I have a three-year-old who loses her mind regularly.
Yesterday, I cut the crust off of her pb&j sandwich, and she went into a mild rage.
I know your child does this too.
I thought my toddler was overly-dramatic.
Out of control. Ill-behaved. Too emotionally-sensitive.
She had a pattern of tantrums that I could see coming, like a freight train in the distance.
As if on cue, my own anxiety would fill my stomach in anticipation of what was to come.
TAKE COVER; SHE’S GONNA BLOW!
Yes, I yelled at her. I threw adult-sized tantrums.
I cried. I read TONS of books, watched YouTube videos, called friends and relatives, joined Facebook groups for parent support, visited with a child psychologist.
I did it all.
Her behavior did not change.
And then I tried something radically different.
Instead of responding to her tantrums with a consequence for her, I started practicing a basic mindfulness technique on myself.
That's right. I redirected all my energy to ME.
The results were dramatic.
I wish that child psychologist I visited had cued me into this basic cognitive-behavioral tactic.
It was so easy to do, and produced such a change in the emotional tone of our household.
But before I share these 4 easy steps with you, let's step back and gain some context about our toddler’s developing brain.
As adults, we understand that we are responsible for creating our feelings.
Children think feelings “happen” to them.
The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain responsible for higher-level executive functioning, including emotional awareness and regulation.
Our pre-frontal cortex does not reach maturity until the age of 25.
Neuroscience demonstrates that every feeling we experience is the result of a thought we’ve had (except for fear, which is a complex emotion worthy of a separate blog post).
Until our pre-frontal cortex is mature, we will have a hard time understanding that our thoughts create our feelings.
Children believe that whatever feeling they are experiencing, is a direct result of their circumstance.
Furthermore, children ages 3 and younger believe that those around them concurrently experience every feeling they have.
They cannot understand that while they feel sad, mom might feel angry.
To the child, their emotion colors their entire experience of the situation.
(Macnamara, Deborah. Rest Play Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers. 2016)
The next time your child has a tantrum, remember that
Young children are neurologically unable to regulate their own emotions yet.
Their immature brain is unable to comprehend that their emotions affect, or are different from, other people around them.
Much of their thinking exists on the subconscious level, and thoughts tied to emotion will continue to be difficult for them to access until their pre-frontal cortex matures.
As parents of toddlers, our goal is to begin laying the foundation to help our children connect their thoughts and their feelings.
What better way to teach them this invaluable life skill, then to role model it!
Be like the Flight Attendant
The next time your child explodes into an emotional storm, consider this useful analogy.
Think back to the last time you experienced turbulence on an airplane.
What was the flight attendant doing during this potentially frightening situation? Perhaps they were behaving calmly, with composure.
Maybe even reading a book.
Now imagine that same flight attendant yelling at you to sit down, or ordering you to put your tray up immediately.
Their behavior would cause you to question your very safety!
You might even start to feel frightened.
When we experience turbulence in an airplane, we look to the flight attendant for assurance that everything is okay.
Your toddler is looking to you for that same reassurance.
And their developing human brain is undergoing constant turbulence.
So back to our original question;
How do you maintain your cool during the next toddlerpocalyps?
Basically, how will you harness your "inner flight attendant" while the winds are raging outside?
Simple really. Manage your mind.
No, really. It is that simple.
4 Steps to take when your toddler is out of control
Identify - What are you feeling right now? As soon as you see that toddler melt-down starting to happen, check in with your gut. Name that feeling; you can even say it out loud. Anxious? Irritated? Overwhelmed? Find it and put a name to it.
Ask yourself - What are you thinking right now, about your child’s behavior? Find that one sentence that is floating around in your brain that is causing this feeling for you. Say the thought out loud. “I am thinking that my child should not be losing her mind right now, she needs to put her damn shoes on, or I’ll be late!” This part is critical, because you’ll start to notice a trend in the way you think about your kiddo. I discovered that I thought my 3-year old was always trying to rebel against me.
Determine - How do you want to feel right now, at this moment? Chances are, you’ll want to feel the opposite of anxiety or frustration. Name the actual feeling you want. Peace? Calm? In-control?
What thought do you need to have about this situation that will produce this feeling for you? Now make sure you have this thought in your mind as you address your toddler.
Go ahead. Practice these four steps during your kiddo’s next tantrum.
It took me a few times before it became a "natural" process for me to do, but whoa was it worth the effort on my part!
You will be amazed at how quickly you can identify your current and desired feelings and thoughts, even in the midst of a turbulent toddler.
You will show up as a completely different momma.
And you will produce different results.
This simple mindfulness tool will change the way you parent.
Like the flight attendant, you will manage your own emotions before offering to help others manage theirs.
And the ensuing turbulence will not seem as long, as loud, or as bad.
Go get it, momma!
p.s. Want to learn how to use these same mindfulness hacks to calm your raging toddler? Make sure you read this too: Calm Your Raging Child in 3 Easy Steps