Dealing with the toddler years

I have a “theory” that before they turn three, our children are not yet “human beings”!  I am not quite sure what they are, but you certainly can’t reason with them, you can’t expect them to be able to do anything, and you can be guarranteed they will do the opposite of whatever you want them to do!  Of course I am joking, but sometimes I do wonder…  Before our kids turn one, they are just babies and don’t get into too much trouble.  But from the time they can crawl around until about three, three and a half, kids are at their most difficult (until the teenage years, of course).  Once you get past three, it generally gets easier and easier.

During the early toddler years, our kids have a very well developed sense of “no-dar”, meaning they head straight for whatever is the most dangerous thing in whatever room you find yourself in!  I remember when my first child was 18 months old, and she thought it was really funny to climb up on top of my desk everytime I would turn my back and then start jumping up and down on it like a monkey going “yeahn yeahn yeahn yeahn”!  By the end of this period, our homes are virtual fortresses, with baby gates, security clips and barricades everywhere.  Anything of value, well frankly everything we own, is put up on shelves beyond their reach.  There is just no deterring them, they are like the Energizer Bunny!  So for about a year, all the hear is “no” as they head for the wires, the knives, the garbage, etc.

It is no surprise then that between ages two and three we have what are affectionately known as “the terrible twos” where they only know one word – “NO”.  But this time, it is them telling us no!  Everytime we try elicit their cooperation for basically anything, they are pre-programmed with one response – “NO”.  By this age, they have discovered our weaknesses.  When we go out in public, they know we will do anything so they don’t throw a fit and embarrass us, so what do they do?  They threaten to throw a fit everytime we don’t give them what they want.  For example when we go to the store, if at any point we made the mistake of buying them something they asked for at the store, then from that point forward everytime we go to the store they will ask us to buy them something and threaten to throw a fit if we don’t.  Stores know this which is why there is so much candy and little kid plastic crap toys in the checkout lanes!  (Note for any future parents:  a good rule is “we only buy things we decided to buy before we got to the store”.  If you never say yes once, then you avoid this dynamic).  They also know we are at our most vulnerable when we get on the phone or when we have guests over.  Look out!

So what is a parent to do during these difficult toddler years?  The following are the things that have helped me:

  1. Accept this age as purification for your own past toddler years.  When we were toddlers, in all of our countless past lives, we too did the same things.  So we happily accept this as purification.
  2. We remind ourselves that this is entirely normal.  Especially for first time parents, these years can be terrifying – oh dear, I am raising a monster!  But don’t worry, every parent has gone through the same things, probably even Ghandi’s mother.  It passes, so don’t worry.
  3. Don’t feed the behavior by responding to it in an animated way.  If you show that the behavior bothers you, then you can 100% guarrantee you will get more of it.  Remember, at this stage of their development they are trying to figure out how the world works.  If I push this red button, Elmo sings a song.  If I go digging in the garbage, mommy freaks out.  Look, how fun!  We need to maintain total equanimity with respect to everything they do, not freaking out, just dealing with the situation calmly.
  4. Just accept that your house will have to be completely baby proofed for several years.  Some parents think they can somehow teach their kids to not keep pushing the power button on the TV.  Maybe some succeed, but I have yet to meet any myself…  And even if they do, at what emotional and mental cost?  Not just for our own sanity, but actually for the child’s development, I think it is better to create giant “safe to go” zones, where they can roam around freely and do anything without exposing themselves to danger or breaking anything valuable.
  5. The less words you use the better.  It is useless to try lecture them or reason with them.  In general, the more we talk to our kids, the more it becomes an endless “blah blah blah blah” to them and they learn early on to just tune us out.  As the proverb goes, actions speak louder than words.  If they are putting their hand in the blender, don’t talk, just act – physically remove them from the area.  They will kick, they will scream, but you just act – clearly and decisively, without hesitation (if they smell the slighest hesitation in you, they will exploit it to the end).
  6. Primarily tell them what they can and should do, not what they can’t and shouldn’t do, “the DVDs are for watching movies, not plates for your dolls” or “the silverware is for eating, not banging on things.”  In particular, it is good to start developing “wisdom power words” that in one word communicate everything they need to do.  For example, many of the problems come when our toddlers have to wait for us to be able to help them because we are doing something else.  When they start to smolder, say “patience” in a loving way.  At first they will have no idea what you are talking about, but when done again and again they will start to understand, and then with just one word you help them know what they should be doing with their own minds.  Other good examples are, “calm” or “calmly” or “share” or “gentle”.  Doing this early and often helps lay the foundation for later when you use wisdom phrases which are more complex (I will do a future post on this).
  7. Redirect to try minimize the times you need to say no.  Generally, at this age they are programmed to explore.  So you have to find something more interesting than what they are currently looking at and redirect them towards that instead.
  8. First time gets a “pass”, second time gets a pre-explained “natural consequence.”  Very often our kids will do something wrong, and then we punish them.  But they didn’t even know it was wrong to begin with, so it seems very unfair to them.  Instead, the first time they do something wrong, you should say, “what you did is not correct for X reason.  That object should be used in Y way.  If you do that again, then I will apply Z natural consequence.  Then verify that they agree.”  A real life example was “hitting your brother on the head with your dolly is not correct because that hurts him.  Dollies should be loved, not used to hit people.  If you hit your bother again with the dolly then I will take the dolly away for the rest of the evening.  Do you agree?”  Then, have them acknowledge what you say and agree in advance to the consequence.  Then, if they hit their brother again with the dolly, without saying a single word, just take the dolly away and put it some place beyond their reach.  If they protest and scream, which they will, you just remind them that they agreed.  Then you let them cry and throw their fit, but don’t give in.
  9. When they are out of control, be prepared to put them in their room or crib until they calm down.  Toddlers throw fits.  That is what they do.  How we respond is our choice.  Sometimes they get themselves so worked up that there is really no talking them down.  At such times, it is generally best to just give them a time out in their room.  First, you should give them a warning, “if you don’t calm down, then you will need to go to your room to calm down.”  If they still don’t calm down, then again, without saying a single word, you pick them up and take them to their room.  When you put them in their room, tell them in a loving voice, “once you are calm and once you are ready to say sorry, then you can come out.”  When you leave the room, they will FREAK OUT.  You need to accept this and let them cry and scream.  This is harder to do if you have neighbors who can hear your kids screams.  To deal with that problem, you can do two things:  let go of your attachment to what other people think and in a non-crisis time go have a talk with your neighbors letting them know that your kid is a toddler and you are not beating them, but just giving them a time out until they calm down and are ready to say sorry.  It is a training, and you are sorry for the noise, but you just wanted to let them know.  Most will understand and when they do scream, you will not worry so much.  You can’t really do this for kids under 20 months, but after 20 months you can.  In terms of how long to leave them crying, the rule of thumb we use is we check back in with them avery 3 to 5 minutes.  When we check in, we say, “are you calm yet?”  Obviously they are not since they are still screaming, but asking the question gives them a chance to say yes and then they calm down.  If they don’t say yes, then you go back out for another 3-5 minutes and repeat the cycle.  Once they say yes, they are calm now (and they actually start calming down), then you ask, “are you ready to say sorry?” Remember, these were your two conditions for letting them out.  They might not be, so you go back out and start over until they answer yes to both questions.  Then you pick them up, give them a big hug and lots of love and have them sit on your lap for awhile cuddling, so you can recharge them with your love.  Then you ask, are you ready to go back out now?  Then off they go!  The first couple of times you do this, it will take a long time, but once they learn the pattern, it will get quicker and more and more effective.  Just stick with it.

The key spiritual lesson of all of this is to realize it is because we love our kids that we need to set and enforce realistic limits for them.  Sometimes we feel so cruel when we let our kids cry, but that is compassion without any wisdom.  Our kids need and in fact want clear (but fair) limits because it actually simplifies their life.  Our attachment to their being happy (something quite different than compassion) prevents us from living up to our responsibility of actually being a parent for them.

Your turn:  Describe some challenging/funny situation you have had with a toddler and what spiritual lessons you learned from that situation.

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