In the heat of the moment, when those “terrible two’s” begin to take hold of your child for the first time, it can be really hard to recognize what is actually happening versus what it “feels” like is happening. But that outburst may not be coming from a place of disrespect or disobedience; it’s an outburst of independence with a serious need to learn self regulation. And as difficult and backwards as it might seem, this can be an opportunity to teach rather than punish.
My son is an absolute doll. He really is a sweetheart and gentle and patient. (And I fear he’s going to get his heart broken a billion times when he gets older. Because…well just look at that face!) And then almost overnight, right after his second birthday, he apparently got the memo that he can start random outbursts and hit me in disapproval.
Suddenly, he was throwing things, hitting and yelling, and acting like none of the rules applied to him. I was so upset, I didn’t know where my sweet little boy went. Of course my initial reaction was to yell “NO!” while swinging a purposeful pointer finger in the air. But we both were getting nowhere.
Then our Special Instructor explained that this raging toddler was still my sweet little boy. He was trying to express his sense of self but didn’t know how to control his feelings and thoughts. He wanted to let me know he wanted choices, that he had an opinion, but these are big concepts for such a little boy who only had a few words and signs in his vocabulary. So instead of getting upset, I needed to look at these moments as opportunities to teach him how to deal with these overwhelming new thoughts and emotions in a positive manner.
From my ABA book:
The long term goal is to help [the] child independently prevent the meltdown. We teach the child to independently choose to go to a cozy space when beginning to feel overwhelmed. To use time and space to self regulate and return when she decides she is ready. Therefore, we do not want to give this space and time a negative connotation. It is not a punishment, it is a method of teaching self soothing/self control/self regulation skills.
As adults when things at work get really frustrating, we can take a deep breath and collect our thoughts, allowing us to successfully not curse-out the rude customer and subsequently get fired. Toddlers haven’t learned this valuable life skill yet and they won’t be able to understand the concept of deep breathing. When faced with frustrations, they hit…or yell..or bite..or throw things. So it may seem as though they are misbehaving, but it’s the only way they know how to communicate “Hey, I don’t like that!”
Here’s some practical advice on using these outbursts to teach your child self-regulating skills:
Take a deep breath. I mean YOU, the parent. This is the first and most important step. The calmer you are, the easier this process will be. I know this might seem challenging, especially in the heat of the moment, but they will pick up on your zen faster each time.
You don’t need to have a specific time out space. We use any chair in the house for our “time-outs” to provide immediate relief to the situation. This way we don’t develop one corner or specific chair as the time-out space, which could become a negative space over time. Also, this allows us to use the same process in public or at someone else’s house which teaches that hitting and yelling are unacceptable behaviors no matter where you are.
Count to 5. At this point, toddlers are too young to sit and think about what they’ve done. What they really need is a moment to reconnect with their bodies and emotions to calm down. Counting, slowly, to five with them will provide a focus much like the deep breathing exercises we are taught. And if you feel like five is too short of a time or too long, then definitely make adjustments.
Say “Hands Down” instead of “Don’t Hit.” This one is super hard to retrain your brain to do. It’s so easy to tell your child the thing you don’t want them to do, rather than the opposite. But if your toddler is anything like mine, there will be plenty of opportunities to practice.
Always tons of praise. Children respond so very well to praise and smiles so if there’s even a slight moment where they stopped themselves from the outburst, let them know what a great job they did! And if they need a time-out, praise them for sitting still and staying calm. Always reinforce the positive behaviors.
Previously posted at Hudson Valley Parent Magazine.
*If you have any concerns about your child, please discuss with their pediatrician or contact your local school district or Early Intervention center for an evaluation.*