Fostering Independence in Toddlers

Two year olds get a bad rap.  It is all too common to label this stage of development “the terrible twos”.  But after four years of teaching in a toddler classroom, I am convinced that much  of what we call ‘terrible twos’ is simply the growing baby’s frustration at the limits placed on him by the well-meaning adults in his life.

By the age of two, babies have figured out that they are both physically and neurologically separate from their primary caregivers.  They have learned to control the movements of their limbs, and have developed the ability to grasp and manipulate objects. They’ve learned enough language to begin to communicate their wants and needs with words and speech.

They still have a long way to go, but they are not the helpless infants they were a short while ago.  Caregivers, living day in and day out with this growing child, can sometimes stay stuck in an early stage of development, not always recognizing how capable the toddler has become.

Babies come into the world so very helpless.  We spend 365 days that first year helping, and then helping some more, as they learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually crawl and walk.  That’s a long time to form a habit. And it doesn’t stop there. They will need help with so many things for years to come. So naturally, when they seem suddenly ready to be independent in some aspects of caring for themselves or their environment, we don’t always notice. 

Their awareness of their growing abilities, coupled with our tendency to see them as the helpless infants they once were, creates an environment ripe for conflict.  

Giving our ‘terrible twos’ the opportunity to demonstrate their growing developmental skills invites their cooperation and reduces frustration – both theirs and yours.  We can foster independence in toddlers by making a few small changes in our daily routines.

Here are 5 easy ways to give your toddler more autonomy and invite them into the process of family life.

  1. Attach a coat hook (or two!) to the wall at toddler level, so they can hang their coat themselves.  Provide a small bench below it to sit on when removing shoes. Store shoes and boots under the stool where they are easy to reach and put on when needed.  
  2. Create a routine for coming and going that is consistent.  For example, “we always hang our coat and remove our shoes or boots when we walk in the door.  We always sit to put on our shoes before we walk out the door.” Here’s how to teach your toddler to independently put on a coat: Have them lay the coat on the ground with the inside facing up.  Have them stand at the neck facing the coat and reach down, inserting both hands into the sleeve openings. Once their arms are inserted into the sleeves, have them swing their arms over their head, bringing the coat up and over their head.  The coat will fall down their back and their arms can then be lowered. Voila! Coat is on. If the coat has a zipper, get it started for them, but let them pull the zipper pull up. (You may need to hold the bottom of the zipper to provide resistance.)
  3. Move the cutlery to a low drawer, and invite them to help set the table at mealtime by taking silverware to the table.  (If you are reluctant to set them loose on everyone’s place settings, store their utensils, plates, bowls, and cups in a low drawer and invite them to set their place at the table while you set the rest.)
  4. Have a small whisk broom and dustpan stored where it is accessible to them.  Hang it on a low hook, or store it in a cupboard that does not have a child lock on it.  Invite them to help with cleaning up spills, using their broom.
  5. Build in extra time.  Above all, give yourself and your toddler more time to accomplish tasks together.  Sometimes toddler frustration is the result of being hurried to complete a task at which they are not yet fully proficient.  When we are in a hurry we are less likely to wait patiently while our two year old practices a new skill. Building in an extra 10 minutes gives us time to be patient and wait, allowing them to try, to practice, and to get better at it. 

Consistent routines, operating at ‘toddler speed’, and helping them do it themselves can all work together to foster toddler independence and reduce frustration all around.

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Temperament and Self-regulation

A pouting young girl in pigtails peeks around from behind a door.Anyone who has more than one child will tell you it is nothing short of amazing how such very different people can be born of the same two parents.  But it’s true. Babies seem to come into this world each with their own unique attitude. Called ‘temperament’, that inborn personality has an effect on how they respond to their world.

Temperament, says Leigha MacNeill, of the Pennsylvania State University, is “a biologically rooted and relatively stable disposition that contributes to how infants and children experience, express, and regulate their emotions.”

A baby’s inborn disposition encompasses such things as cheerfulness (positive affect), busyness (level of activity), risk-taking, sensitivity, and their response to discomfort (negative affect).  Variations in all of these areas are what make us all uniquely us.

Every baby is different

A child’s temperament affects how they respond to caregivers, how they navigate their environment and their receptiveness to new experiences. It also affects the development of self-regulation, a key component of executive function.

Executive function is important in helping us control and regulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions.  It includes things such as self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – skills necessary for success at school and in the work force. 

“Self -regulation,” says Amanda Morin at Understood.org, “allows kids to manage their emotions, behavior and body movement when they’re faced with a situation that’s tough to handle. And it allows them to do that while still staying focused and paying attention.”

These differences impact the development of self-regulation

Differences in temperament can mean that some children struggle with self-regulation.  Says Dr. Matthew Rouse, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “Problems with self-regulation manifest in different ways depending on the child. Some kids are instantaneous — they have a huge, strong reaction and there’s no lead-in or build-up. They can’t inhibit that immediate behavior response.

A child’s innate capacities for self-regulation are temperament and personality-based,” he explains. “Some babies have trouble self-soothing and get very distressed when you’re trying to bathe them or put on clothes. Those kids may be more likely to experience trouble with emotional self-regulation when they’re older.”

Tailoring parenting styles to the child’s temperament can help the child in their self-regulation journey

What does this mean for parents?  What if you have one child who is easy to calm, cheerfully embracing new experiences, waiting patiently for their turn, or accepting that their hoped-for result is not in the cards.  While another is reluctant to try the new activity, has difficulty not grabbing the toy they want to play with, and devolves into hysterics when they don’t get their way. 

Adapting your parenting style to the unique temperament of each child can support them as they work to develop greater self-control and self-regulation. 

For the child who has trouble controlling their impulses, helping them build their awareness of the emotions they are feeling can help them develop self-regulation.  Talking ahead of time about possible scenarios can help them work through the ‘what ifs’ before their emotions are affecting their thinking and reactions.

Practicing in a low-stress environment can also help children build their self-regulation skills.  Childmind.org offers this helpful advice: “Dry runs are another way to scaffold self-regulation. For instance, if you’ve had trouble with a child reacting impulsively or having a tantrum in a store, make a short visit when you don’t need to do serious shopping. Have her practice walking with you, keeping her hands to herself. She gets points towards some goal every time she is successful.”

A happy girl rides in a shopping cart at the grocery storeBut don’t give up if it takes time.  Says Dr. Rouse, “Parents get discouraged when things don’t go well the first time they try skill-building, but consistency and starting at a level that is appropriate for your child are key. Rather than giving up, try paring down the activity so it is more doable, and slowly give your child more and more independence to handle it. Breaking things into small steps allows them to build self-regulation skills in manageable increments.”

For more tips on helping kids develop self-regulation and coping skills, visit Understood.org.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

5 Ways to Improve Communication Skills for Parents

Does trying to have a conversation with your ‘tween feel like nails on a chalkboard?  Do you feel like you are talking to a wall rather than your teen? Do you try to have a heartfelt conversation, but feel like they just don’t hear you?  

If you struggle when trying to communicate with your children, here are 5 tips for improving parent-child communication skills.

Start with shared feelings, not a question

  • Initiate the conversation by sharing your thoughts and feelings rather than with a question.  Questions can make children defensive, making it harder for them to listen openly. Who hasn’t started a conversation with the question, “How was your day?”, only to get “fine” as the sum total of response? Starting with a comment about how you are feeling helps them see you as someone with feelings just like theirs and lays a foundation for reciprocal sharing.

Check yourself 

  • Remove distractions and make eye contact when your child is speaking. Make sure they know they have your full attention.
  • Don’t interrupt when they are talking – demonstrate good conversational skills by waiting until they have finished sharing their thoughts and opinions before you start sharing yours.
  • Be sure you are actively listening. Confirm understanding by restating what your child said, “What I heard you say is …, is that correct?”.  Let them repeat or rephrase what they said if your summary wasn’t correct.  
  • Don’t lecture or use a tone of voice that sounds angry or defensive.  

Get to know how your child communicates  

  • We all have different styles of communication.  Some children will happily expound on every detail of their day, while others have little to say and reluctantly engage in conversation.  If talking isn’t your child’s cup of tea, just spending time with them can help them know you are available if ever they want to talk.

Improve their listening skills

  •  Be a role model for good listening and demonstrate reciprocal conversation regularly. Practice active listening and demonstrate how to give undivided attention to the conversation.
  • Start young by reading together.  Invite questions and comment as you read, so your child has opportunities to practice listening and being listened to.  

A mom and a young girl gaze into each other's eyes

Talk every day

  • Find time to talk every day.  With a little time each day spent together and talking, your children will be practicing their communication skills.
  • Spend time one-on-one every week to build connection.  Learn about your children’s interests and show your support by expressing interest in what they love.
  • When your child talks about something that is bothering them, stop whatever you are doing and listen to them.  Let them share their feelings, and practice active listening by rephrasing what you heard them say.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Holiday Stressbusters: 10 Tips for Reducing Stress

As we wind up for the holidays and anticipate a break from the school routine, here are 10 Quick Stressbusters, scientifically proven to help your body fight the chemical overload caused by stress and anxiety.

1. Belly Breaths

Get into a comfortable, relaxed sitting or standing position.  Put one hand on your belly, just below your ribs. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to push your hand outward.  It sometimes helps to count slowly to 3 as you inhale. Exhale slowly. Repeat at least two more times. Belly breaths send messages to your brain to calm down and will reduce muscle tension throughout your body.  To learn more about belly breathing, see Breathing Exercises for stress management.

2. Take a walk

A brisk walk sends messages to your body to produce more endorphins, the chemical that makes us feel good and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression.  Stepping out of a stressful environment, even if only for a few minutes, also provides space for your mind and body to regroup.

3. Skip the nightcap

As a depressant, alcohol is sometimes viewed as a stress-reducer.  But when alcohol is added to the mix, the body releases higher amounts of cortisol, which is the hormone that triggers our ‘flight or fight’ response in stressful situations. This change to the balance of hormones changes the way the body perceives stress. Thus, alcohol prevents the body from returning to its original hormonal balance, which actually adds to feelings of stress and anxiety in the long run.

4. Drink water

Dehydration also increases cortisol levels in the body.  So when we don’t drink enough water, our body responds by releasing cortisol, increasing feelings of stress.  Says Gina Shaw, on WebMD, “Stress can cause dehydration, and dehydration can cause stress. It’s a vicious cycle. You can break it by building more water consumption into your day.”

5. Check your posture

Studies have shown that posture – how we sit and stand – affects not just our bones and muscles, but our emotions as well.  Sitting up straight, standing with shoulders back and relaxed, contributes to the body’s sense of well-being. A study on slumping, performed by the Department of Psychological Medicine, The University of Auckland, found that “Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases the rate of speech and reduces self-focus. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress.”

6. Turn on some soothing music

Music has long been known to directly connect to our emotions, so choosing some calming classical music can help your body deal with stress hormones.  As a side benefit, listening to music can be done while you are busy with other things – like getting ready for work or preparing the evening family meal. Combining the soothing effect of calming music with an activity that can be typically stressful can help balance the impact of the stressor.

7. Take a cuddle break with a loved one

Hugging has some surprising physical benefits, with stress relief being just one of them.  Studies have found that people who received more hugs were less likely to catch a cold, saw their blood pressure decline, and felt better emotionally.  According to one study, “volunteers felt better than usual on days on which they had received at least one hug.”  So counter those negative feelings by wrapping your arms around someone you love (with their permission, of course!).

8. Try some yoga

Yoga combines physical and mental discipline – bringing together mind and body.  Combining poses and controlled breathing, yoga can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure.  While there are many different styles of yoga, the popular Hatha yoga provides a slower pace and easier movements. Relaxing into a series of yoga poses sends good vibes to your brain, increasing endorphins and lowering cortisol levels.

9. Write it down 

Journaling doesn’t release muscle tension from your body, like some of the other options for reducing the physical effects of stress and anxiety, but keeping a diary can help vent stressful emotions.  Spending quiet time alone, writing down your thoughts and describing your feelings can help process those emotions and provide relief. A journaling practice can take many forms – a daily gratitude journal, occasionally writing down feelings and strong emotions, or even a bullet list of goals, memories, or other things we want to remember.  And it’s a practice that can be restarted at any time if life gets in the way and derails regular journaling. 

10. Talk to someone

Telling a friend or willing listener about the stress you are feeling – talking through your feelings – can also help reduce the physical effects of stress and anxiety.  In a Forbes article on talking as therapy, Dr. Marian Margulies explained, “When I think of the process of engaging in talk therapy, I think of the analogy with writing.  The more you write, the more you know what you are trying to say – it clarifies your thinking. Similarly with talking and with talk therapy, one becomes more aware of what is making one feel anxious, sad, angry or frustrated. And then one is freer to decide how to manage these feelings or take action to alleviate them.” 

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Sleep, sleep debt, and mental health

a woman lays face down on a bed that is covered in a white sheetLack of sleep, also known as sleep debt, affects both our physical and mental health.  Studies show that sleep debt affects numerous parts of our body, including our brain. In our brain, lack of sleep actually causes brain activity to slow down.  

Sleep cycles at my house are dramatically different in the summer than during the school year.  With a house full of tweens and teens, removing the need to get up in the morning has invited my teens and tweens to stay up long past their typical bedtime.  

They stay up until midnight, then sleep in the next day.  Sometimes I find myself insisting they get up as the clock chimes noon.  Yesterday we dragged the 14-year-old out of bed at 10:30am for a family trip to the blueberry patch.  He was not pleased. He complained about feeling rushed out the door. He slumped into his seat in the car, intent on ignoring those around him. But the ride out helped improve his mood.  By the time we were all in the berry patch he had waded through the worst of his sleep deprivation. 

We all know what not getting enough sleep does to us the next day.  We are grouchy. Moving through the day feels like swimming against the current.  It’s hard to get things done. We are short with the kids, tend to eat even though we are not hungry, and have no motivation for exercise.

That is not a surprise to researchers who study what lack of sleep does to people. 

Describing one study, Yuval Nir, a sleep researcher at Tel Aviv University said, “We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity. Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”  

You are not imagining things – when you are tired you really do think more slowly.

What’s more, not getting sufficient sleep for long periods of time also reduces mental and emotional resilience.  Lack of sleep can lead to negative thinking and emotional vulnerability and can make problems with anger, depression or anxiety worse.

A survey of sleep studies done by the Department of Research at the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences & Psychology notes, “Sleep is an essential part of our lives. The typical person needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night to maintain peak mental and physical health.”

They continue, “Less than seven to eight hours of sleep can be harmful to human health. Getting less than adequate sleep is known as sleep deprivation. When an individual has multiple consecutive days of sleep deprivation, they enter “sleep debt,” which is a cumulative effect of insufficient sleep for any period of time. The effect of sleep deprivation on mood has been well-documented. The changes in mood that have been linked to sleep deprivation include anxiety, depression, mood swings, etc.

Sleep deprivation appears to impact adults, adolescents, and children in similar ways. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate pre-existing mood disturbances, such as anger, depression, and anxiety, and can lead to confusion, fatigue, and lack of vigor. Even just one sleepless night correlates with these changes in function.”

How much sleep do you need?

It’s not always easy to get as much sleep as we should. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Recommended nightly sleep is 10 hours for teens and between 10 and 13 hours per night for children over the age of 3.  (Children under 3 need even more.) Missing even 15 minutes of sleep each night can accumulate over time and result in sleep debt which affects both mental and physical health.

So how do you take corrective action if you or your children are suffering the effects of too little sleep?  Sleep experts recommend:

  1. Rather than sleeping later, try going to bed earlier each night.  Going to bed at the same time each night, as well as following the same routine getting ready for sleep, can help with falling asleep.
  2. Optimize the sleeping environment by eliminating electronics (tv, ipads, phones, laptops) in the bedroom.
  3. Consider room darkening shades and motion-sensing nightlights to minimize the amount of ambient light in the room overnight.
  4. Lower the temperature of your sleeping environment. Body temperature drops as we sleep, so the optimal temperature for the bedroom is between 65 and 68 degrees overnight.
  5. While naps can help reduce the total amount of sleep debt, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Adults should limit naps to a 20-minute catnap or a 60-90 minute power nap. Any more can create problems getting to sleep later in the day.  

Want to know more about the physiological effects of sleep debt?  Check out this article from LiveScience.com.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Helping Kids Cope

Disappointments and difficulties are a part of life. Economic circumstance, political upheaval, and family dynamics can create hardship and adverse life circumstances for children and their families. Sometimes children and families also experience truly traumatic events.

How do we – and our children – cope with both everyday difficulties and larger life trauma?  How can we help our children learn coping skills? Research examines resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties – in an effort to answer those questions.  

Over the last two decades numerous research studies have examined psychological resilience in children, looking to identify the special traits or skills that help children navigate difficult circumstances and overcome adversity.  Surprisingly, what they found is that it is not special traits or skills that help people who cope well with adversity. Instead, people who develop resilience call on the normal coping mechanisms available to us all.

What studies have found is that the key to helping kids learn how to cope turns out to be many of the same things that help kids grow up well: effective parenting, connections with competent and caring adults, self-regulation skills, a positive view of themselves, and the motivation to succeed.

Thus, everyone has the capacity for resilience.  Parents help support their children’s development – including developing their ability to cope – right from the beginning. Young children begin developing resilience as they learn from the responses of their caregivers.

Parents, with the support of other caring family members and community members, can help their children become more resilient through everyday interaction and role modeling. Parents who model resilience – demonstrating self-regulation in the face of disappointment or talking about how they “bounced back” from a setback – help children learn how to cope with disappointments in their own lives.  

Lizzy Francis offers a number of parenting strategies that support the development of resilience with these tips from Amy Morin, author of the book 10 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do:

“Supporting struggling children is important, but the best way parents can teach resilience is by modeling it. Acting cool-headed in the face of stress and acknowledging mistakes provides children with a rubric for failure. Failing, they learn, is not the end of the world. It’s just part of being alive.

Here are the specific suggestions that Morin gives parents looking to teach by doing….

  • Don’t Intervene All The Time
    “When your child is struggling — if, say, his blocks keep tipping over and he’s getting angry, don’t swoop in and do it for them,” says Morin. In other words, practice restraint. It’s easy to step in and help soothe your kid. But letting them struggle helps them learn that they can solve their own problems.
  • Own Up To Your Mistakes
    Parents, per Morin, should actively apologize to their children when they make mistakes, like if they snap at them, or are late to pick them up. “Pointing out what you did wrong — if you didn’t handle your anger very well, or said something that wasn’t very nice — explain what happened, without making an excuse. And then you explain how you will learn from the problem and fix it,” suggests Morin. This, she says, teaches kids that making a mistake is fine, as long as you apologize and learn from them.
  • Examine Their Feelings
    You want to acknowledge a child’s feelings and tell them that their feelings matter,” says Morin. “That makes a big difference in whether they perceive if their feelings are okay, that it’s okay to be scared and still do something anyway.” Letting your kid know that their feelings are legitimate — but that they don’t have to inform their behavior at all times, like, say, when a playground scuffle breaks out — is essential.
  • Audit Your Behavior
    Kids are always watching. Per Morin, it’s essential for parents to think about how they act in moments of daily stress and try to do better. “When you’re dealing with an annoying situation, like the long line at the grocery store, and you’re tired, and you’re hungry, how do you handle it? Are you complaining? Are you staring at your phone? Your kids are watching how you cope with your emotions,” says Morin.

In other words: by being a resilient adult, you teach your kids how to react to moments of stress.”

Parents can also help build resilience by taking care of themselves.  Self-care makes you better equipped to parent and better able to meet everyday challenges.

And good parenting has protective power for children in difficult circumstances.  As does strong, supportive connections with other adults – teachers, mentors, neighbors, and family friends.  For children and teens, relationships with other adults help foster a positive view of themselves and encourages motivation to succeed.

A resilient child has:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of themself and confidence in their strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

(https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience)

Luckily these are all skills that can be developed at any stage of life.  As parents, we can help our children learn these skills and behaviors. As community members, neighbors, scout leaders, and sports coaches, we can mentor and support the children in our community as they develop their own resilience.

For more tips on helping your children develop the ability to cope with adversity, join us at the 6th annual PSN Speaker event on Monday, May 20th.  Dr. Ann Masten will be presenting “Ordinary Magic”, a look at building resilience in children.

The event will be held at the Linn Benton Community College, Tripp Theatre, LBCC Albany Campus, 6500 Pacific Blvd. SW, Albany.  Doors open at 6:30. Free childcare is provided by reservation – call 541-917-4884 to reserve your spot.

Got “No!”? Two Doesn’t Have to be Terrible

Have you ever been in a situation where you were completely bewildered by what was happening – and then someone explained why?  And then the behavior  made a little more sense?

Last Fall I had just such an experience.  My middle school son showed up ready to head out the door to school in shorts.  He’d been wearing shorts since September. But lately the overnight temperatures had been consistently low.  On this particular morning, it was 42 degrees outside.

I told him it was cold and he needed long pants.  He insisted he would be fine. I insisted he needed to change.  As he dug in his heels, I responded with consequences if he didn’t go put on long pants.  Finally, relenting, I offered to let it go if he’d explain why he thought shorts were fine on this cold morning.

He sat sullenly on the couch, neither moving nor explaining.  After a few more motherly hysterics (yet maddenly powerless), he finally said quietly, “I can’t wear long pants to gym.”  “You can change into shorts in the locker room,” I replied. Even more quietly he responded, “I don’t want to have to change.”

My eyes were opened.  Here sat a newly minted adolescent – reluctant to undress in front of his peers.  It was suddenly crystal clear why he would rather be cold at the bus stop than change into long pants.  My heart swelled for him and the new territory he was navigating as he moved from child to young adult. (A topic for another blog post. Hint: 12 is 2 all over again.)

“Thank you for explaining,” I answered.  “Now that I understand where you are coming from, I won’t insist you change.”  I finished up with an apology. “I’m sorry – hope your day at school is better than the last 10 minutes have been.”  I hugged him and he trooped out the door. In shorts.

The bewilderment I experienced that morning will be familiar to parents of toddlers in the age of ‘No!”.  Where does this sudden refusal to cooperate come from?

A baby’s brain is one quarter of the size of an adult brain.  But in the first year of life it will double in size. By the time the child is three, their brain will be 80% of its adult size.  During that journey from birth to age three, the helpless, completely dependent newborn will transform into an autonomous young child.

Right in the middle of that transformation is the “terrible twos”.  That period of time when ‘no’ is their favorite word. Dr. Maria Montessori, a pioneer of experience-based early childhood education, called this stage of development a progression from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind.  “Unconscious” because they begin unaware of their own participation in the learning process, but as they become “conscious”, they arrive fully aware of themselves as independent, thinking, learning beings.

They discover they can have a thought about something that is different from their caregiver’s thoughts.  They can even have their own opinion – one that might be contrary to the adult’s opinion. They test their new understanding with practice.  Lots and lots of practice. Which means lots of “No!”.

Adults have been frustrated by this phase of child development for so long it bears the label “Terrible Twos”.  But understanding that the “No!” is coming from a new awareness of their own ability to choose can help. When parenting a child in this phase of development, encouraging the choosing can help encourage cooperation.

Maintain calm authority.  Children growing in awareness can also be uncertain.  Caregivers reassure them that they are safe and will be cared for by using a tone of voice that is confident and supportive.  Try to avoid sounding angry, even as they try your patience. Use your words to help them understand what you need them to do.  “Oh I see you are not happy about having to put your boots on now. We can’t leave until the boots are on.”

Offer them a choice between two things – but only 2 things.  More than two can overwhelm the child.  My favorite choice is: “Would you like to put the boots on all by yourself, or would you like me to help?”  Countless times I found that when offering the choice between doing it themselves or having my help, their desire to be independent spurred them to action.  They much preferred doing it themselves than having help. But be prepared to be patient and take the time to wait when they choose to do it themselves. Help with any hard part, but don’t rob them of the satisfaction of accomplishing the task independently.

Another option is the choice between first and next.   “Do you want your coat before your boots – or boots first?” also changes the request by providing the child the opportunity to decide.

Notice that we can give them an alternative to their assumption that the choice is “do it” or “don’t do it”.

Change the subject as you proceed to help them cooperate.  “Oh look, I found a fuzzy scarf in the closet.”  Handing them the scarf, begin putting boots on to their feet.  Calling their attention to something else helps them move past the defiance and onto a new emotion.

And finally, mission accomplished, be sure to begin a new conversation as you move onto the next activity.  “Now that we have our boots on, let’s go!  We are going to walk around the block – let’s look for birds as we walk.”

Sometimes you can choose from among these strategies.  Sometimes you will work your way through all of them in succession –  and still face opposition from your toddler. Once you’ve exhausted all efforts at cooperation, just remember you’re the parent.  Lovingly, but firmly, complete the task and move on.

In moments where no amount of encouragement succeeds, doing it for them without further comment on the matter helps the child disengage from the struggle.  With the child in my lap, and boot in hand, I would begin a conversation about something entirely unrelated to the boots. “Look, you have your green sweater on.  It matches your green raincoat.” More often than not, their attention is drawn onto the next thing by a change of subject. And the protest is forgotten.

Yes, they are now old enough to have their own opinion, but the ‘terrible two’ is also amazingly more verbal.  Listening, answering, and participating in a conversation will very often draw their attention away from the ‘no’.

And rest assured, this stage will not last forever.

 

Sidebar:

 

The Power of Attunement

I was sitting in the lobby as a parent was departing with their young child.  The parent stopped at the front desk, engaging in a conversation with the adult on the other side of the desk.  While they talked, the little girl noticed a slip of paper on the floor, across the room, not far from a waste basket.  As the parent continued in conversation, the child toddled over to the piece of paper and picked it up. She started toward the waste can just as the parent finished and turned their attention to the child.

“Come now, we need to go to the car,” the parent said striding over to the child and taking her  hand. The small child immediately wailed, resisting the pull toward the door. Unaware of the child’s intention to deposit the litter in the wastebasket, the parent proceeded to cajol the child, exasperated by their uncooperative behavior.

From my vantage point, it was easy to see why the child was being uncooperative.  But the parent had not seen the litter, or the little girl’s determination to “help”.  It was a perfect example of the importance of attunement.

Had the parent taken just a moment after completing their conversation to observe what the child was doing, they might have seen that the child was simply completing a small task they had independently begun.  Had the parent waited a few more seconds, just until that small piece of paper had been deposited into the trash can, I have no doubt the child would have happily walked out the door, all smiles and cooperation.

Attunement is the attention we give the mood and emotional needs of another human being.  Attunement parenting focuses on how well a parent recognizes and interprets their child’s needs, moods and emotions in order to respond appropriately.  Well attuned parents of infants are able to interpret their baby’s feelings and respond appropriately.

Attunement is facilitated by attention.  In order to accurately interpret another’s emotional or physical needs, one must first be paying attention.  If we are attuned to another person, we will have noticed what happened and be able to see the context within which that person’s need is being expressed.

Attunement requires our attention, but, as Nathalie Spencer observes, “Attunement is not simply undivided attention; it is both more and less than that.  It does not mean a parent giving in to every whim of a child. But it is the understanding of needs, and a response to those needs which ultimately help the other to regulate their emotions and arousal.  It is bringing someone up when they need some stimulation, and bringing them down when they need calming.”

Attunement is different from Attachment Parenting in that Attachment parenting uses continuous physical closeness and touch to promote the emotional engagement and connection between an infant and parent. Parents practicing attachment parenting carry their babies in a sling on their body as much as possible.  Often they co-sleep with their infants. The physical closeness of the infant to the parent supports the emotional attachment between the parent and child. Where attachment parenting focuses on physical closeness, attunement focuses on our attention to the emotions of the other.

It is easy to miss the cues about a child’s emotional needs when we are not paying attention.  This frequently leads to emotional disconnect and frustration, both ours and theirs. With so many things vying for our attention, it is easy to be unattuned to the people we are physically with.  Our mobile phones make us always accessible, so we push the stroller while handling the work call – with no opportunity to attune to the child who sees a plane in the sky and exclaims excitedly, “plane!”.

Neuroscience research has confirmed our brains are not wired for multi-tasking.  In fact, multi-tasking does not make us more efficient. Instead, it makes us worse at both of the things we are trying to accomplish.  Parents who try to multitask while in the company of their children do not give the children – or the other task – the full benefit of their time and attention.  Attunement suffers and often frustration ensues.

When choose to attend to one at a time, we stand a better chance of being attuned to our children’s emotional state.   And being better attuned – paying attention – gives us a better chance of meeting the needs or navigating the ‘no’. Attunement makes us better informed because we have observed and are paying attention.

 

What if She Isn’t Like Me?

Today’s blog post is contributed by guest blogger, Esther Schiedel.  We hope you enjoy the read, and we appreciate Esther’s willingness to write for us!

I wrote a while ago about parenting a child who shared some of my characteristics that I wish were different. She’s Not Me  https://www.parentingsuccessnetwork.org/parenting_tips/2018/shes-not-me/

This is the flip side of that concern.

I worried from time to time, as many parents do, about my children’s behavior—comparing them with other children their age, wondering if they could meet the expectations of school, and of society in general. Unlike some children I knew, my middle daughter was cautious and reserved around most people, children and adults alike. This was especially true when these were people she did not know. And included relatives she saw only occasionally—which, since we did not live near family, was all of them. We used to joke that she wanted to see your resume and three references before talking to you.

And she and I had different ways of learning—my attempts at teaching her something often ended in frustration on both our parts. Fortunately, while discussing these concerns with my husband, we both realized that she is a lot like him. Those similarities did not always contribute positively to their relationship, but once he recognized them, it helped a lot.

Now I love and respect my husband and he is a competent adult. But what if he wasn’t? What if I didn’t like him?

What happens when a parent sees a behavior in their child which is like that of a relative who has problems functioning successfully? Or their relationship with that relative is not a positive one?

The relative might be the other parent, or might be a sibling, grandparent, or other relation. In such cases a parent might over-react to that behavior. Which does NOT help.

What does help?

* Identifying what our reaction is based on. Sometimes we react without knowing why. We may have simply forgotten or we may have repressed traumatic memories. It might take serious self-examination or the help of a therapist to recognize why we have a strong response to some behaviors.

* Increasing our awareness of temperamental traits. A trait is not a behavior but a reason behind a behavior. In my daughter’s case, the trait is termed First Reaction; it describes whether a child approaches or withdraws from a new situation. It’s also referred to as Leaper or Watchful. Neither of these reactions to new situations or people is good or bad, but each can lead to behaviors which could cause problems. When we understand temperament we can help a child learn to behave in socially acceptable and safe ways. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is a helpful resource for parents

* Paying attention to the whole child. Making an issue out of one trait or behavior exaggerates its importance and can make things worse. Your relationship with the child is more important.

* Reminding ourselves that similarities to another person do not indicate that a child will grow up to be just like that person. Many, many things contribute to children’s and adult’s personalities, abilities, and behavior.

Parenting classes can provide more information and perspective on child development and temperament. They offer lots of techniques for dealing with behaviors.

And by the way, my cautious daughter is still cautious. She’s also a competent and wonderful adult.

A Chance Eating

Here’s another question that’s been coming up in my work with families:

Wh do you do if a kid just doesn’t want to eat?

I wish I had a ready answer, because it’s happening at home too. The seven year-old, now that she has (finally) been sleeping through the night again, has decided to eat only fruit (possibly from now on). And today, I hear, the 11 year-old has simply refused everything on offer. This from the girl who lists “eating” as both a personal and future professional pursuit. She just…ain’t havin’ it.

How do we deal with this as parents?

  • As usual, the first step is to ask some questions. Are they feeling okay? Any pains in the tummy or anywhere else? Do they just not like what’s on the menu, or are they not into food of any kind (watch at this step for the “only candy” loophole)?

You may not particularly want to hear their answers, but the point is that they’ll probably tell you something useful, even if by accident.  If they just don’t like your meatloaf, you can decide, ‘cuz you’re the grownup, whether to give them another option. Our newly minted fruitarian child recently went through a period of only wanting peanut butter and jelly. And I’m pretty sure you can live on that for a while, so we let it be an option at every meal. Now it’s fruit. As long as we have it, she can eat it, though we’ve pointed out she’ll need to eat a lot of it to get what she needs.

  • Ask yourself, how long has it been since they last ate? What was it?

I’m about to tell you something. It is this: if they ate at least some of their last meal, and they’re likely to eat at least some of their next, you can just…let it go. That’s right. As long as you are offering food every couple of hours, which is kind of your job, if they choose not to eat it they will be okay. Really. Because there will be food at the next meal, and they’ll probably be hungry.

  • Golly, what if they haven’t eaten in a while?

Then something is probably wrong and you need to take that kid to the doctor.

Also, what’s going on with them in general?

  • Like, are they gearing up for a growth spurt, or done with one? Are they gaining or losing teeth? What’s going on at school? What’s bothering them?

The natural default for children of all ages is to want to eat. If there is some interruption in that urge, it could be due to a variety of factors. This could be a good opportunity to problem-solve together.

Who knows? Maybe the answer is that you need to buy a new cookbook.