This post is a continuation of these 2 posts, check them out too! This perspective comes from Aware Parenting.
Why Teaching Your Toddler to Behave Isn’t Working
The Problem With Traditional Approaches to Toddler Behaviors
Now–how to handle those toddler behaviors!
- As always, first keep everyone safe.
- Trust your child. It can be hard to see in the moment, but he is acting out of wisdom, even though it doesn’t look like how grown-ups do it.
- Trust yourself. You and your child are on the same team—you’re both seeking connection. There’s nothing wrong with your child or you; you just need some new information. No lie, it will be challenging sometimes.
If your child is crying or upset
Perfect! Your child has already arrived at a healing point on his own. The following assumes your child is healthy, with no medical issues or injury.
- Stay with him, hold space, and allow the big feelings to happen.
- Accept your child’s feelings (often called “negative emotions”—or is it actually wisdom?)
- Allow your child to cry for as long as needed or as long as you can hold space. This may be 5 min to an hour, or even more if he’s trying to process some old stressful experiences.
- Keep staying present with your child and holding space.
- Your child will be able to stop crying on his own. This process will be naturally ‘regulating,’ to use a term you might hear. You’ll find that he’s much calmer and more connected afterward.
If you’re unsure of the process or find it too difficult or stressful to let your child cry in your presence, please take the next step and reach out. This is not a bad thing—every parent has questions—it just depends at which point in the process.
For more about crying and stress signals, read here >
If your child is acting out, but not crying
This usually means your child is acting on some big feelings instead of expressing them. Your job? Aim for bridging this gap—it’s the feelings underneath that need to find a way out.
- If he hits you, say “Ow that hurts” in respect of your body and boundaries
- Maintain boundaries that make sense, but avoid punishments, time out, or separation
- If crying begins, this is the golden ticket—accept and allow! Don’t feel you need to fix it.
- Acknowledge “We’re not going to do that right now, but you can cry if you need to”
Also, look for two things surrounding the behavior:
- Are there any current stressors going on in your family’s lives or big changes? Your child might need help processing those things. Symbolic play can help with this.
- Look for symbols in whatever triggered the behavior. For example: a toy got stuck, child is frightened by an enclosed space, has seemed demanding, screams when anything goes over his head: each of these relates to birth experiences.
When a particular behavior, or even sleep challenge, seems stuck or obsessive, there are often (***OFTEN***!! Like 90% of the time) links to early experiences that he’s trying to process.
Take this seriously; children often need support in processing those experiences so they can settle and move on with life—the earlier, the better. This is an example of something you don’t want to inadvertently override through punishments or distractions.
The immense benefits
Once your toddler’s underlying communication or need is met, the behavior typically resolves, or at least reduces, by itself. They still may need help understanding boundaries—that’s a normal dimension to life and interacting with other people. But typically you’ll find that the behavior in question never even needs to be taught.
Always remember, behavior is communication. Your loving acceptance will allow your child to:
- Let stress and feelings out instead of repressing them
- Trust his gut feeling and have a more accurate read on situations, people, and the safety of the environment
- Trust that he can share openly and honestly with you, even once he’s a teenager
- Build on innate communication skills that will serve him throughout his life, in all roles he may take on
This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s imperative to let go of the surface-level behavior (for now) and dive straight into the deep end. Your child is attempting to communicate and make sense of his experiences. It’s critical to understand the deeper needs and inner workings of what’s going on in your toddlers’ ‘head’—for the sake of your relationship and journey together through life!
Here’s the link again so you can read this one too for the necessary mind shift (why teaching behavior isn’t working).
Lastly, there’s another realm of ways to handle behaviors, which I’ll save for another time—“attachment play.” But you can read more here >