Toddlers Learning: 6 tips for explaining a sometimes scary world

On a recent trip to the grocery store, my son and I were cruising down the drinks aisle when we heard a mom start to scream at her two little kids. She waved a box of cereal angrily and yelled that they were bad. She was aggressive – to be honest, I was a little intimidated by her and half-expected her to start swinging.

As we scooted by, I watched my little guy’s face. His mouth hung open, and his eyes were wide. He was clearly : I didn’t know. Confused? Scared? Fascinated?

My most stern moments with him involve using my moderate-volume voice to say things like, “I’m going to count to three.”

But no matter what we do as parents, we can’t control the strange, sad, scary, or confusing situations our kids are exposed to while they’re out in the world. And a supermarket mom tantrum is just the beginning. Has your toddler ever seen:

A parent hitting his or her kid

A homeless man asking for money

Her parents fighting

A family member acting inappropriately

Violent images

What do you say? Do you hurry on and hope she forgets what she’s seen, or do you talk it through so your toddler understands? How can you help your child make sense of an uncontrollable and sometimes-unsavory outside world?

1. Know that kids have impressive memory – for the good and the bad. Glazing over an upsetting incident and pretending it didn’t happen isn’t likely to erase it from your child’s memory. You know how she mentions random events from months earlier? By the time your toddler reaches preschool age, her memory will span back a year or more. Anything that makes an impression or is interesting to her gets recorded somewhere in her brain. Even if she can’t consciously recall it later, the emotional connections are still there, especially if it’s a repeated event.

2. Look at your toddler. The best way to know whether to address what your toddler sees is to look at her. Is she paying attention? Does it phase her? If you see the wheels turning in your child’s mind, that probably means she’s trying to make sense of something and could use your help doing it.

3. Consider her developmental stage. Toddlers are relatively concrete thinkers. They tend to see the world in terms of their safety and whether a trusted caregiver is close by. After that, it’s all about touching, playing, and exploring their immediate environment. At this young age, things that seem upsetting to you may not raise a red flag for your child. A man sleeping on the sidewalk, for example, might not seem notable to her at all.

But if you think your toddler is disturbed or unsettled, a quick statement will help settle her mind. She’ll mainly want to know that you saw what she saw (to validate her experience) and that everything is okay. In response to the mom yelling at her kids, for example, I said, “Wow, she was angry. I didn’t like seeing that.”

Young toddlers don’t see other people as full, complete beings with their own thoughts and feelings, so going into the background, cause-and-effect reasons for people’s behavior won’t mean that much. Try to think like your creature of the moment when you’re deciding what to say.

By two-and-a-half, though, your little one has a wild imagination and a greater capacity for abstract thought and empathy, so she will most definitely look to you for more information and the underlying reasons for what she sees in the world (see the “why”s below).

4. Make a simple statement. If you’re not sure how much your toddler noticed or cares about something, just make a simple statement to see if she bites. Saying, “Wow, she seemed angry,” or, “Hmm, that was upsetting to see,” acknowledges what you both saw and gives her an in if she wants to ask about it.

If something is clearly distressing – for example, you and your spouse are fighting and tension is high – take a minute to process it with your child when things cool down. With a toddler, that might just mean sitting down to play together and letting her see you hug your husband or go on with the day (again, her main question is are we all okay here?).

But in the third year, kids benefit from more explanation so they don’t feel alone and confused. Say something like, “Daddy and I were feeling angry – you could probably tell, right? You know how you use your words and tell your friends at school if you’re mad about something? Mommies and daddies do the same. We tell each other how we feel and sometimes we feel mad.”

Your child may not respond at all, but just acknowledging what happened in a confident, empathetic voice will help her enormously as she’s trying to draw her emotional map of the world.

5. Your little one looks to you for clues about how to feel. You know that if your toddler hears a loud noise, falls down, or is scared, surprised, or amazed by something, she looks back at you. That’s because she formulates her feelings in part by gauging the reaction of her most trusted someone. Even if your toddler isn’t looking directly at you after seeing something difficult, she’s no doubt reading your body language. If you’re panicked or anxious, that’s likely to raise her stress level too.

6. Don’t take the “why”s too literally. Especially around age three, when the barrage of “why” questions typically begins, what kids usually mean is, “This is interesting to me, I want to hear more about it.” That’s why answering a direct “why” question doesn’t always stop the questioning – sure they want an explanation, but more than that, kids just want to hear about your experience, random thoughts, and what ideas the subject brings up for you.

When your little one asks, “Why was that mom yelling?” she may not even be looking for the precise answer, but rather telling you that it piqued her interest, and she wants to know more. “Because she was mad,” could satisfy her, but more likely she just wants to talk about it in general. A more effective response might be, “I know, I wonder if she was feeling mad? What do you think? Do you ever feel mad? It didn’t make me feel very good when I heard her yelling.” Take your child’s “why” questions less as requests for direct answers and more as interest in your musings on the topic.

Has your toddler ever seen something you wish she hadn’t? Do you have any other tips for handling that kind of situation? We’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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