Shifting our Views on Toddler Behaviour

We all understand that babies need a lot of patience, that babies need a lot of care, that it’s not possible to spoil a baby, and we should pick up a baby when a baby cries. As a result, we are patient with babies.

However, we flip that narrative when the baby becomes a toddler.  Suddenly, often overnight, they’re walking, talking, and they have a lot of personality. And with the suddenness of a snap of the fingers, our expectations of toddlers become extraordinary. We think that when they are having a tantrum, they’re jerks, we lose empathy for them, we believe that twos are terrible, and it becomes about compliance more than anything else. 

All of a sudden, toddlers are supposed to know how to behave. They are expected to control their actions, and we have somehow forgotten that the difference between the toddler stage and the baby stage can sometimes be a matter of months. As a result, the expectations of our toddlers skyrocket, whereas the developmental, cognitive, emotional and social abilities have not changed at all. 

The main significant change is that our expectations have become unreasonable and that in itself becomes a stressor for both our toddlers and us. This is why it is important that each adult in the family understands that non-compliance and testing boundaries are a normal part of their development. Yes, toddlers have stress too.

This post is about how we can go about reframing some of those behaviours that we think are misbehaviours and how we can reduce some of their stressors. By reducing stress there is less need to communicate with us through tantrums. Yes, tantrums are a way of trying to communicate with us – it’s their way of letting us know that their stress load is too high.

One dilemma when the toddler is out of control,  crying for long periods, is that we want them to stop crying to have less stress in our life.  In this case it’s a dual issue. In this case, we may need to reframe our own behaviour and response to the tantrum before trying to manage the behaviour. We need to realize that the toddler needs our help to manage their stress load and reducing their stress will reduce the severity and frequency of the tantrums.

The first thing we’ll do is REFRAME the tantrum. 

Tantrums are a form of communication, especially when you don’t have the words to express yourself.  First, remember that there is a reason for the tantrum, and our role is to find what they are trying to tell us.  We have to become stress detectives and figure out how to help them manage their stress. Question to ask ourselves. “What could this tantrum mean?”

Secondly, We will RECOGNIZE the stressors across the 5 domains

When I use the term stress with toddlers, frequently, someone will say, “what could a toddler possibly have to be stressed about?”. We often think of stress as an adult issue because we think of social stress or financial stress, or adult problems.  But in Self-Reg, we look at stressors across the five domains.  The goal is to help our children learn self-regulation, which is how effectively and efficiently a child deals with and recovers from stress.

Is a toddler able to deal with stress on their own? Yes, sometimes. It depends on the stress. We often see some kids self-soothing by sucking their fingers or with a stuffy, but sometimes the stressors are too great for them to manage on their own, and that is where they need an adult to help them through co-regulation.  

I know when my children were toddlers, I wish I had a machine to read minds, but alas, instead, I had to channel my inner Sherlock Holmes to become a stress detective.  

The wheel or chart below is a great way to start thinking about some of the types of stressors that might be causing your child to become overstressed. Once we’ve addressed the stressors, we can then look at how to reduce them. In Self-Reg, we look at stressors across all five domains; biological, emotional, cognitive, social, and prosocial.

Biological stressors could be your toddlers teething and going through developmental growth, which can be very exciting and affect their sleep, or they are overstimulated because there are too many things going on. As a result, they cannot calm down, they might not be eating well, or there could be allergies causing physical or digestive issues. 

Cognitive stress could be developmental growth. Are they learning something new right now?

Emotional: Is there a new baby? Are there any changes? Did you move houses? Are they picking up on any of your stressors? Are there any changes within the family? Toddlers are very attuned to our feelings. So if we are anxious and upset, they will pick up on that. 

Social stress could be that they are suddenly in social environments where they have to be around many people. How are they with people? Do they prefer small gatherings over larger ones, are they going through separation anxiety, are they suddenly expected to share? 

And prosocial, which is hard for toddlers, are expectations around empathy and understanding the needs of others. Like are they expected to hug people they are not comfortable with yet? Are they expected to be showing a greater amount of kindness than they are capable of?

Toddler Stressors Across The 5 Domains

BiologicalEmotionalCognitiveSocialProsocial
Hungry, tired, sleepyNew Baby / JealousyGrowth SpurtsNot wanting to share mom with new babyNot able to understand perspective of others
Wet diaperVolatility of emotionsReflective language is more than expressive languageSharinghitting
TemperatureFearRealizing they are separate from parentGetting along with othersunable to express empathy
Physical SensationsFrustration with mastering a new taskNot able to grasp changes in family dynamicsfull meltdowns
LightingGreifIn consistent responses from caregivers
SoundsSadnessUnrealistic expectations from caregivers
Sensory IssuesSeparation anxiety

What we want to do is try and figure out what could be impacting our toddlers in each of these domains. You can use this tool here to personalize what this might look like for your toddler. 

Now that we have figured out some of the stressors we can REDUCE them

Once we have recognized the stressors are for our toddlers, the next step would be to reduce the stressors. For example, let’s say that your toddler is not getting enough sleep. You’ll recognize that that could be one of the stressors. What are some of the things that you can do to help your toddler sleep better? It will be different for each of us. What works for one toddler may not work for the other. Never underestimate the magic of stopping, taking a breath, finding calm and hugging your toddler. Our calm state helps them to learn what calm feels like for themselves.

After we’ve recognized and responded to the stressors across the 5 domains Lets check-in and REFLECT to help us become more stress aware

One of the Self-Reg values is that “the well-being of a child is inseparable from the well-being of all the critical adults in their lives”.

Sometimes before we can investigate what is causing the ongoing tantrums, we need to check in with ourselves. For example, are we having a lack of sleep, are we not eating well,  Is there partner or financial stress, and do we think that we can meet our children’s needs? If we find out our stress load is too high, we can ask ourselves, “what are some things that we can do to reduce our stress or so that we can be more available for our toddler?

Checking in with ourselves and recognizing when we are overstressed helps us to become stress aware. We can then look at how our state impacts our response to our toddler. At this stage in our toddlers, we are co-regulating our toddlers, and if we aren’t calm, this limbic drainage may lead to our toddlers exhibiting stress behaviours.

Last but certainly not least, is the importance of taking the time to RESTORE and develop strategies.

Our toddlers do not come with a manual, and what works one day may not work the next. Taking time for restoration refills our buckets and makes it possible to continue finding calm without ourselves and modelling it for our little ones. I know I often felt guilty taking time for restoration in the early days of parenting but just like on the airplane, we have to put on our oxygen mask before we can assist others. 

We often forget about self-care for ourselves, but this is part of the process of developing strategies that promote restoration and resilience. Again this is unique to every individual; it’s essential to find what works for you, whether it is a walk in the forest, yoga, going out with friends, reading, a nice cup of tea – whatever it is, it should be what works for you so that you can restore and fill your bucket.

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