Even under the best circumstances, parenting a toddler is challenging. Toddlers are physically very capable–they can run, climb (on everything), stack, play, etc. Emotionally, however, they are still very immature. They aren’t very rational, they lose emotional control easily, and their moods switch so fast it will give you whiplash. This is just life as a toddler and it’s totally developmentally appropriate. After days (or weeks) being at home with a toddler you may find yourself losing your patience, maybe even yelling at your toddler. We all know that yelling at kids does not work (and makes you feel awful), but what is a parent to do?
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Why Do I Lose My Temper with My Child?
Let me tell you, you are not alone. You’re not crazy. It is harder to be patient with toddlers (or kids of any age) right now during this pandemic. You may find yourself yelling at kids and not understand why.
- Self-care has probably taken a backseat. With our kids at home with us 24/7, many of our usual self-care options are challenging to do. There are no babysitters so you can go on a date night. You can’t even take an hour to go get a nice haircut. Even our sleep may be disrupted by anxious thoughts or staying up late to catch up on work.
- Why does self-care matter for patience? The research on this one is pretty clear–if we are unable to meet our needs for rest, quiet, relaxation, etc. then our patience wears thin a lot quicker. One study found that moms of toddlers who were fatigued were less likely to use positive verbal strategies (e.g., polite asking). In other words, when you are well-rested you are more likely to politely ask your toddler to stay away from an off-limits object, but when you are tired, the politeness is likely to go out the window. Although this study only considered a lack of sleep, I would imagine much the same results could be seen with a lack of self-care in other areas as well.
- Anxiety is draining. Although on a daily basis at home with our kids we may not feel overly anxious about the pandemic, it is always in the back of our minds. We check the news frequently, we search for the groceries and cleaning supplies that are out of stock. This undercurrent of anxiety wears on our brains and our patience after a while. Research shows that, although we may physically be doing less activity now that we are home all the time, this new routine (or lack thereof) is actually very taxing on our brain.
- Being “on-call” all the time is exhausting. All this is on top of the level of anxiety and hyper-vigilance we usually have as parents. As this article points out so well, having a young child at home means you have to constantly be aware of potential hazards, falls, accidents, etc. All these conditions combine to make you utterly exhausted by the end of the day. You may find yourself yelling at kids more because you are simply worn down.
None of us start out in parenting thinking we will be one of those parents who yells at their kids. Even if you have been a parent for only a couple of years, you’ve probably realized that yelling doesn’t work. Although I can cite research showing why yelling doesn’t work due to the anxiety-provoking effect it causes, you know from experience that yelling at kids usually just ends up with everyone in tears. The question that remains is: how to be a better parent without yelling. Here are a few ways to start:
Put limits on behavior, not emotions
One key I’ve learned in recent years about positive parenting is the distinction between putting boundaries on behavior, not emotions. Toddlers (and all kids) can have really big emotions. Heck, on any given day, we grownups can have big emotions too.
The real point is that to help kids learn emotional self-regulation, they have to be able to express their emotions. Allowing them to express emotions (even the unpleasant ones) is challenging as a parent. We don’t really like it when our kids get angry or cry or meltdown. However, in allowing emotions, we are also opening up space to teach them how to cope with big emotions. On the other hand, if we punish or disregard emotions, they end up learning to stuff them down and hold them in. Ultimately, this puts kids at higher risk for anxiety and other issues later in life.
Related reading: Toddlers Have Big Emotions. Insight from Research on How to Respond
Finding the distinction between behavior and emotions can be tricky. Especially with young kids, the big emotion leads to a sometimes unpleasant behavior almost immediately. For example, your toddler might be upset at his brother for taking a toy and immediately hit him. Separating out the anger from the hitting is one key to positive parenting. We can explain that it’s normal to feel angry but it’s not okay to hit.
Action step: Focus on correcting or offering alternatives to behavior that is “out of bounds” rather than emotions. For example, you might say, “let’s talk about a different way to express your anger rather than hitting.” You could provide other options like going outside, running up and down the stairs, etc.
Teach self-regulation skills
Teaching self-regulation skills ties in with the issue we just discussed. Intentionally teaching kids how to manage big emotions is a life skill they will use forever. Although toddlers often struggle with big emotions, we can be role models to help them understand emotions and deal with them.
One step is to simply discuss emotions as a normal part of conversation when kids are calm. You might read books about emotions or play games that discuss emotions. Here are some great examples of toys and books for emotional development.
Secondly, you can teach self-regulation skills like breathing techniques, sensory items, or exercises that may help your child calm down when upset. See this lovely example: Reducing Toddler Tantrums
Action step: Try incorporating one self-regulation activity into your life that can help kids calm down. This could be a calming corner, a calm down jar, breathing exercises, or physical activities that promote self-regulation. You will probably see that once your children have some other skills to cope with big emotions, you will find yourself yelling at kids much less.
See behavior as communication
Another valuable skill I’ve learned from my positive parenting friends is the idea that kids’ behavior is a form of communication. This mindset shift will completely change how you look at your child’s behavior.
Graphic courtesy of Parents with Confidence
Instead of seeing misbehavior as “acting out” or as your child trying to intentionally push your buttons, dig deeper and try to uncover the real meaning behind the behavior. Could your child’s anger and yelling really be a sign that they are anxious or overwhelmed? Could your child’s lack of emotional regulation just simply be a skill that they haven’t yet developed? For very young children, misbehavior is often just a sign of a physical need that they cannot yet express well. A toddler who melts down easily is often just a sign of fatigue or a growth spurt.
Action step: The next time your child acts in a way that you would consider misbehavior, take a moment to consider what else might be going on. Is she sad about something? Is he hungry, tired, overstimulated, etc.? Dig deep to see what need might be the root cause of this behavior. Yelling at kids becomes less common once you understand the real cause of children’s behavior.
Pick your battles
You have probably heard the phrase “pick your battles” many times, but I think there is still some truth to it, especially with toddlers. If we wanted, we could try to correct a hundred things about our children’s behavior each day. On any given day, these issues might include poor table manners, mismatched clothes, a messy room, fighting with siblings, yelling, etc. While all these issues may be on our “perfect parent” blacklist, we have to carefully consider which of these issues really matter to us. When we consider the type of adult we want our child to grow into, which of all the issues do we really value most? These are the issues we focus on correcting or discussing with our kids. The lower-priority issues will hopefully develop later but you’ve decided to focus most of your time on these important issues.
Action step: The next time your child does something that “pushes your buttons” stop for a moment to consider if correcting this is a high-priority issue or if you can let it go. Letting it go doesn’t mean you never discuss that issue, it just means you’ve chosen to value the relationship with your child over nit-picking every little annoying habit.
Find your triggers
This one is huge! I never knew I had triggers that could set off an emotional storm until I had kids. What are the triggers that really make it difficult for you to be patient or kind with your kids? Triggers are often issues or feelings that underlie the anger. It might be an underlying worry that your child’s behavior brings up for you, disappointment, feeling out of control, your child’s behavior reminding you of someone you dislike, underlying sadness, etc. This article from one of my blogger friends is excellent for explaining triggers.
One common trigger I’ve found among toddler parents centers on having expectations for behavior that are not really developmentally appropriate. For example, if a parent expects a toddler to sit quietly in a waiting room for a doctor’s appointment and not investigate everything in the room, they will likely get upset when the toddler is unable to do this. However, this expectation is not developmentally appropriate. Most toddlers will be climbing on and investigating (i.e., destroying) everything in the room in a matter of minutes.
Action step: The next time you find yourself getting upset at your child, see if you can uncover the underlying trigger. Sometimes it is not really possible to do this until after the fact, but it can help prevent yelling the next time a similar situation arises. This takes a bit of self-reflection but if you can discover some of your triggers, it will help reframe your child’s behavior in a new light.
The bigger picture of learning to discipline without yelling is that we are modeling for our children the behavior we would like them to learn. If we can remain calm, they are much more likely to learn self-regulation by our example.
Especially during this time of the pandemic, it’s also helpful to remember to be kind to yourself. Everyone is under more stress than usual. Although toddlers may not understand what is happening in the outside world, they know how you make them feel. Parenting toddlers is never easy, but it’s especially challenging right now. Being at home with our kids more might bring some unpleasant parenting issues to the surface. However, it might also be an opportunity to stretch and grow as parents in ways that will leave us better equipped for the next challenge.