“I can’t take it anymore”
This mum had had enough of her son’s volatile outbursts and hurtful language. One minute he would stroke her face lovingly, and the next he would slap her and scream because she told him to stop using her as a climbing frame.
“He is so demanding and he just does not accept that I can’t play with him all the time”
One of things that can feel so hard about this time of life, is that we are dealing with a host of things all at once. Whether we know intellectually that this stage is looming, we have no idea how it will affect us to see our child transition from cute little helpless baby to a more autonomous and inner directed individual.
It’s perfectly normal to feel – all at once:
- Grief at the loss of your cute little helpless baby
- Loss of sovereignty – not being able to easily lead your child.
- Lack of clarity as to what is going on for your child and what your role in this phase is.
It can be a strong cocktail and because life is unrelenting with little children in the house, it can feel like we are constantly fighting fires and trying to extinguish big meltdowns.
You might be wondering;
What is even going on? And how do I successfully navigate this phase?
Here’s what’s going on?
The whole point of childhood is to individuate and eventually become an autonomous being. Because the infant does not initially experience any separateness from mum, it is exhilarating for a young child to discover that, not only do I have a body that can take me around but I also have a will of my own.
And it is this tension between the possibilities of life on the one hand and limitations of life on the other, that give rise to the developmental task of this stage:
Learning to tolerate frustration and developing emotional resilience.
Not easy, when your toddler’s brain is wired like a racing car; for pleasure, adventure and exploration, and adding to that – little to no brake system built in.
Your toddler knows what he wants, and has the drive to act on it but lacks the self-regulation skill to delay gratification and acting on what they KNOW versus on what they FEEL.
From frustration to acceptance
Knowing what is going on for our toddler and what the purpose of this stage of their life is might make it easier to navigate the seeming madness.
Your child will learn during those toddlers years, important lessons about what is possible in this world and what isn’t. Some of these things are facts of life, and some of these are down to you as a parent on a day to day – moment to moment basis:
- I cannot always have my mum or dad to myself (I might even have to share them with a sibling)
- I cannot always have what I desire (or have it when I like)
- Things cannot always be fixed / undone (ice creams melt and toys get destroyed if we drop them)
- Time cannot be stopped (no matter how much fun you are having)
- I don’t yet master what I want to be able to master (Learning takes practice and time)
- Other people have skills that are better than mine (I’m not amazing at everything – but I’m still loved)
The mistake we tend to make, is that we assume that our toddler’s brain works like ours and that we can teach them these lessons through logic:
“I told you, we can’t always have a toy when we go shopping”
“I did tell you, if you faff around there won’t be any time left for bedtime stories”
“I told you not to run or you would drop that ice cream”
There is nothing wrong with the logic in these statements, however, these do not help our toddler to develop emotional resilience. These lessons are taught through the tears and felt experience of frustration, sadness and impotence that getting a no involve.
And when we understand that, we can begin to ALLOW – rather than DISTRACT our child from their feelings by making everything okay the minute something upsets them.
Here’s what you can do
Take a deep breath
No really.. DO!
It IS testing our patience to see that what we say falls on deaf ears and to hold space for the ensuing grief that our no is invariably going to cause. Adding to that, most toddlers tend to grieve horizontally – kicking and screaming and it can feel like you have done it all wrong.
Yet, when we set boundaries from a place of empathy, acknowledging how important it feels to them WHILE saying no, refraining from fixing, minimising or distracting, we can rest assured that we have helped our child.
When your child goes from mad to sad at the boundary it is a sign that your child trusts you with their heart and that the futility has registered. The less we say to justify our reasons or offer moral lessons the less we extend this grief of what wasn’t possible.
All emotions have a beginning, middle and an end
This can be helpful to remember when our child is in floods of tears or melting down on the floor. The energetic charge of an emotion lasts no more than 20 minutes, and learning to regulate ourselves in this period of time, can be one of the greatest gifts we can give ourself and our child.
Often saying less helps. Our empathy is not only felt in the words we say, but in our body language and our non judgement of what is going on. Even if we have to say no to certain accompanying beahaviours:
“You feel frustrated right now. And I can’t let you hit me. I’ll sit here with you”
Toddlers, like adults can sense whether we are genuine or not. And it is important that we pay close attention to how our words and body language affects our child in these situations and don’t concern yourself too much with saying ‘the right thing’.
After a whirlwind of emotions have filled both you and your child, it can feel a little emotional to reflect on what just happened. Some parents describe it as a black out – and many toddlers struggle to make sense of what overcame it.
Now that the emotions have settled and you have access to your toddler’s thinking brain, you might want to help your child make sense of what upset them – careful not to shame their reaction.
“You found it really hard that I said no, huh?”
“Was it when….”
Allow them to air their perspective. This does not mean you go back on your boundary, but that they can regain some autonomy and uphold their integrity.
“You felt I was really unfair”
Listening is the best medicine. And the repair happens when we can hear each other and wipe the board clean. Whether you a raising a toddler or an older child, this way of relating will teach your child the healing power of repair and emotional resilience and good self-esteem will naturally emerge.