Hey, toddler parents: I see you.
We all know toddler life can be one of the most magical, rewarding times. Our children are discovering the world and themselves in it with big eyes and new, big words. At the same moment, it can be a challenging and triggering time, as they whine, cry, hit, throw tantrums, talk back…all the things.
We all want to be the calm parent who supports our child through difficult times. But let’s be real: Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we end up yelling or getting frustrated with our toddlers, and our calm goes right out the window. I want to help you understand why you’re getting triggered in these moments and how you can set firm, loving limits and keep your cool.
Let’s look at the following scenario: Your child asks for ice cream. “No ice cream today, bud,” you say. Within seconds, your child is crying and yelling, and a full-on tantrum ensues.
You’ve had it. You give everything to your kid, and still they ask for more. You’re tired, and you just want some peace and quiet. So you yell back something like, “Be quiet and stop crying! I told you no ice cream! No ice cream for you ever again!”
As soon as the words leave your mouth, you wish you could take them back. Your child takes a few steps backward, lowers their eyes, and runs to their room.
What happened? What took you from calm and cool to angry and lashing out in a matter of seconds?
There are usually a couple of reasons our child’s meltdowns trigger us. The first one is feeling depleted. When you have nothing in your tank, you have no calm or patience to draw from.
It’s crucial you take care of yourself, so you can show up as the parent you want to be. This may be a call with a friend, finding 10 minutes to savor a hot cup of coffee, trading childcare with trusted friends and family — whatever brings you joy and helps you feel connected to who you are.
The second and most powerful reason we’re triggered is from unhealed childhood wounds. We all have them. Perhaps your parents didn’t allow you to express your anger or frustration. Maybe you were shut down or sent to your room to be alone with your feelings, rather than given any resources or support on how to work through your emotions or express them in a healthy way.
It can be challenging to see your child take up space or be loud if you were taught you can’t do either. Even if you’re trying to be different from your own parents in some ways, during those triggered moments, we all tend to fall back on what we were taught as children. To change this, we have to become aware of and examine our triggers, and then rewire our reactions to them to reflect the parent we want to be.
What does this look like?
Let’s go back to the ice cream scenario. Your child has run back to his room. Maybe he’s feeling scared or embarrassed. Take three deep breaths — more if you need it — until you’ve calmed down. Then approach your child. “Hey bud, I’m sorry I yelled and maybe frightened you,” you say. “Mommy is going to work on not yelling. I love you, and I know you wanted ice cream. We won’t have ice cream today, but let’s pick a day that we can have ice cream.”
You can still hold a limit, but with love and compassion. And notice how there was no blame. We don’t want to blame our children for our reactions. These little people are just figuring it out, and it’s our job to help them learn.
This is our work. And you’re doing this work for your child and for you. The more you’re able to catch yourself in these tough moments, the better chance you have to shift to more mindful responses. I also encourage you to examine your past wounds and start healing them with a little awareness and compassion.
Yes, children can be challenging, annoying, loud, and hard to handle. But we want to help them learn how to behave, and part of that is modeling for them the behavior we want to see. That’s why this work is so powerful and important for us all.
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