The interest in calm parenting approaches that deliver happy, well behaved toddlers is seemingly never ending and has provided rich fodder for parenting gurus and an extensive literature.
Recent additions to this stable include ToddlerCalm: A guide for calmer toddlers and happier parents” target=”_blank”>Toddler Calm and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame” target=”_blank”>No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline without Shame both of which offer helpful, practical tips for achieving this holy grail of parenting success.
Dealing with strong-willed and emotionally volatile toddlers can be draining at the best of times – add to that the inevitable cocktail of parental sleep deprivation and fast moving lives, and the potential for burn-out (or at least a sense of humour failure!) is significant. Our little boy has taught us that the key to staying sane – and, more importantly, enjoying our time together – is to be calm, clear, consistent and constructive (4C’s). Without wishing to add to an already over-burdened literature, I outline each one below.
In the heat of the moment, this can inevitably be easier said than done, but reacting emotionally not only tends to confuse communication, it also tends to distract from the issue at hand. Nothing is more likely to upset a toddler than seeing a parent or trusted caregiver upset or angry. They rely on us to be a stable and reassuring presence in an unfamiliar and uncertain world; all of the security they seek from us is lost if we lose control, leaving our toddlers in a very scary place indeed.
We have found it important to breathe deeply, count to 10 – whatever works to keep you calm – before reacting to undesirable behaviour. This keeps our, and our toddler’s, focus on communicating to find a resolution.
Toddlers have a very literal understanding of language and can be easily confused about what is being asked of them if the language we use is unclear. They follow us best when we use short, unambiguous sentences and allow a little pause for them to process before they respond. Getting this right though, is easier said than done as was demonstrated by my husband’s question to our son during breakfast yesterday:
“Would you like some more toast, or have you had enough?”
How was our son meant to answer this? To get more toast he’d have had to answer yes then no, to say he’d had enough he’d have had to answer no then yes. No wonder toddlers get frustrated trying to communicate what they want.
Inappropriate use of collective pronouns can also lead to ambiguous statements:
“We like playing with trains” is fine if you enjoy playing trains with your toddler.
“We don’t throw bricks?” is confusing – our toddlers may well think “you may not Mummy, but I do!”
We have found that using short, clear sentences and keeping language in the first person is the best way to prevent misunderstandings and support our son to make himself understood.
This is perhaps the hardest of the 4C’s to get right as it’s so easy in the heat of the moment – particularly if out in public, or late in the day when everyone’s tired – to condone or ignore behaviours that would otherwise be discouraged. Indeed, a whole section of parenting literature is dedicated to the phenomenon of ‘accidental parenting’ for just this reason. Nevertheless, we have also found this to be one of the most important aspects of our communication with our son: providing consistent messaging every time challenging behaviours – biting, hitting, throwing toys, etc.- emerge and, equally importantly, ensuring consistency in that messaging across caregivers be they parents, grandparents or child carers.
All toddlers inevitably present behavioural challenges, and will do so repeatedly, but in our experience these behaviours only become entrenched and problematic if they are sometimes allowed or even tacitly encouraged. This is not surprising when one understands that toddlers look to their parents and caregivers for guidance as to what are acceptable or, in an evolutionary sense, safe behaviours for them to exhibit. If a particular behaviour is often discouraged, but sometimes allowed – either through a ‘no, no, no, okay then have it your way’ approach or by different caregivers – it gives a strong message that the behaviour is okay and it will repeat or even become a source of attention seeking. Our approach has been to try to make challenging behaviours boring – the more boring the better! Our little boy gets the same message whenever he exhibits a particular behaviour so there’s no particular thrill involved in repeating it to see what happens.
A final and intuitive, but nevertheless important adjunct to the above is the need to be constructive in communicating with your toddler. In our experience this works best when applied in two ways:
- Firstly, whenever we can, we articulate the behaviour we want our son to exhibit not the one we want them to stop – for example ‘please sit nicely on the chair’ not ‘don’t stand on the chair’; ‘use your spoon to eat your yoghurt’ not ‘don’t use your fingers to eat your yoghurt’);
- Secondly, we try to remember our son’s need for help in thinking of alternative activities when he is presenting challenging behaviours.
This latter is particularly important when our son’s attention span is at its most limited – specifically when he is tired, hungry or uncomfortable. Often, in such circumstances, a well-timed “can you show mummy how you push your cars” is much more effective than a “for the third time please stop banging the cupboard door” although the latter can be far more tempting!
A final word
However good our relationship with our son, and however consistently we apply these approaches, there are still times when our son will act out and / or melt down. We have become a big fan of laughter as an emotional release.
We have found the 4C’s outlined above helpful in communicating with and enjoying our time with our son, but every child and family is different.