I sought help from local parenting educator Yvonne Gustafson (aka Dr. Y) when I was going through my toddler-related frustrations with my younger son, and I loved the way she gave me the understanding (and the words) I needed to navigate those very trying situations. So I asked Dr. Y., co-author of Tools for the Toddler Years if she would be willing to address some of YOUR frustrations too. I collected your comments and sent them to her. Here is her letter to you:
Dear Real Mom Nutrition readers,
The parenting challenges many of you shared in the comments are exactly the challenges that inspired us to write this book—which means, just to make sure you are hearing it, you are not alone. The challenges are common, they are normal, but nonetheless: challenges.
As your comments reflect, young children have intense feelings and physical reactions, and while we treasure their uninhibited love and spontaneous joy, to be in the face of the big emotions that we have been taught to contain or avoid (like anger) can flood us with our own strong emotions. As children share their unfiltered response to inconvenience, hunger and tiredness, we can feel overwhelmed. This is when it is helpful to remember that young brains do not yet have the “hardware” to moderate intensity of expression.
I’ve found that when parents have a better understanding of what’s going on inside the brain, body and heart of the child, developmentally, it not only eases the frustration and confusion they feel, but provides a starting point for problem-solving.
For example, the toddler brain is twice as active as your brain, and it is learning, making complex associations and acquiring language at a breakneck pace. It is open and receptive, yet also without blinders or the capability to prioritize, categorize or anticipate. The abilities you unconsciously rely on every single day—time, memory, order, prediction, self-regulation—are simply not available to the toddler. From this developmental picture you can see why the toddler:
- can be easily overwhelmed (and may break down even when he is doing something fun)
- can shift in an instant (unable to anticipate her needs, she is never getting hungry, she just is hungry)
- can be challenged by waiting (without an understanding of time, he cannot grasp the reason for waiting nor can he look forward to the future pay-off—these coping skills we use every day, are not available for him)
- cannot control, manage or be talked out of her emotions
As parents, we don’t attempt to remove these challenges. We support and guide our children through the challenges and plant the seeds of learning. As someone who plans mealtimes and naptimes, you, of course, know that at this age we help to predict and manage their physical needs, but we can also support by:
- Preparing them for the routine (but, to them, unpredictable) stops and starts of the day by reporting what’s next: “We will put on your shoes, then get in the car and go to the store”
- Giving them some sense of control by offering two acceptable choices: “Blue shoes or white shoes?”
- Modeling by working in parallel: “Mommy’s got her shoes on, too”
- Showing a positive future: “At the store, you can help me find your favorite yogurt”
- Supporting the wait: Songs, stories, toys, your loving attention
- Creating a mental picture of positive behavior: It is more helpful to tell a child, “remember, you will do [positive],” than it is to tell him, “Don’t do [negative]!”
- Giving words to feelings: “You are sad that we cannot stay!”
But, always, one of the best ways to support your children is to support yourself. The very active toddler years can challenge the stamina of any person, and a rested and fed parent has more reserves to bring to the ebb and flow of a day. If you are reading this blog, clearly you care a great deal about feeding your family well. I encourage you to offer that same sense of care to yourself—feed your mind, feed your body and feed your spirit.
My best to you,
For more advice from Dr. Y on parenting topics including separation anxiety, preschool readiness, and discipline strategies, visit Your Parenting Matters.
Illustrations by Greg Bonnell
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