I was recently crowned ‘world’s meanest mom’ by my two-year-old son because I refused to let him throw his milk cup across the living room floor. Seriously. The simple command of “No Harrison.” was all it took to transform that sweet, smiling boy into a snotty, tear stained, irrational, emotional mess simply because I wouldn’t let him make a mess with his milk. Notice the irony?
Toddlers are crazy. You know, I frequently refer to my own kids as ‘toddler tornadoes’ and obviously, I use that phrase with the utmost love and sincerity, but it really is the most defining definition for this developmental stage of crazy. This is a stage defined by exhausting, impulsive, and unpredictable storm clouds of emotion. Moments of happiness one minute and pure rage the next. The only way to haphazardly control the chaos is by trying to simultaneously assume the roles of detective (investigating the problem), counselor (calming the child), and principal (managing the behavior) and even then… I’m still often left wide-eyed and speechless amongst a storm of madness. My kids make me crazy. I bet your kids make you crazy too. We love them. I’m sure they’re all great… but I can say with raw certainty that they’re also greatly capable of turning super patient moms into super impatient “momsters” … Yep. I’ll admit it. Sometimes, even though I try my best to have the patience of a saint, I crack.
Crack. Breakdown. Reach a breaking point leaving me with feelings of defeat and guilty of moments I’m less than proud of… Maybe I yelled too loudly, spoke too harshly, or responded unfairly. Maybe I slammed the door. Maybe I overreacted. Listen… I would bet that Mr. Rogers (my idea of the quintessential parent) even overreacted with his kids sometimes (although I have to be honest, that one is hard to imagine). It’s basic humanity. We aren’t perfect. In fact, our imperfection is what makes us human. Recently I had one of those cracking moments in which I stormed down the hallway and scolded my kids for fighting and throwing a toy and in the heat of the moment, I snatched the toy out of my daughter’s hand and threw it across the room. You know what happened next? My three-year-old daughter called me out for throwing…. Touché, dear child.
Newsflash #1. Parents aren’t perfect and it’s an unfair expectation for us to confront meltdowns and tantrums “Mr. Rogers style” 100% of the time.
Newsflash #2. Toddlers aren’t perfect and it’s an unfair expectation for them to understand and control their own meltdowns and tantrums 100% of the time.
I’m going to go ahead and make a blanket statement that might make you a little uncomfortable but here we go anyway- All parents are guilty of setting unfair expectations and/or reacting unfairly. We don’t mean to do it. We don’t do it all the time. but we do it. I do it. You do it. Your parents did it. We all do it.
Here’s an example:
Harrison and Sophia are sitting together, each playing with a basket of blocks. Harrison is crashing toy cars into his blocks while Sophia is carefully building a castle with hers. As Sophia meticulously places a block on top of her growing tower, Harrison suddenly throws a block, striking both Sophia’s castle and her face. Sophia cries out in frustration and anger and throws a block back at Harrison, also striking him in the face. Both kids melt down.
How do you respond? Are both kids in trouble? Are the blocks confiscated and both children punished? In the heat of the moment, are you yelling at everyone simply to hear your own voice over the chaos?
It was wrong for Sophia to throw the block at Harrison, but she was frustrated and her basic instinct was to physically react. It was wrong for Harrison to knock down the tower but his intent wasn’t to hurt anyone or anything. He was simply playing.
In times of conflict and consolation, have you ever found yourself telling your child, “You need to act your age! Oh, you’re fine! That didn’t hurt that bad! You should know better! Why are you crying? Be a big boy/girl!”
In times of chaos, in times of tantrums, in times of failed encouragement… I have said all of those things. And while my intentions were always sincere… What if somebody said those things to you? Labeled your feelings or downplayed your emotions. No matter your age, whether you’re 2 years old or 62 years old, nobody wants to be told to calm down. (Emotional reactions are involuntary and sometimes we just need to be angry or we just need to cry.) Nobody wants to be told to act their age or to be a big boy/girl. (This is condescending.) Nobody wants to be told it didn’t hurt that bad. (Are you the one with the battle wound?) People don’t purposefully behave ‘badly’ or intentionally choose to have feelings of frustration or anger. Besides, if you’re feeling frustrated or angry, wouldn’t you want someone to validate you, rather than dismiss you?
It is NOT FAIR to expect our kids to cope like mature, rationale adults all the time. Yes, we need to set firm guidelines and well-defined rules… Yes, we want our children to behave. BUT it is also critically important to remember that these young kiddos are still, very slowly, developing an understanding of who they are, what they can do, and where they stand in this great big world of rules, limits, and expectations. In times of frustration or anger or fear, we have to remember that a childs basic human instinct may be to meltdown. Falling apart may sometimes be inevitable… and it’s not fair to act disappointed or appalled when it happens.
Today, I’m writing to remind you that these crying, raging tornadoes often have no idea why they’re reacting the way they are. I need that reminder sometimes… Do you? Our kids don’t want to be ‘bad’. They aren’t trying to drive us crazy. It’s not intentional. It’s not personal. It doesn’t mean they aren’t disciplined.
Think about this: We live in a society inundated with professionals holding advanced degrees whose entire careers are driven toward helping others understand their own thoughts and behavior. Adults have therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, counselors… they have peers, co-workers, friends, siblings and countless others in which they can talk with, vent to, and ask for advice…
Toddlers don’t know how to handle their feelings. They can’t go for a run or out for a drive to calm down. It’s very unlikely that your 3-year-old daughter is going to walk up to you and say… “Hey mom, I’m feeling pretty frustrated today. Can we sit down and talk about it?”.
As adults, we have all these people and all these coping mechanisms… You know what toddlers have?
(Here’s the really cool part guys…)
Your children have you. Their parents. Their familiar voice they learned to love before they were even brought into this world of chaos. You, dear parent, have the privilege of being their people. Their voice of reason. Their safehouse. Their source of unconditional love…and when your children are at their worst, they really need you at your best.
The next time your kiddo falls apart, acts out in public, shuts down, or turns into a tornado all because you took away the blocks or won’t let the milk cup be thrown across the living room floor…. I want you to take a deep breath. Express the necessary limits and expectations. Discuss appropriate consequences. Review the family rules.
Remember that the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice. We are leading by example and setting the stage for how one should problem solve and handle confrontations with others. Please do not argue that parenting with calm and understanding patience means you’re a “soft parent”. I firmly believe it is quite the contrary. We’re not raising ‘snowflakes’. We’re raising competent adults. Lowering our expectations and gracefully meeting our children where they ARE (emotionally, cognitively, developmentally) will open the potential to teach many more lessons and retain many more victories.
Discipline with heart, parent with patience, and calmly guide your child through their storm. By doing this, you are teaching lessons and modeling resolutions that go far beyond their current meltdown.