My kids have graduated from toddlers to late preschool and kindergarten. It has been a long and hard journey to get to this sweet spot, a sort of golden age of raising kids. So I thought it would be a good idea to memorialize my observations of conflict resolution with toddlers here.
First, I’d like to give praise to the work of Dr. Ross W. Greene in two books well worth reading for any parent:
- The Explosive Child
- Raising Human Beings
I highly recommend them to all parents, even if you think your kids are “normal”. Those books completely changed my outlook not just on raising children, they inspired me to make a life change in how I approach everyone. As a result of those two books, I now have greater empathy and compassion for others. I never have to take anything personally again, from anyone. Those two books taught me more than any other, that suffering is just a stage of our development.
My experience raising kids has given me new insight into temper tantrums. If you’re a parent, you’ve seen them in all their glory. I’ve seen my kids with tears streaming down their cheeks, arms flailing, ear splitting screaming, and uncontrollable crying. I’ve been there. After reading those two books, and many more in my life, I have learned and applied the skill of talking down a temper tantrum.
Kids exhibit temper tantrums not because they are bad kids, but because they “lack the skills to respond proactively to the demands of their environment” (straight from the books mentioned above). If you think your kid is acting badly, compare that temper tantrum to not knowing how to read. When your kid reads a word wrong, do you spank him and send him to his room? Or do you read the word the correct way for him, to model how to read the word? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.
If we’re tempted to, and do punish toddlers, that’s about us, not about them. But what if we changed our attitude and just looked at their temper tantrum as a mistake, an error in judgement, a lack of a capacity to respond proactively to the demands of their environment? Better to assume ignorance before malice, right?
So when my elder girl was in a temper tantrum, having an upset, I’d just sit at her eye level and talk with her. She’s not going anywhere, and neither am I. I talk with her and let her know that at any time, she can ask for a hug. I remain calm to show her how to soothe herself. I let her know that just because she is angry doesn’t mean I have to be angry, too. I tell her that we can make a choice to be angry or not.
I know, that seems like a lot for a toddler to absorb in a few minutes. But there is something else. The brain naturally wanders. We can’t stay angry because the brain naturally wanders for our survival. The brain can only emit endorphins for anger for so long, and then it has to do something else. Trust me, anger is not forever. Besides, anger is very taxing, and if they want to stay up past their bedtime, I remind them of that, too.
So I just keep talking and talking, while they’re crying. After a while, the storm clears and, I kid you not, they forget why they were so angry and notice something else. Or they come to me for that hug I mentioned awhile back. But I always let them know that I’m here, in the room with them. I’m not going away. I remind them that I love them exactly the way they are, right now, without reservation.
Toddlers don’t know how to handle conflicts, so I model conflict resolution by talking with them, by showing them how to soothe themselves, by demonstrating a desire to talk. I want them to know that screaming and yelling and stomping around isn’t going to get them what they want.
Sometimes I say, “I can’t give you what you want, but I can give you a hug.” And sometimes they surrender their desire for that thing for a hug instead, and they still get something they wanted, just not exactly what they wanted. Life is often like that for adults, too.