Let’s be honest: toddlers and young preschoolers can wear on even the most patient person’s nerves. From the constant questions (“why?” “wat dat?” “where mama go?”) to the wild mood swings and outbursts, life with one to three year old kids can be difficult. But screaming back at your angry two year old is not going to help him learn how to handle his difficult emotions. Telling your heartbroken three year old to stop crying and “get over it” after she spills her ice cream is not going to make her feel better about the ice cream or herself. Smacking your twenty month old’s hand for pulling the cat’s tail does not teach him how to give gentle touches.
Here are a few tips for staying patient with your child (these don’t only apply to toddlers and preschoolers, but those are the ages I am most familiar with).
1. Be Silly and Play: Play is a child’s “main way of communicating, of experimenting, and of learning.” (1) Play is such an important part of children’s lives that there is an entire therapeutic technique based entirely on play. (2) And not only is it important to get regular play time in with your child, but you can also avoid arguments and stress by being silly and playing with your child when you foresee a problem. I recommend reading Dr. Cohen’s book Playful Parenting for more ideas in this area.
2. Try Alternatives to “Punishment”: Rather than resorting to immediate “punishment” or “consequences,” take a few minutes to cool off before addressing your child when you are angry. Hitting your child, humiliating him with harsh words, threatening him, or calling him names all leave emotional scars. Instead of punishment, try making a connection. Your child is more likely to understand and communicate when they are not cowering in fear of a scary, angry parent. Give your child a hug, pull him aside, and talk quietly -without judgment – about what happened. You are more likely to get to the root of the problem by connecting with your child than you are while smacking him. (3)
3. Sing Instead of Shout: Similar to the idea of being playful, try singing your requests instead of shouting them. You may get your child’s attention faster by asking “please pick up your shoes before I trip and break my neck!” in a singsong voice than by saying (for the umpteenth time) “get in here and pick these shoes up right now young lady!”
4. Try a Change of Scenery: Boredom is rarely conducive to happiness and cooperation, so if you’ve been stuck in the same house or routine, get out and do something different.
5. Remind Yourself That It’s Age Appropriate: Sometimes all it takes to calm us down is a simple reminder that your children are not trying to make you crazy, they’re just being kids. Toddlers cannot help expressing big emotions – they simply do not have the tools yet to manage them. One year olds aren’t trying to kill themselves by climbing the bookcase or sticking fingers in the light socket – they just haven’t learned what is dangerous. It is our responsibility and privilege to help children as they learn. Would we rather our child’s experiences growing up be filled with gentleness, love and respect, or fear, self-doubt and shame?
6. Identify Your Triggers: Take notice of the times you feel the most stressed out and what can calm you down. Do you need more alone time? Do you feel better after visiting with a friend? Do your batteries recharge during small playgroups? Can you chill out while volunteering? Are you getting adequate nutrition? Parents must take care of themselves too.
7. Adjust Your Expectations: Are you holding on to expectations that are no longer realistic? Our children are always growing and changing – they will drop naps, they will develop their own preferences, they will constantly challenge us. Make sure that you are not expecting too much (or too little!) of your child. And remember that parenting does not equal control. If you are always trying to control your child, you will only be disappointed and frustrated, and your relationship with your child will suffer.
8. Tell Your Child How You Feel: Are you angry? Frustrated? Tired? Share your feelings! Children need help identifying feelings in themselves and others. They also need to know that their actions affect others. Be careful, though, not to say “you are making me angry” – your child is not in control of your emotions, you are. It is not your child’s fault you are angry. Try “Mama is feeling angry that the paint spilled all over the carpet. I will have to spend time cleaning it up now, and I am disappointed because I will miss my book club meeting. I would appreciate your help getting some towels so we can start cleaning up.” A good resource for this concept is Naomi Aldort’s Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. (4)
9. Remember that “This Too Shall Pass”: If all else fails take a deep breath and repeat these words: “this too shall pass.” Your child won’t be two (or three or four) forever. This beautiful little one screaming in the next room will grow up too fast. These difficult days will be a fleeting (and precious) memory.
What tips do you have for being patient with your young children? Please share in the comments!
(1) Cohen, Lawrence, “Playful Parenting” at 4 (available in part as a Google book)
(2) “Play therapy is a technique whereby the child’s natural means of expression, namely play, is used as a therapeutic method to assist him/her in coping with emotional stress or trauma.” McIntyre, Tom, “Play Therapy,” http://www.behavioradvisor.com/PlayTherapy.html
(3) Playful Parenting, Chapter 13
(4) Aldort, Naomi, “Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves (available in part as a Google book)