Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Pinky McKay, IBCLC, Australia
Photos: Christina SimantiriEspañol
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 onto. How far can he push the limits by testing them (and you)?
He wants to see 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 so he’s 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 until 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 and impulse control hasn’t been wired on board yet. He is starting to have big emotions, but his capacity to manage these big feelings depends on the development of the prefrontal cortex in his brain 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 behavior as a communication
So often when small children’s behavior becomes inconvenient, onlookers will tell you it’s behavioral 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, they need intense care to simply survive. 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 to 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).
Give your child tangible evidence that he is capable. There’s a lot to learn and it all begins with tuning in and filling his tiny love tank.
Pinky McKay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby, Parenting by Heart and Toddler Tactics. She is a former La Leche League Leader from New Zealand, now living in Australia with her “Aussie” husband and family: five adult children and three grandchildren.