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Teaching Your Toddler to Talk It Out

You’re exhausted. You have one arm full of groceries and one arm full of toddler and are trying to unlock the car door without dropping either. Your two-year-old starts lunging for something just as your key is in the lock. You say, “Not now, honey, we need to get the groceries home.” And within seconds, the squirming has turned to screaming and full body-twisting. You want to figure out what was so desperately important but now there are no words, only shrieks. And the ice cream is melting on the pavement.

What, exactly, happened?

A tantrum is a perfect storm of little child angst, caused in large part because toddlers have developing emotional systems overlaid on immature linguistic systems. They are learning that they can influence the world around them and make it do fun and interesting things – except there are all these really annoying tall people getting in the way. Just when a toddler discovers something really fun, there’s some mysterious rule or boundary. The toddler didn’t know about the rule, can’t tell you why he needs or wants the thing, and can’t process the disappointment.

If you and I spent the day feeling like that, we’d probably have tantrums too.

One of the things to remember about tantrums is that they are often disconnected from the things that finally spark them. A tantrum is more often where built-up frustrations intersect fatigue, and it’s housed in a small person who cannot articulate the progression of what they are feeling. That’s why the tantrum itself can often catch you off-guard (like when you have a bag full of steadily melting ice cream).

Children typically start having tantrums somewhere around 18 months and continue until three or four. Why that long? Because three or four is where improved communication skills have developed, and they are accompanied by more mature neuromuscular systems. Three or four is right around when children are 1) able to use more complex language and 2) starting to outgrow their naps. Contrary to popular belief, a nap does not exist to keep mommy from losing her mind – that’s a fringe benefit. A nap exists because this rapidly developing and growing little body requires sleep to re-charge. So three to four is when a child has reached a developmental stage where they are both able to tell you what they are feeling and living in a body that can much better cope with activity and stimulation.

But:but:I can’t wait two more years to make this better! I hear you cry. I have ice cream to buy!

Ok. Here’s how you can save your mint chocolate-chip.

Physical development is a bit beyond a parent’s sphere of influence, but you can start improving your child’s ability to tell what they’re thinking or feeling, and that will help you get past the tantrum stage sooner.

  • Start introducing the language of feelings. We spend a lot of time on nouns; that’s because nouns are easy. You can point to a dog, a truck or a swing-set and label it while you are taking a walk, reading a book or making dinner. But nouns are in truth a very small part of the way we communicate, so start giving your child words that convey the things they are feeling, emotionally and physically. Label your feelings as you have them. “Mommy is frustrated! Or, “I’m tired! I’m so tired! I need to sit down and rest.” Or:well, you get the idea. Work on the full range of physical and emotional sensations: happy, sad, frustrated, excited, tired, hungry, thirsty, warm, cold and on and so-forth.

  • Incorporate feelings into play. A feeling may be fleeting, so, while you can tell your child that you are hungry, thirsty, happy or sad, the circumstances that made you feel that way are typically over in seconds or minutes. So when you have an opportunity, work the vocabulary of feelings back into play. How does the stuffed animal feel? Or the dog? The Lego toy or the superhero? This allows you to reinforce the language of feelings in a way that can be sustained a bit longer. But more importantly, it allows you to talk about feelings that you cannot really discuss while your child is feeling them. When your child is in the midst of a serious tantrum, you are most likely trying to cope with a very loud and very emotional small person. In that moment you are probably focused on trying to make sure that the grocery manager does not think you are stealing a child. It’s clearly not theperfect time to explore new vocabulary.

  • Use the post-tantrum cool-down to teach. Using language appropriate to your child’s age, talk about what they were feeling before the tantrum happened, even though your child may not be able to tell you. Children younger than two don’t yet have declarative memory that is fully formed and may not be able to recall an isolated moment in time. And even if they do, they probably don’t have the language yet to describe what they were feeling. But you can start labeling those emotions and give them some of the vocabulary they need. You can also start teaching children at a very young age that you want them to tell you things. Demonstrate cause and effect, “If you had told me the cartoon was upsetting you, we could have read a book instead.” Remember that the thing that set the tantrum off was probably the last straw, not a thing of serious grief, but what you need most is for your child to learn to share what they are feeling so you can help them adopt effective coping strategies. It doesn’t yet matter if the thing that upset them was really a big deal or not. For a two-year-old everything is a big deal.

We, as parents, are the best teachers for are children, not because we are the most brilliant or the most patient, not because we are gifted with some miraculous knowledge when our children are placed in our arms – if only that was so! – but because children orient to their parents better than they orient to anyone else. What we say and do has the deepest reach.

That means that you can work language teaching into every interaction you have with them. And with a little planning and vocabulary stretching, you can decrease the likelihood of parking-lot meltdowns – by your child:or the ice cream.

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