We all know toddler emotions and behaviors can run hot and cold at any given moment. Even when things seem to be going along smashingly, a toddler’s mood or feelings can make a seismic shift from content and peaceful to disgruntled and aggravated. The slightest “offense,” such as pouring juice in the wrong sippee cup, putting on a shoe “too fast,” or placing a train in the wrong spot on a track, can send a toddler’s emotions flying sky-high within a blink of an eye. The ensuing behavior change that can happen within seconds from the emotional shift can be inappropriate, to say the least, and can sometimes even be dangerous.
The root cause of the use of unappealing toddler behaviors, such as hitting, kicking or throwing objects, is two fold. It partially stems from the fact that the part of a child’s brain that allows him to regulate, or adjust, his behavior appropriately has only just begun to develop and will take years to complete its development. In fact, the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles self-regulation, does not finish developing until the early- to mid-20’s. A toddler simply does not have the mechanism in his brain to be able to think first about consequences or implications, and then adjust behavior accordingly.
The second piece of the root cause is the toddler’s limited communication and social skills. For example, when juice is poured into a less-favored sippee cup, the desire for what the toddler wants as a developing individual with a strong sense of personal wants and needs is so immense that he uses inappropriate social skills to get what he wants. Socially, he is as ego-centric as it gets in development, except for perhaps during the teenage years (It’s up for debate in our house since we have both a toddler and 3 teenagers!). A toddler is in the developmental phase of “I can do it myself” and “It’s all about me.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the language skills to be able to express himself appropriately, so he resorts to the use of behaviors with certain body movements or objects. As much as he wants to say “That sippee cup always gets clogged up,” “My lips feel more comfortable on the other lid,” or “My most favorite color in the whole wide world is blue, so I prefer the blue one over the red one,” he simply cannot, especially when his emotions are running “warmer” than usual. The short-cut to getting what he wants when he can’t or won’t use all those words to express his idea is a tantrum or behavior shift.
The above picture of 39-month old Sam sitting in time-out is a clear snapshot of toddlerhood. His “grumpy” facial expression was present before he arrived to the steps, and it continued throughout his time-out. This is how it went down prior to the photograph: His 6-year old sister Stella was on the computer playing games, and he decided it was his turn, so started to push her off the chair to get what he wanted. When she refused to give up her position, he hauled back as if about to throw the winning pitch in the last game of the season against an arch-rival team, and released his fury. Stella discharged a waterfall of tears and ran crying to her room. Sam confidently scaled the chair to take what he felt to be rightfully his, the position in front of the computer.
I used the following sequence of actions and statements when the situation arose. I have found this pattern of response as a parent extremely useful and effective for changing behaviors in similar situations to the one described above, in which there was a clear offender and victim. Some of the following is based on research regarding the development of self-esteem, disciplining children, sibling rivalry and social-emotional development in children. Some is based on what I know about language development in young children from my field of speech-language pathology. Some I simply came up with throughout periods of trial and error in the past 17 years as a parent.
1) Comfort the victim (in this case Stella) while ignoring the offender. In this scenario, I said “Oh, that really hurts when Sam hits you,” “You really don’t like that” and, most importantly, “Maybe when Sam is feeling better he will say ‘sorry’ to you.” Despite Sam’s efforts to gain my attention at this point in the sequence, I devoted 100% of my attention on Stella while drying her tears, hugging her and speaking to her.
2) Encourage the victim to look at and tell the offender firmly “I don’t like it when you ____” (naming the behavior in the blank). If the victim is too upset to speak, I say something along the lines of “If someone does something to you that you don’t like, you really need to let them know.”
3) State clearly to the offender that the behavior was inappropriate and that he must sit in time-out (or take a break, sit in the “uncooperative chair,” etc.) until he is feeling better, ready to use his words, and not hurt people. Although I’ll set the timer for 3 minutes (Experts tell us one minute for each year of age for the child is appropriate) for Sam, I tell him “Sit there for 3 minutes for _____” (naming the behavior). If you think you’re ready to get up sooner and be kind/nice/gentle/patient, then you can get up when you’re ready.” During this step, Sam learns that he is in charge of his own behavior and feelings and that it is not up to me or others around him to keep him in control all the time. Self-control is one of the best gifts to give a child!
4) If the offender hasn’t apologized when the timer goes off or he has decided he’s ready to get up, I remind him “Remember, you should tell _____ (the victim) sorry now that you’re feeling better.” If he still doesn’t apologize, I do not force him to say “sorry,” since I know he won’t mean it if he says it because I am insisting he say it versus he says it because it feels better in his own heart and mind to say it.
5) Move on as if nothing had passed between the offender and victim. I go back to “business as usual,” without continuing to punish the offender or comfort the victim in any way with my words or actions.