toddler cryingJanae B. Weinhold, Ph.D. 

The biggest daily challenge in parenting is discipline and setting limits for children. Most children challenge their parents by testing the limits over and over.

The second biggest challenge is enduring children’s upsets when faced with the consequences, physical and social limits that their parents give them. These and the natural limits they face everyday frustrate children, particularly toddlers. When they are having a love affair with the world, they want to see how far they can push their passion for exploring.

Toddlerhood Marks the Shift in Parenting Focus

During infancy and the codependent stage of development, parents’ focus on meeting their child’s needs in a timely way, attuning with them, creating a strong emotional connection and bonding deeply. The child sees lots of smiling faces, experiences regular approval, hears a lot of “cooing,” and the tone of the parent-child interactions is sort of “blissy” and wonderful. As soon as the child becomes mobile, able to creep and crawl, the entire focus changes.

Physical mobility gives children independence and self-direction. As children increasingly fall in love with the world and exploring, parents must increasingly set limits. At first, they are gentle limits, putting the creeping child back on the blanket and removing dangerous objects within reach. The more mobile the child becomes, the more drastic the physical limits become.

Suddenly the child hears the word “no” and sees frowns on mom and dad’s faces. This marks the shift in parenting roles from one of “unlimited love” to “love with limits.” This shift happens gradually, and often neither the parents or the child realize that they’ve just moved from the codependent stage to the counterdependent stage of development.

The emotional aspects of this shift are very important. Unfortunately, most parents don’t typically grasp how they must suddenly change their parenting attitude from “you can do no wrong” to “these behaviors are good” and “these behaviors are bad.” Bonded children often have strong wills and an inner confidence that keeps them pushing the limits and testing them over and over.

Now parents can either see this assertive behavior as a good sign, indicating their child is moving towards healthy independence. Or they can see it as a bad sign–a challenge to their authority and as oppositional, defiant and disrespectful. It’s the parents who assign the “good/bad” labels to the child’s behavior. For the child, there is just going, doing and being! The world is suddenly a great place that needs to be explored–touched, smelled, tasted and discovered!

Parents’ Challenges in Discipline and Limit Setting for Chidren

Parents really need help in making the mental and emotional shift from being a “giver” to being a “protector.” Once they understand this developmental shift, they can celebrate it, which helps them adjust their attitude and reactions about their new role.

toddler with toilet paper

Toddler Experiencing Personal Power

At the same time the child is physically moving away from the parents, he or she is also going through a parallel psychological and emotional separation. Toddlers learn to use NO to their own advantage, also setting limits with their parents on how much they can direct and control their behavior.

Toddlers find their areas of “personal power:” eating and food preferences, sleep patterns and toilet training. Without any warning, parents can suddenly find themselves in power struggles that they can’t win.

A word of parenting advice adapted from my country background, “Never get in pissing contests with skunks and 2-year olds.” This is the period of time when parents learn the first subtleties of “reverse psychology” and other carefully crafted behavior management tools.

The best way around power struggles is to give the child choices–not big ones, but small ones that allow the adults to retain larger control and the child to feel respected and honored. For example, at bedtime, “Do you want to wear your balloon or your Mickey Mouse jammies?” “Do you want to read the train book or the book about the bunnies? There isn’t any discussion about IF the child is going to bed.

The BIG Psychological Event in Toddlerhood

Toddlers are naturally self-centered and narcissistic. It is a phase that they must go through. In this period of development, they all show signs of entitlement, euphoria, grandiosity and omnipotence. These “bigger than life” behaviors help children develop a sense of Self. The challenge is turning “rough diamond” toddlers into polished, shining humans by the time they are three years old. The tool that makes this behavioral transformation happen is limits and limit-setting.

Setting and enforcing behavioral limits gradually deflates toddlers’ natural narcissistic urges. It is important for adult caregivers to set these limits with compassion, understanding, and empathy, because they typically activate strong feelings of frustration, anger, guilt, and shame in children.

The goal for adults is to stay “dispassionate.” State what children are feeling, while continuing to move the child forward and through a power struggle situation. For example, a child find the tv remote and begins playing with it. So the adult caregiver can either get into a struggle or use a different strategy. He might begin by picking up another attractive toy or object and offering it to the child as a substitute. If the child persists in keeping the remote, then the adult can offer to use the remote to turn on the tv to watch a show.

If the child still refuses to give up the remote and goes into “meltdown/tantrum” mode, then the adult must go into high “dispassion” mode. At this point, the adult has retrieved the remote and the child is wailing and flailing. Here the adult must reflect the child’s inner experience. “I see how angry you are. I know you wanted to play with the remote, that you like pushing the buttons. The remote isn’t a toy and is only for big people to use. I’m sorry I left it out, I should have put it away. It’s okay for you to be angry when you don’t get what you want. When you are finished being angry, let me know. I’d like to read you the story about the little girl and the birds.” The the adult sits and waits patiently for the child to get through the emotions, and shows he is ready to read to the child.

Children often have meltdowns or challenge an adult when their feelings aren’t acknowledged. When adults are able to empathize with children, it dissolves the emotional charge. These intense moments can also be a time to teach children the name of an emotion and how to appropriately express it. Both the adult and the child can grow from these kinds of experiences.

How to Provide Children With Firm, Clear Limits

Finding the fine line between “spoiling/indulging” and “dominating/shaming” is a very delicate dance. Walking this fine line doesn’t come naturally to most parents, because they likely were either indulged or dominated, maybe even both. And toddlers’ defiant responses to their parenting limits will absolutely stir parents’ own unresolved separation issues.

Parents often are horrified when they hear themselves saying the same shaming/humiliating/dominating things to their children that their parents said to them. This is often the first awareness of the “family patterns” phenomenon.

Toddlers need the assistance of attentive, sensitive, and understanding parents or adult caregivers to help them learn how to regulate these emotions, which are an integral part of the separation stage. It is important for parents and other adult caregivers to help children re-regulate their emotions and repair any mis-attunements left from the bonding stage. This is evident when toddlers suddenly revert to “baby mode” and want to be held and cuddled.

Toddlers are naturally ambivalent and oppositional in this stage of development, so adults must be both consistently loving and consistently firm to help them navigate this bumpy journey more easily. The most effective way to help toddlers regulate their emotions during this stage is for adults to keep their cool and not split or get triggered.

Having been through this stage with our children and grand- children, we understand the challenge behind these words and offer it as an ideal to work towards. The presence of calm adults also helps toddlers create healthy internal models of their adult caregivers.

If toddlers fall down and get an “owie,” they trust they can return to the soothing comfort of an adult’s lap and calm down. Then they quickly slide off the lap and return to exploring their world. Wilting and fatigued toddlers are also able to instantly recharge during this emotional refueling stop and return only when another limit deflates their narcissistic urges.

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