A Good Reminder For When Our Toddlers Grate On Our Last Nerve

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 

“I hate this family!” my daughter screams, stomping off to her bedroom and attempting to slam the door. When it doesn’t close all the way, she howls, as if she’s been seriously injured. The only thing that’s hurt is her pride — and my eardrums.

No, I’m not talking about one of my tweens. The one throwing the epic tantrum over the fact that I announced it’s time to get on PJs for bed, is my preschooler. Luckily, this isn’t my first rodeo. As a mom of four kids, my youngest is currently in the toddler-tantrum phase. However, despite a lot of experience behind me, the losing-their-shit can make me want to lose mine.

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Does something happen when a child turns one-ish? Is there a switch that is flipped that makes them go from our precious angels who can do no wrong to doing every single possible thing to test our patience? I’m guessing that mothers have been asking these questions since the beginning of time.

If parenting your young child makes you want to run and hide, you are not alone. Even though this isn’t my first rodeo — I have four kids and my youngest is currently a preschooler — the typical behaviors can grate my last nerve. My child can be giddy-happy-silly one minute and an emotional hurricane the next.

Most days I just roll with it. After all, I know she’ll get over her big feelings soon enough or calm down enough for us to speak rationally to one another. But other days, I swear I’m in some sort of parenting experiment, being tested and tricked.

Here’s what I know to be true. Toddlers are supposed to explore, which means they’re going to make a lot of messes and mistakes. They are also very likely going to have tantrums, and there is a reason behind this. Our toddlers aren’t trying to be irrational or annoying. The American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Many times these tantrums happen because they can’t tell you what they want in words.”

They suggest that when children “use happy sounds or words” to get attention, parents should smile in response. Additionally, we should “look at them when they use their words.” Too often, we are so distracted, not giving our kids the same eye contact, controlled voice, and kind words that we expect our children to use. We can lead by example by actively and appropriately listening.

They also suggest that parents take on “Purposeful Parenting” by asking ourselves what we want for our kids. If want to raise our kids to become adults who are “healthy, happy, and productive,” we need to start now. Kids desire to learn new skills, and we get to be the ones to teach those to them. Note that even if you follow the steps perfectly, your toddler is still going to tantrum. Instead of fighting against your toddler’s natural inclinations, you will work with them to teach them how to cope and communicate.

Purposeful Parenting has six key points: being protective, personal, progressive, positive, playful, and purposeful. In order to be protective, we have to meet our kiddos’ basic needs, decrease toxic stressors. First up is being protective, which needs to be done at an appropriate level. We need to give them some wiggle room without being too permissive. Boundaries and realistic expectations are a good thing. The reality is, we cannot control our toddler’s whims to get into the kitchen cabinets, throw food off their high chair tray, or turn into a wet noodle in the middle of the Target because you accidentally brought the purple sippy cup instead of the yellow one.

To be personal, we need to accept our child and love them, avoid name-calling and labeling the child “good or bad.” We need to name behaviors and emotions and teach our child strategies such as how to use their words when they’re upset. Too often, parents deem their kids “naughty” or “nice” based on fleeting behaviors, which is unhelpful.

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Progressive parenting skills include changing our parenting based on our child’s age and stage. This includes discipline. We need to also take it upon ourselves to learn child development in order to better parent and reduce personal frustration and stress. Don’t forget that positives matter, cheering for our kids in specific ways. As the AAP reminds us, “It is much easier to teach the behavior we want than to control unwanted behavior!”

Being positive means avoiding spanking that increases stress. Spanking teaches children that parents are threats, not allies. They remark that “physical punishments become less effective over time and teach children that adults react to strong emotions with violence.” On the flipside, “Optimism reduces stress and builds confidence.” Forgiveness goes a long way, too, reminding your child that they will do better next time. We should catch our kids making good choices and praise them for this.

To be playful, we need to, unshockingly, engage in play with our kids. One example the AAP offers is reading. Let your kiddo choose an activity and then let them take the lead. Offer your undivided attention. Yes, making time to sit and play with our kids isn’t always easy, but “it strengthens your relationship with your child.”

Purposeful parenting means being “mindful of the child’s needs” and choosing to be intentional in our “attempts to meet those needs, even when the going gets tough.” To do this, we need to remember our long-term goals, as well as “nurture the basic skills that children need to be successful.” These include language, social skills, and self-control (emotional regulation). We can model these through our own reactions to life’s situations.

Remember, all of us take action based on a need or desire, our kids included. We need to become detectives and figure out what the need is behind our child’s behavior. The AAP also notes that the child’s reason behind a tantrum, for example, might be something very basic like they are tired, scared, need attention, desire to prove they can do something, or have an idea. Remember, toddlers may not have the words to express the need, so parents have to do some serious digging. We can ask questions, encouraging conversation rather than yelling, hitting, or throwing toys.

Reading these recommendations can be overwhelming. Parenting is a big, difficult, every-evolving job, especially when it comes to the patience we need to parent a child prone to (literally) bouncing off the walls and throwing tantrums. However, I’m going to expend energy either way, so I’m opting to use it to teach coping and communication skills rather than fighting my child’s natural tendencies to explode.

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