(aka making the transition from “survival mode” to “parenting mode”)
I’m not sure when it happened. One day my worries were all about making sure he nursed enough, making sure he got the gas out, making sure he slept enough. They were about “is this the right cream for diaper rash?” and “is he rolling over on time?” In other words, my goal each day was just keeping my child alive and thriving. Helping him reach his adorable little chubby infant potential. Sure, that’s not an easy task at all, but it also doesn’t require a HUGE amount of strategy or thinking.
And then suddenly, seemingly overnight, the game changed. Just when I feel like I got the hang of that whole “keeping my baby alive” thing, it suddenly became so much more.
Seemingly overnight, he was quite clearly testing limits. He actually could understand “no”, and was starting to push back. He was going out in his world (albeit a small one, but one none the less) and exploring. He was no longer a baby, he had become a toddler.
The rules had changed. No longer was parenting just about survival, distraction and love, it was about all of those things PLUS limit setting and guidelines. Yikes!
The hilarious thing is that this change should not have snuck up on me. I actually do this for a living. As in, I am a therapist who specializes in the perinatal and early parenting period. I teach these skills to parents. Every. Single. Day. And yet, here I was, shocked and appalled that my adorable rolly polly chub had suddenly turned into a walking, babbling, limit testing toddler.
I’m sure you parents have found this as well. In so many ways, the transition out of the infant period is a lovely one. Suddenly you have this little being who isn’t just cute, they’re communicating! They’re developing a personality! That being said, they’re also pushing away from you, and taking risks, and testing the line a little bit. Which is EXACTLY what a toddler should be doing. But sometimes, it’s a little challenging to deal with.
There are SO many amazing resources and books out there to help with this transition, and you’ll have to decide with your own family what style of parenting feels like the best fit for you.
In general though, here are some important guidelines to remember with this transition to toddlerhood.
- It’s a toddler’s job to explore their environment. This is something we in the biz call “a secure attachment.” The Circle of Security diagram (below) does a wonderful job of illustrating this concept. If a toddler has grown up knowing that they are safe, i.e., that their needs for food, protection and love are met when they are asked for, then they get to a place where they feel “safe” to push away from their parents and explore their environment on their own. It’s called a “circle” because they also feel secure enough to come back to their parents when they need a “check-in”.
- It’s also a toddler’s job to push boundaries, and it’s our job to set them. This goes with the above statement. Part of learning how the world works is taking risks and exploring limits. (Side note, another time that this happens is when kids are teenagers, but that is for another, slightly more terrifying blog post). A toddler needs to a) learn what is safe but also b) learn that you will keep them safe. When a parent sets a safe limit, for example by holding a toddler’s hands when he tries to hit and saying, “I can’t let you hit me because that’s not safe”, that parent is showing the toddler “don’t worry, I got this, I’m going to keep you safe”. Parents who don’t set any limits because they’re concerned about limiting their child’s creativity or autonomy are actually setting that child up for failure.
- Show them empathy. Being a toddler is SO HARD. Try to put yourself in their shoes. The world has suddenly exploded open to you. You have walking AND communication! How exciting! And there are so many interesting things! Like that bug over there! Or that shiny piece of glass stuck in the grass! Or that giant staircase leading to a room you’ve never EVEN SEEN BEFORE! So when limits are set, or things don’t work the way they want them to, frustration is going to occur. And sadness. And fear. And even anger. And all of those emotions are part of the human experience. Getting down on your kiddo’s level and saying, “Wow, you’re really frustrated right now,” can do wonders.
- Teach them self-regulation. We forget that, even though they’re turning into little versions of their eventual adult selves, they are still just a smidge out of the baby period. They can get dysregulated so easily, and it’s our job to help them understand their emotions and feel safe again. With the above hitting example, naming their emotions (“Wow, you’re really frustrated right now”) while also giving them a way to regulate (“I think you’re so frustrated because you’re tired. Let’s leave this party and go home and rest”) can help your kiddo learn how to eventually regulate themselves. Which is key to being a successful adult (ahem, we all know those people who maybe don’t know how to regulate themselves very well).
- Parents should really be on the same page. If you have the luxury of being able to co-parent with someone, try to maintain a united front. I know, I know. It’s so hard to be a team when you just KNOW in your soul of souls that what your partner is saying is wrong. So very wrong. BUT, unless it’s threatening the safety of your child, it’s a much better idea to agree in the moment and have that conversation away from the child in the future. Toddlers are like velociraptors- they spot weaknesses!
- Empowerment through choices is critical. A toddler is trying their best to develop autonomy and feel in control. Of course, we know it’s not always possible for a toddler to have control. That being said, giving a simple set of two choices with as many decisions as possible is going to help your kiddo feel empowered, and likely limit temper tantrums and push back. For example, “Would you like to brush your teeth first or put your pjs on first?” Or “would you like to wear your green pjs or your blue pjs tonight?” See what I did there??!! Sneaky sneaky. Your kiddo gets to feel like they have control over the situation, while secretly you’re still controlling what’s important, i.e., that the endgame is they go to bed!
- Pick your battles- natural consequences are sometimes your best friend. We as parents get so wrapped up in helping our kids make good decisions and keeping them as safe as possible, that we forget at times that toddlers are learning the crucial skill of decision making, and sometimes natural consequences (as long as they don’t harm your child or anyone else) are the best teachers. For example, you’ve battled your child daily about putting on his jacket on the way to preschool. It’s 45 degrees outside. You know it’s cold. But what if you just let him win this one? You can say, “Hmm, ok, well I’m going to put my jacket on because I don’t want to be cold.” The likelihood is, he will feel cold when he goes outside. But since he’s “in charge”, he may feel free to make a better choice next time and choose to wear the coat. And you can save those battles for more important moments.
- And don’t forget, they’re watching you. Not to put too much pressure on, but toddlers are like little sponges. And they soak up everything in their environment. The way you talk to your partner, the way you are when you’re out in public, how you interact with others, and how you treat yourself, are all things they will be picking up on and mimicking. So treat others and yourself the way you want them to treat others and themselves. Yelling at your partner, for example, or looking in the mirror and saying, “Ugh, I’m so fat”, are things your toddler will see and likely imitate.
Of course, there are so many other tips for entering the magical and challenging world of toddlers. It’s such a brilliant and exciting time. It’s so fun to get to watch their brains actually working. We at Porch Light Counseling all have experience with this time period and are here to help if you need it.
For further reading, a few books I love:
The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson
No Bad Kids by Janet Lansbury
Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood by Drs. Jim and Charles Fay
Parenting from the Inside Out by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Mary Hartzell