When Things Fall Apart With Your Toddler

You’re having a great time with your little one when suddenly things take a turn for the worse.  How do you turn things back around?

Difficult times with your toddler can actually be rich opportunities to connect if you approach the situation mindfully.  I know in the moment you just want your child’s “big feelings” to Go Away.  Studies show, however, that this is exactly when the attachment system kicks in – the opportunity for us as parents to provide our little ones with a lifelong sense of security and trust in others beginning with trust in us.  A secure attachment is when the child finds the parent to be their “safe haven” in times of distress.

When you become angry or punish your child with a time out, your child may show increased anger due to separation anxiety or display withdrawal behaviors indicating that she has decided “no one is there to help me when I am upset”. Inadvertently, your angry reaction could be interpreted by your child as, “your negative feelings are unacceptable to me, please do not show them to me”.  Using parental reflective functioning (or mindfulness) to help your child cope with his/her frustrations, your child’s anger will more likely turn into sadness, displays of dependency, and finally, loving feelings.

The mindfulness tips below will help you to respond to the emotions rather than the behavior.  This approach builds deep, everlasting trust, but requires a bit of inner work:

  1. First, ask yourself what the behavior is triggering in you and why.
  2. Second, ask yourself what your child might be communicating.
  3. Third, respond to the underlying feelings. They often reflect an unmet need, wish, want, fantasy, desire, or all of the above. This must be understood but not necessarily gratified. Empathize, but don’t give in even when the feelings become more challenging.

Reflective function, or mindfulness, allows you to respond with a calm, centered state of mind. Once calm, you are more able to practice the art of observation followed by narration in order to communicate more effectively with your child.

For example, how does your child currently respond when stressed or frustrated?  Does she throw herself on to the floor screaming bloody murder, push you away demanding “to be left alone”, or run into your arms seeking comfort and containment? Optimally, your answer is the last one.  Once clear about this, ask yourself what he/she might be communicating, and how you can assist.

Using narration technique (or “sportscasting”), will let your child know that you understand what’s going on (“I see you are not ready to stop playing”). Remember: If she’s giving you a hard time, she’s having a hard time, so focus with compassion on what she is going through, good, bad, right or wrong.  Stating her point of view does not necessarily mean agreeing with it. (“Not wanting mommy to give you your bath. You aren’t ready yet.”). Then, offer a solution and set a limit (“So in 5 minutes you can either get into the bath all by yourself or I’ll help you. You can choose.”)

Notice what happens when you validate her experience before setting the limit. Often, respect and understanding is all she really wanted.  Once she feels your empathy, she will usually calm down and cooperate. If she is still upset, stay with her experience, narrating “now I’m going to help you into the bath. You’re not yet able to stop your body but I don’t like being hit so I’m going to stop your body.”).  Bearing witness to your child’s struggle without trying to fix it — or condone it — is a true gift.  Equanimity is a mindful parent’s best tool.

Deborah and the Well Baby Center Family

annabellesmallDeborah Groening Rother is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Certified Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Clinic Director of Well Baby Center.

Posted in Children, Correcting Behavior vs. Talking About Feelings., Discipline, Loving Discipline, Mindful Parenting, Parent-child relationship, Parenting, Parenting Tips, Uncategorized, Value of Emotions | Leave a comment

How To Manage Transitions, Separations, and Changes That Occur During the Holiday Season

How To Manage Transitions, Separations, and Changes That Occur During the Holiday Season

In our Mindful Parenting Groups we regularly explore what members might feel when they return to their group after a long holiday break, when they miss a group, when one of the facilitators are absent, a new member joins the group or a beloved member leaves the group — or even how hard it is for our children to manage transitioning from one segment of the group’s activities to another. Our groups are kept intentionally small so that we can be curious about these finer, and more-subtle emotions, and to notice how these changes, transitions, and separations may trigger negative behaviors in children. When we are curious about these various experiences we may notice how deeply changes, separations, and transitions affect all of us — especially at this time of year. The holidays often bring up surprising feelings of loss, loneliness, abandonment, anxiety, depression or the pain of the memory of someone no longer here – in addition to the many joyful moments we anticipate having with loved ones. These emotions usually remain under the radar because there is a good deal of pressure “to be jolly” at this time of year.

Yes, not everyone feels jolly during the holidays — and it makes it worse when you believe you’ll be a burden to others if you tell them that you are not doing well. Your children may not know how to express their confusion and unhappiness either during these supposedly happiest of times. They need you to decipher the “code” of childhood communications. Through the tools of observation, reflection, and narration we can do this. We can be more empathic to our own and our children’s sensitivity to and discomfort with all the changes that the holidays bring with them. They need us to adequately prepare them for the relatives and friends suddenly appearing, for the change in mom and dad — maybe mom is anxious to make a good impression or dad isn’t used to the change in his workday schedule and feels a bit disoriented — and to allow time for discussion about all of it. Allow time for transitions from one activity to the next or from one relative to the next! When children sense that their parents are distracted or anxious, they may react negatively without even knowing why. It’s the parents’ job to understand the root cause of these behaviors and to manage them with empathy.

At the same time, it is a useful time to practice self-compassion. Most of us have a tendency to regress to old family roles when we are reunited with our families of origin—that of the peacemaker, the quiet one, dad’s favorite, and so on — so be kind to yourself and others, slow things down (including expectations), and reflect mindfully…

…and may your holiday be filled with much joy and laughter.


Deborah and the Well Baby Center Family

annabellesmallDeborah Groening Rother is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist,  Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Certified Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Clinic Director of Well Baby Center.

Posted in Love, Parent-child relationship, Self-Compassion, Uncategorized, Value of Emotions | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment