Susan was enjoying a weekend breakfast with her family when her three-year-old son, “Marcus”, suddenly hit his big sister. When Susan reached out to pick him up, Marcus abruptly threw his head back, knocking Susan in the mouth so hard that she bled. Susan was stunned, at once furious and confused. Why did her son do this? And how should she respond?
When these situations arise, parents have to respond in the moment, often with only a split second to choose from a range of options: A swift punishment? A time out? Talking it over? Ignoring the behavior?
Disciplining toddlers is confusing at best, because their social and emotional development is still underway. What they are capable of in one minute may completely change the next, depending on many variables. Think of behaviors as the tip of the iceberg, the 10-percent that is visible. We need to look below the surface and determine the cause of the behavior before we can determine which parenting or discipline strategy to use for a situation and, in turn, help the child to learn from the episode.
The best place to start is by asking one simple question: Is this a stress response or intentional misbehavior?
In our “cognitive-centric” environment, too often the first assumption is that the child has deliberately and consciously chosen how to behave (or misbehave). Frequently, though, this isn’t the case. Many toddler behaviors are reflective of “fight or flight” reactions. In these situations, the child might have no idea why he or she behaved in a particular way. The behavior wasn’t intentional, so punishing the child or asking the child to explain isn’t the best strategy.
Consider what Marcus did to his sister and mother. What at first appeared to be random acts of aggression were really stress responses, precipitated by forces beyond his awareness or recognition. On that morning, the boy happened to be nursing a mild ear infection, which put him on edge. As the family ate breakfast, a TV commercial came on, and its sudden, high volume took Marcus by surprise. His autonomic (think “automatic”) nervous system took over, and before he knew it, he was striking his sister for talking to him. His behavior didn’t reflect intentionality, but rather a toddler who suddenly (and momentarily) lacked control of his actions.
To be sure, many behaviors do call for us to use logical parenting solutions. For example, toddlers love to feel the power of independence while trying out new things. Consider the toddler who throws a cup of milk on the floor, then looks to her mom for a reaction. Or how about the child who yells, “That’s mine!” and then grabs a toy from a peer? They’re both testing the limits of their power. After these common and expected toddler behaviors, we can guide interactions with patience and reasonable limits, provided within a warm and caring relationship.
Other times, though, we need to go beyond logical support and set our sights on the root causes for the child’s distress. In these cases, we need to patiently figure out how to aid the child in getting help from adults to feel better. When a child experiences behavioral difficulties, one common (but often overlooked) explanation is a challenge to his ability to maintain a calm state in the body. This makes emotional regulation difficult, so it’s important to help toddlers understand that their “out-of-control” feelings will come and go and that they can reach out to you for help when they need it.
It’s essential to avoid blaming — and shaming — children for things that are subconsciously driven. When we look below the surface, seeing the child’s behaviors as adaptations to internal needs, we view the child with compassion instead of blame.
To help you do this, when a child exhibits challenging behaviors and you are pondering whether or not to discipline, consider these responses:
*Take a calming and slow breath and center yourself first.
*In a soft voice, and in language that your child understands, acknowledge that you can figure out what happened together.
*Find the proper supports to help your child feel acknowledged and safe based on the (unintentional) root causes of the behavior.
*Help your child to realize that when her body feels out of control that it’s temporary and that she can reach out for help.
When we properly understand children’s behaviors, we can better support their emotional development by attuning to what they need in the body and mind. Over time that will help them develop self-compassion and control over the many waves of emotions they naturally experience, preventing misunderstandings and the accompanying stress.
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