Those sweet months of snuggling your tiny helpless baby in your arms went by in a flash, didn’t they? Now you have a spirited little person who is moving faster than you can keep up as he explores and discovers how his body works – as he climbs and jumps off whatever he has climbed on – and how things work – from how the dog reacts when its tail is pulled to what happens when I press this switch or throw this object. One minute your terrific toddler will seem like a confident little person on his way to work out the big wide world and the next he will be back in your lap or at your breast to refill his love tank ready for his next adventure.
It can be confusing being the parent of a toddler. Until now, your dear baby’s needs and wants were the same and you found your groove and began to trust yourself as you responded to his cues. Your baby was happy. He thrived and you enjoyed each other and if things went a bit ‘pear shaped’, you simply nursed him and the world became calm. But now, you start to wonder, how do we gently guide his behavior? Are we ‘giving in’ if we respond to his every request, especially as he starts to become much more persistent about what he wants, even when it isn’t in his best interests? And, what about all those comments about how he is ‘too big for that’ when he slides his chubby hand inside your shirt, groping for the comfort of his ‘boobies.’
As well as your own uncertainty about this new stage, the pressure around children’s behavior increases as your toddler grows into a walking talking tot with a strong and cheeky spirit. Your family and complete strangers all seem to have an opinion about how to ‘train’ your child – and the dire consequences if you don’t teach him to obey.
The thing is, your toddler isn’t hardwired to create trouble or to ignore you, even though it may seem like this a lot of the time. He doesn’t wake up each day thinking, how can I keep my mother on her toes today?
Your little one’s urge to explore is innate, his brain wiring that enables impulse control isn’t on board yet, he is starting to have big emotions but his capacity to manage these big feelings depends on the development of his prefrontal cortex and this will take a few years yet.
This means a new style of communication is beginning but it doesn’t mean you need to be harsh or punitive. And you don’t need to dampen the spirit of your little explorer. You can gently guide your terrific toddler with respect and love. And in turn, through your own modeling, he will learn how to communicate his needs with respect and consideration for others.
See all behavior as a communication
So often when small children’s behavior becomes ‘inconvenient’ , onlookers will tell you ‘it’s behavioural’ , as though your little one is motivated by some sort of malicious intent. Or, ‘he is just seeking attention.’ Attention is a legitimate need – we have been used to meeting a younger baby’s needs promptly because they are right there, they can’t get their own food or drink, they need intensive care to simply survive and they need our close supervision to keep them safe. However, as our little ones begin to walk and move away from us more independently, we aren’t as focused on them as they get on with things. They don’t yet have the communication skills to ask us for what they need whether this is food or drink or an emotional top- up. So, they may express their feelings through emotional outbursts or they may hit or grab or bite.
If we can see what to us may even look like a violent reaction to frustration, as communication, rather than manipulation or ‘bad’ behavior, we can stay calm and help toddlers work things out. Instead of reacting with anger or embarrassment, it can help to try and see the child’s perspective – ‘my child is having a problem, rather than being a problem.’
When we look at the meaning behind the behavior and try to understand what is happening for the child, it is much easier to support little ones to manage their big feelings. By being present and aware of your toddler’s ‘triggers’ and capacity to cope with different situations, you will begin to notice the signals that a meltdown is on the way, just as you learned your tiny baby’s early cues. This way, you can move in early and you may be able to avert challenging behavior that really just means, I want to connect to you right now or, I am finding this place really overwhelming, please help me take a break. Or, if you need to say ‘no’ to an adventure you will be gently teaching your toddler to cope with disappointment as you guide him safely, with love and show him an alternative way to express himself. For instance, “we don’t hurt kitty, use your gentle hands (as you take his hand and show him how to gently stroke the cat). “
Filling your toddler’s love tank
Just as your little person has physical needs for food, sleep and a gentle rhythm to his day, he has emotional needs for connection with you. He needs touch, eye contact and moments of focused attention to help him balance his calming chemistry at a physiological level and to meet his emotional needs for connection too.
When you fill his little ‘love tank’ by tuning in to your terrific toddler, he will find it easier to express himself calmly and you will find it easier to communicate with less frustration for both of you.
If your toddler is still breastfeeding, he will be filling his tiny tank with all the elements of connection and communication as well as nutrition and immunity, but it can help to be aware of meeting his needs in other ways as he grows beyond this special relationship:
Touch – give little hugs, a backrub, a kiss on the back of his silky neck. Try making a pizza on his back, letting him choose the imaginary ingredients as you use strokes that match, such as spreading, chopping, stroking, sprinkling, then rubbing as you cook the pizza then ‘slice’ it and gobble it all up!
Eye contact: stop, drop to your child’s level and make eye contact as you listen and respond to his chatter, extending his language as you reflect back to him what he is trying to tell you.
Focussed attention: Notice the good things your little one is doing, rather than ignoring him until something goes wrong. Rather than setting up a pattern of praising that can backfire in the longer term as he seeks constant praise for the smallest thing, try using a technique called ‘mirroring’: reflect back what your little one is doing,”thankyou for shutting the car door.” Then add a quality, “that’s really helpful.” This way you are filling your little one’s tank so he starts to see himself as kind, strong, responsible, funny (whatever). This is far more nourishing to his self-esteem than ‘empty praise’ such as ‘clever girl’ or ‘good boy’ and can be used at any age. For instance, later on you may say, “wow! You read five pages all by yourself!” This is far more believable to a child than telling them, “what a good reader!”
You can give your child tangible evidence that they are capable and it all began with tuning in and filling his tiny love tank.
An edited version of this blog was first published in Breastfeeding Today, the La Leche League online magazine. Pinky McKay is the author of best-selling book Toddler Tactics – this is available on audio as well as book on Pinky’s website, You can also download Pinky’s recording series of interviews with professionals – Loving guidance and Terrific Toddlers HERE