This is a very simple strategy with endless benefits. The vocabulary of a small child is so limited and the right brain is ruling, it makes sense that they throw, kick, bite, scream, etc. when they are upset. By reflecting and acknowledging an emotion, parents can build the emotional intelligence of their child and give a word to the emotions they are experiencing. As our children age, they will be able to identify difficult feelings and will be more likely to communicate comfortably with you. This is a major win as our children age and begin to experience truly stressful life events.
Redirection is an absolutely essential part of communicating with toddlers; however, parents should be mindful of how they utilize redirection. Imagine if you’re extremely upset about your workday, you approach your spouse crying and they reply “Oh look at this over here!” You’d feel so annoyed that your feelings don’t matter. This is the same for our children.
Putting It All Together
Returning to our original scenario, here’s how it looks: Get below your child’s eye level. Keeping your sentences short, reflect and acknowledge the feeling. “Christopher MAD! Christopher MAD! He says no triangles! No triangles!” Use the tone of your voice to illustrate the emotion your child is having. If they’re mad, use a pressured tone; if sad, use a softer and “weepier” tone, etc. You may need to continue this statement several times, but your toddler will de-escalate. While it may sound silly speaking “caveman-like,” remember you’re communicating on their level and assisting in developing a feeling vocabulary that they will utilize for the rest of their lives. Now, is the time to correct the behavior. “Christopher MAD! He says no triangles, no triangles.” (Your toddler will begin to settle and while the tears run down their face they will likely start to nod. As if to say, “Yes. I am mad. Thank you for understanding me.”) Then you can state “This today. Tomorrow you choose.” You’ve reflected and acknowledged, and now is the opportunity to redirect their attention with something like, “Look at my silly banana! It’s so funny It can dance!” Everyone giggles and your toddler will not think twice about triangular shaped toast.
We want to empower our children. Teach them how to label their feelings and provide a safe place for them to emotionally express themselves. But we do not want to be held prisoner by those emotions. You can be mad, but that doesn’t mean that you get your way. When children can identify their feelings, we can then teach them how to regulate those difficult emotions more effectively and as they age we can then incorporate strategies that will serve them throughout their lives, like meditation. But that’s a blog for another day.
Karp, H. (2008). The Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful and Cooperative One-to Four-Year-Old: Revised Edition. Bantam.