Dear toddler parents,
There are some stages in our children’s lives we can’t avoid, like the “no” phase or the “mine” phase. They’re a part of their development, and however challenging they are for us as parents, our children are learning helpful and useful skills they need for resilience and socializing.
But with a little (or a lot) of work during the toddler years, there is one phase you can avoid: angsty.
You know the one. It’s the “I don’t know what I am feeling right now, these emotions are so uncomfortable and I’m going to shut you out because I don’t know how to cope” phase, usually seen in the teenage years.
So how do we defend against these angsty years and instead give our children the tools they need to process their emotions in a healthy and supportive way?
We connect — and we teach — rather than correct all the time and preach. And we can start doing this can in the toddler years.
Let’s say, for example, your toddler really wants to keep watching TV, but TV time is done. You can tell they are about to lose it. What now?
Connect with empathy: “You really wish you could watch more TV right now, my love. I understand. It is hard to not always get what we want.” And then hold the limit: “TV time is all done. Let’s go play our favorite song and have a dance party as we set the table for dinner.”
Oh no! Your child starts to scream and cry. Here’s where the defense against angst comes in.
Instead of scolding your child for crying, telling them they have nothing to cry about or threatening them with no dessert, you sit with them. You allow them to have those big emotions. And you give them some tools to work through them.
You don’t have to fix the emotions. Not all behaviors are okay, but emotions are okay. It’s okay to be mad, it’s not okay to hit.
So back to our example — and those tools.
You can acknowledge and narrate: “You’re disappointed and upset because you didn’t want to stop watching your show. It’s hard to stop something we like doing sometimes.” You can sit with your child while they work through the discomfort of hard emotions. You can offer them some tools like flower breaths and dance parties to their favorite songs. You can offer them a hug.
The point is, you are making space for that emotion and you are saying to your child, I am here to help you.
What does this teach your toddler and the future teenager and adult you are raising?
How emotions come and go. How to sit with the discomfort of big emotions. That their emotions are okay. What emotion they are having and how to work through it. That you are a safe person to share with, and you can handle their big emotions.
These skills translate into the teenage years and adult years. We all know adults who shut down their emotions, who cope with them in unhealthy ways, who never sit still long enough to let the emotion come and go. Heck, I do that sometimes.
But as a mom to two toddler girls, I try every day to model a new way of working through my emotions and support them doing the same.
We want our children to feel safe coming to us with their mistakes, worries, fears, and hurts, so that they don’t have to hold all those confusing emotions inside. We want to teach our children what they are feeling and how to move through these emotions, so they don’t get stuck in the land of angst. Angst is usually caused by confusion, not knowing what you are feeling, how to move through it or who to share it with.
We can’t avoid the angsty years altogether, but we certainly can make them more supportive than ours were.
Before you go, check out our favorite toys to keep kids off screens: