I would like to think of myself as compassionate and empathetic. Perhaps maybe too much so. I am the type of person who says “yes” too readily and “no” too rarely. In my professional and personal life, this is my downfall. As a parent, being sensitive to my child’s feelings and toddler behavior is probably my greatest achievement.
“Responding with sensitivity” is one of the eight principles of Attachment Parenting. During infancy, you pick your baby up when she cries. You meet their physical needs and spend most of your time holding your baby close. Your physical proximity helps to develop and strengthen your emotional bond. This, to me, was easy. I cherished every second of holding my little darling close.
The more challenging aspect of this parenting philosophy begins as your child enters into toddlerhood and begins exhibiting those troublesome toddler behaviors. Now, you are beyond meeting only your child’s biological needs. Toddlers have a whole long list of other stuff they simply want, with no apparent rhyme or reason. And if they do not get it, you will hear about it. As a parent, it is hard to be empathetic when you watch your child dissolve into a fit of tears over, what appears to be, completely nonsensical. However, this is exactly the time to demonstrate just how sensitive you can be.
Acknowledge the Emotion
What seems irrational to you is a very real emotion to your toddler, and it will manifest itself in those toddler behaviors that make parents lose their cool. These are their first experiences with feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness. These feelings can be overwhelming to an adult, let alone a toddler. It is important to give your child’s feelings a name, thus acknowledging your toddler’s emotions and allowing you to empathize.
For example, your toddler is having a meltdown because you are failing to understand what she is trying to communicate. You can say, “I know you are feeling frustrated because I am not understanding you. Can you try taking a deep breath and telling me again?” Or, “I know you are feeling angry because I won’t let you climb on the furniture, but I want to make sure you are safe and do not get hurt.”
I experimented with ignoring my daughter’s tantrums (the quintessential toddler behavior we all know and love) and providing positive reinforcement for desired toddler behaviors. The term “epic fail” might be the understatement of the century. I put myself in my daughter’s shoes. Who likes being ignored when they are feeling upset? As soon as I began acknowledging her feelings, she began to realize and trust that I was trying to help her.
Be Patient to Teach Patience
Have you every referred to your child as your “mini me”? This is because your child loves to mimic everything you do. You are the center of your toddler’s universe and the model for which your child learns how to interact with the world. How can your child learn to be patient if you do not show them what patience looks like and sounds like?
When you are in the middle of cooking dinner or worse… in the middle of eating dinner in a restaurant, and your toddler has a tantrum, it is very easy to lose your cool. It is much more difficult to remain calm and to keep your voice level. The idea is to model a calm demeanor for your child to emulate, not get into a contest of who can exhibit the loudest, most insensitive toddler behavior.
Patience is not something learned instantly. You have to model how to act patiently over and over again. I started by taking deep breaths whenever my daughter was melting down. The breaths actually helped me to remain calm, and over time she would begin following suit. Before I knew it, she was able to calm herself down when she felt frustrated with just a few deep breaths.
Offer a Hug
It is so natural to pick your baby up when they are crying as an infant. But when your sweet baby turns into a demanding toddler who not only cries but also screams and flails their arms and legs, the last thing you may want to do is go in for a hug. Try diffusing the toddler behavior with a hug anyway.
Children at this age receive so much stimulation from their environment and their emotions are wild, all-consuming, and overwhelming. The physical closeness of a hug helps reinforce your bond. It allows your little one to feel safe in this big, scary world. It helps them know that you care about how they are feeling and understand that everything will be okay.
The “golden rule” I always try to enforce with my students is to “treat others the way you wish to be treated.” Think, when you are stressed out about your job or an aspect of your personal life, would you want to be ignored, yelled at, or punished? What if at that moment, the pinnacle of your stress, someone validated your feelings or gave you a big hug?
By demonstrating that you are sensitive to your child’s feelings and toddler behavior, you are showing your child how to be empathetic to others. You are teaching your child patience, compassion, and how to problem solve. Most importantly, you are helping to foster a relationship built upon trust and understanding.