Welcome to the wonderful world of toddlerhood! It can be tough keeping up with those little growing minds and all the antics that come with their adventures. Whether you are a stay at home parent or managing the juggle, there will be times where you question if you are going to make it through the day unscathed.
The good news is you are not alone – this is all part of parenting toddlers! We asked Child Behaviour Expert, Stephanie Wicker to share her top 5 tips for connecting with toddlers.
1. Understand their behaviour is not personal
There is truly no better place to start when discussing a connection with your toddler. I believe that most parents long for a strong connection with their children often those early moments of defiance and aggression can get in the way. When children are in a constant state of defiance behave aggressively, it can become unbearable.
“Why is this so hard?” Our ‘internal why’s’ can begin to take over and disrupt our calm confidence. “Why is he always so angry at me?” or “Why doesn’t she like me anymore?” are natural responses when confronted with aggressive behaviour.
During these early years of childhood development, challenges will arise daily. Behaviour (even the big, loud behaviour) is a form of communication. Here are three quick reasons your child is experimenting with tantrums and aggressive behaviours during those early years and why it is not personal.
- Your child has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex meaning they are primarily using their reactive, primal brain.
- Your child does not understand other people have different needs and experiences from their own.
- Your child will naturally crave control over difficult situations, same as you, only their best options are aggression, defiance and disobedience at this point.
Deep breath!! This may seem insurmountable but I have some wonderful news for you. It’s not! Understanding your child’s emotional brain is a big step towards strengthening your connection in the heat of the moment. When we understand why someone is doing something we may not like, it empowers us to empathise with that person and find a connection.
This takes me to my next point about being able to empathise and adjust our behaviour towards their emotional reactions.
2. Choose your battles
Be aware of how often you may be evoking big emotional outbursts unnecessarily. This is a big one. Because your youngster is primarily relying on their primal brain to make decisions, which means that evoking a tantrum or outburst is really easy to accomplish.
When your toddler experiences anything that interrupts their expectations, their emotional brain identifies it as a ‘stressor’ and goes into red alert.
A brain on red alert will amplify ‘problems’, leading to overreactive and unreasonable choices. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a typical two year old! Interrupting your toddler’s expectations can be as simple as saying, “No, you can’t climb on the stove.” The moment you introduce a stressor such as, “No”, “Wait” or “Not now”, what little reasoning ability they had, has now flown out the window, leaving you with a big ball of emotions instead.
This is why I encourage parents to choose their battles! There will be times when the only rational answer is, “No.” That’s part of life! However, there will also be plenty of opportunities to reframe our answers and avoid unnecessary stressors on a toddler’s emotional brain.
Because toddlers become familiar with the word “No” early on in their development, it can be an instant spark for their brain stem where the fight/flight response is stored. Parents can boost their little one’s cooperation, by monitoring how often they use the word “No”.
Think about it this way, how often do you say, “No” when you really mean “Not now.” Because you know there is something more important that needs to take place immediately. Maybe your little one needs to put their shoes on and get in the car but instead, they ask for a book. This is a great opportunity to drop “No” and instead say, “Sure, let’s get your shoes on first then we can choose a book for the car ride.”
This simple adjustment can make a big difference for your little one’s emotional brain and help you remain connected – while still feeling like you are actually going to get out the door sometime today!
3. Take interest in their interests
Another small, simple way to remain connected with your toddler is by taking interests in their interests. How often are you placing demands versus simply spending time and asking questions about them?
I was talking to a mama this week, about ways she could connect with her toddler more. She was sharing all the activities that she sets up for her youngster and how she takes him with her everywhere. She clearly was passionate about spending time with him but she found he would avoid her often and run away a lot.
As much as I loved hearing her ideas for learning activities, I felt it was important to also shine a light on what he wanted. There should always be time for learning, of course, so long as we remember to make time for their interests as well. Better yet, use their interests as learning opportunities by incorporating your activities into their favourite interests.
Engage in what they have interest in, by sitting on the floor and asking them relevant questions. This is the most ideal way to learn about your little one’s interests. Asking simple, enjoyable questions so your child has the opportunity to show off what they love, will instantly boost your connection. This also opens doorways into better overall cooperation and fun!
4. Make floor time a priority
If taking interest in their interests is on our top 5 list , then this one has to be here too! It’s impossible to have strong connections with people that we don’t spend enough time with.
I remember hearing a mama share with me how she never enjoyed playing games with her children. Racing cars, pretending to cook meals and dressing up dolls did not appeal to her. It wasn’t intentional, she just found herself bored.
If we’re honest, I think we can all empathise with her honesty. Some days we just don’t feel like playing. Hoping to encourage her, I reminded her how little one’s don’t need us by their side all day, every day. Even just a few minutes every hour that you are home together, is enough if that time is spent completely committed to engaging in their interests.
A good rule of thumb is: Schedule five-ten minutes for every hour that you are home together for floor time.
For quick, intermittent interactions you can use high fives, winks and gentle pats on the back as a way of “checking in” and keeping that connection strong. So long as we are showing up 100% for a few minutes each hour that connection will blossom.
5. Remember to relax!
This is probably that hardest one! After all this information it is easy to wonder, “Am I doing this all right?”
Breathe in, breathe out. Your toddler is not looking for perfection. One of the greatest gifts of parenthood is that your child loves you for you. We all have ‘off days’. We all experience moments where we yell too loud or stay in the bathroom a little longer than necessary, just looking for that moment of escape.
I have been working with families for over fifteen years and something every parent has had in common is that question, “Am I doing okay?” From school principals, to stay at home mums, all the parents have asked me in some form, “Am I doing okay?” Because it’s not about being perfect, it’s about making it through the day. Some days you won’t be able to be your best and that’s fine!
A little reminder…
I read a mum’s post yesterday and it brought me to tears. She was saying how hard their morning had been. Her little one had been screaming, she had been screaming, everyone was just over it. They somehow managed to get out the door in time for his school recital. When she found her seat and waited for the recital to begin, she couldn’t help but go over how awful their morning had been. She couldn’t believe how angry she was. Surely, her son was feeling the same way, questioning his relationship with her and wondering how his own mother could yell at him like that!
But as she wiped a tear away and looked up onto the stage, her son was not simmering in anger or stressing over their argument, he was eagerly waving to her with a big smile. “Over her mummy! Look at me!”
You see, children just see their mummy. There is no comparison game, like we often play with other parents, they just see us. Beautiful, imperfect us. So, breathe mama and relax. You are doing just fine.