The little “Walkie Talkie” in our family has officially turned to spelling as her latest development. “Mom”, “Dad”, “Taylor” (her name), “Kodi” (the dog), and working on “Elle” (her baby sister). Her first official sight words? I dunno, but it’s fascinating to watch.
Speaking of the Walkie Talkie, I have been brushing up on my toddler negotiating skills. Re-reading “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Written in the 80s, these gals sound like true New Yorkers. Some of the ideas are outdated, but most still ring true a couple of decades later. It’s amazing how strategies that apply to my oldest middle and high school students work well with a spunky toddler. Things like acknowledging how they feel, listening to their thoughts on things as they explore their emotions, reflecting their feelings back to them… I mentioned to my social worker sister-in-law how it was much like the counseling we do with families. And truly listening… Oh, that’s so hard when you want to just swoop in and fix things! And even harder when you are trying to listen to an unruly toddler or teenager. I’ve learned a lot about patience recently!
My husband and I nicknamed the week after Christmas as “Toddler Jihad” week in our house. Coming down off the emotion of Christmas, grandma and grandpa leaving, too many new toys to play with… It was an emotional wreck of a week for our daughter. But I found that if I truly reflected back to her how she was feeling and what she was expressing (mostly frustration and sadness and uncertainty) she was able to come around to a more reasonable frame of mind. My initial reaction is to try and control the situation, to try and control her. Timeouts, Love and Logic choices, anything I can think of to try and diffuse the situation. But sitting down with her and letting it be okay that she was emotional did wonders for the situation. It works well with my older students, who often greet me with a frown and crossed arms after a bad day. If I try to just listen to them- to hear how their day went, why they are frustrated to be coming to “speech”…. They are often just sad and confused that things have to be a struggle at school, and these teenagers have their bad days just like the rest of us.
Putting on my professional sunglasses, I realize that I often use too many words with my child. My friends do it too – using lengthy explanations to tell a glazed-eye toddler why they are on time-out, or giving “Love and Logic”-style choices that go on and on, but it’s a lot harder to step back from a personal interaction and evaluate how I am doing as a parent. As a general rule, especially in situations of heightened emotions (like, every other interaction with a toddler!), try using the number of words that correspond to their age. So, for a two-year-old, keep your phrases and sentences to two words to stop the action, reflect their feelings, give consequences, explain why they are on time out, etc. “No hitting”, “you’re frustrated”, “say sorry”… It works for some things, and keeping the general idea in the back of your head while dealing with your toddler (or teenager) helps you keep your language straightforward. Lengthier phrases can be cut down, too, like “Shoes on, or Mommy helps”. I often simplify with the children I work with, but it’s easier when I have my work hat on and am focused on improving the communicative interaction. I’ve been trying it with my child and it is harder when there is a lot going on, especially when you feel like your child can understand more. But it has worked, and “toddler jihad” week passed with fewer meltdowns since.
Here are a few things to try at home, based on Faber and Mazlish’s book:
1. Really listen to what emotion your child is trying to express
2. Use “uh-huh” or “mmm” while they are “emoting” (read: throwing a tantrum)
3. Reflect back to them what they are expressing. Use a statement, and don’t be afraid of big words (if you’ve only got a couple to use, make ’em count!): “You’re mad. You’re frustrated because you wanted that toy.” or “You’re sad. You’re sad you can’t go with Daddy.”
4. Let your child see that you understand their frustration.
5. Give them their choices or consequences (choice of two, removal from situation, etc.) but don’t wrap them up in lengthy dialogue about the situation.
6. Once calm, use statements to reflect their emotion and the consequences, but keep it simple!
I think the most important piece of the process is letting your child have some validation for their feelings. They will be better able to communicate with you if they have some acknowledgement that you see them as an individual. Practicing these skills may help you cope with your own “Toddler Jihad” week. Or be prepared for “Teenager Holy War” which often lasts longer than a week, in my experience! (Maybe I should add that we also stocked up on red wine during Toddler Jihad… ) Good Luck!