I’d had about enough. My daughter was in some type of angry zone, upset at the world, mad at everyone. She woke up on the wrong side of the bed—again—and we wound up in some spiral tug-of-war of wills. She sobbed, she screamed, she refused to brush her hair—I could handle all that. Then she threw a small book at her toddler sister, hitting her in the back and leaving a mark. I felt myself almost lose it.
When someone, even someone you love, intentionally hurts your baby, the feeling that surfaces (brace yourselves, it’s about to get real here) is RAGE. I’ve never felt that way toward my own daughter until the book incident ensued. It was a feeling of confusion, of desperation. A feeling that I must be doing this mom thing all wrong, that I need to go to stinkin’ parenting school myself, that I’m a mom fraud.
My initial gut reaction? To scream. To be mean back. To move immediately to punishment. To treat my firstborn like the enemy or a monster.
That’s not what you expected? Me neither. It’s definitely not the picture of a perfect pediatrician, but it is the truth because it turns out, I am human. It also turns out, I thankfully remembered at that moment, so is she. Well, actually, a little song started playing in my head that helped remind me.
“People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed. But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best. True love brings out the best.”
Sound eerily familiar? Yep, the Frozen soundtrack was my saving grace at that moment (I knew that movie would be good for something one day). Seriously, as cheesy as it may sound, that tune has it exactly right when it comes to early childhood behavior and successful parenting. It’s the crux of emotion coaching and of collaborative problem solving: an assumption that all people want to do and be their best but that traumas, circumstances, skill deficits, and developmental immaturities keep them from it a lot of the time. An understanding that our most important parenting goal should be to coach our kids toward desired behaviors, not to punish them for their ineptitudes.
Think about it this way: if you were in charge of a beginning-level soccer team and one player hadn’t eaten breakfast, leaving him without any energy, and he couldn’t run down the field, would you get mad at him or would you feed him? If he missed a goal, would you sit him out of the game or would you work on his kicking skills? If he had an incomplete pass, would you run over in the middle of the game and explain in an irritated voice how he failed or would you use the next practice to build his skills? If you did storm onto the field in a fit of anger, it not only would be inappropriate, it would be ludicrous.
When you are a good coach, you think about where your player is going, not where they are now. You work with them toward the goals you share. You consider it your role to teach and guide. We have to think about our parenting in the same goal-oriented way if we want to be successful.
Does that mean we just let our kids run free and wild, hurting others along the way, with no accountability? Not at all. Does that mean we bend to every unhealthy request our kids make? Not in the least. Does that mean we never get angry or upset? That’s impossible. It does mean that we first think of our children as people, who usually act out based on feelings and needs, not spite. It means we do the following:
We remember that, in 99% of cases, our children’s behaviors do not constitute emergencies. We almost always have time to stop, get ourselves peaceful, and then move to action.
We reality check our deepest fears and disappointments. In those whirlwind moments of toddler and preschool parenting, the fears that we’ve been storing down in the depths make their way to the forefront of our minds quite often. But fears like my child is on a path toward a career as a complete sociopath or my kids will never love each other, while seemingly real in the moment, are hardly ever based in reality. Remember, aiming for perfectly-behaved kids is unrealistic and unfair. We can’t let our fears dictate our in-the-moment parenting responses.
We own our own emotions and role-model healthy ways to deal with those feelings that rise to the surface when we’re triggered. It’s perfectly okay to say to your child, “Mommy feels scared and angry right now. I need to take a second to calm down.” In fact, when we consistently acknowledge what’s going on for us inside and demonstrate how to deal with the raw feelings we have in nonviolent, non-harmful ways, we are showing our kids how they can do the same.
We broadcast and emotion coach. “Jill is frustrated she can’t play with that toy right now” or “Owen is disappointed he can’t have an ice cream today.”
We set firm limits and rules about what is okay and what is not. When our kids use inappropriate methods to express their emotions and get their needs met, we help them find an alternative solution. “We don’t hit. We don’t yell at our loved ones and friends. Can you think of another option?”
We use time-outs sparingly and natural consequences wisely. A book to the back of a sibling? In my house, that is a line we don’t cross. However, time-outs don’t have to be angry, drag-out power-struggles. They can be a chance to help kids stop and get control of themselves. Check out tips from Zero to Five author Tracy Cutchlow on the topic here. If we do set a consequence for an action, we make it logical and attainable (like taking away a privilege or helping to clean up a mess that was made), not far-fetched or punitive for the whole family (“That’s it! No playdates for a month!”).
We allow, whenever possible, our children to brainstorm their own solutions.“You’ll need your hair brushed before we can leave. You want to keep playing right now. What should we do?”
The toddler years are full of magic and wonder, but they can also be full of stress and turmoil. When your kids act like little monsters, first attend to your own emotions, learn to respond versus react, and use tantrums and “bad’ behavior first and foremost as teaching moments—steps along the path to emotional self-regulation and effective problem-solving. If you do, you’ll build a team of healthy, resilient human beings.