What is the biggest mistake a parent can make with a toddler?
Yesterday a father asked me this great question. Here is my answer.
First of all, most of us go off the rails in toddlerhood. When the child starts to move into autonomy and push back and push us away – we react.
Autonomy is an essential part of this developmental stage and most of us grown ups have some wounding here. Many of us didn’t get an accurate and consistent mirror in that phase of our development. Well meaning parents project onto children and over shadow the child’s experience with our own experiences and emotional wounding. When we do this, we lose track of the child’s perspective.
- We forget that the child does have a valid perspective.
- We forget that the toddler is just beginning to express their rising desires and wants. Even adults have difficulty expressing desires skillfully.
- We forget that we can acknowledge these desires and wants without indulging every single desire and want.
- We forget that the toddler doesn’t know the difference between a want and a need.
- We forget that much of our conflict with our toddler is that we are distinguishing this difference (want vs. need) for the child. How many adults can distinguish this difference?
- We forget how capable and competent the child is. We do for them what they are capable of doing themselves.
- We tell the child what their experience is before we gain more information by listening and observing first. It can be subtle or obvious in adults, but start to notice how grown ups like to tell children what the child’s experience is.
We distract a child out of their experience rather than remaining present and supportive. The child gets upset and cries. We distract them out of and away from their feelings. Or we try to convince the child that they are feeling something other than what they are feeling.
be happy – be satisfied – be calm – be quiet – be still – be nice – be agreeable
Don’t take your child’s development personally!
We sometimes take the child’s behaviors personally and we get hurt or upset ourselves when the toddler is doing their normal toddler behavior. Here are a few behaviors the toddler tests out on us.
- pushing against boundaries
- testing the limits
Here is the deal – It is bound to happen. At some point we all react. We are human. We do it to other grown ups as well. As long as we can balance this with allowing the child to authentically express the self and support the child (emotionally and physically) rather than deny, suppress, fix, edit, rescue or make them wrong in any way, we are on a good track. When we have the presence of mind to do this, or get back to doing this when we get off track, we offer more opportunities for the child to become fully and wholly who they truly are.
The work you do now in creating honest open communication with your toddler will pay off in ways unimaginable when she/he is a teenager. What we want is for our children to know we can handle any and all of their feelings and their reactions. We may not like it, we may be disappointed, we may even get angry, but we will not leave relationship. And we will not make them wrong for feeling how they feel.
- We will listen and hold onto ourselves.
- We will acknowledge that we see and hear them.
- We will empathize and have compassion.
- We will reassure them when reassurance is needed.
- And we will model the fact that sometimes we react.
- And we will model the ongoing possibility that we can increasingly own our own reactions.
And we will do none of this perfectly. Thank goodness we don’t need to. We just need to keep at it and strive for good enough!
Here is the truth: In my experience and observations this statement continues to be proven correct – what we resist persists.
If we continue to take developmentally appropriate behavior personally and we react, we guarantee one thing – the child will continue to do the very behavior that annoys us. When we let go of our reaction, the child can let go of their persistence, they feel seen and often they move on and change their behavior.
We want the child to change and then we will be OK. In parenting and in all relationship we will be sorely disappointed if we are depending on another person’s behavior and actions in order to be OK with the self. We are responsible for our behavior and actions and might as well turn the focus to the self.
The toddler still has a mostly underdeveloped self soothing system. Therefore, WE have a major influence over their “regulatory system”. In other words we help them self soothe and self regulate. Therefore, if we want to give them the support they need/deserve we must grab ahold of the self, self-regulate, self-soothe and show up in an integrated and non reactive state.
Their behavior will eventually change anyway. And even if their behavior doesn’t change in the moment, I assure you, it feels a hell of alot better to NOT get all jacked up it in the meantime. This practice takes time and practice. Start now and you might be (sort of) ready for your teenager.