Photography by Christoph Walters
Every child has their very own, unstoppable, perfectly unique, expression of self! And every parent-child relationship moves along at its wildly messy pace and rhythm. But most parents, I’d venture to say, can come together and commiserate with one another when they just don’t know what on earth to do with their three year who is acting like a “three-nager”. Couple this with an all too frequent inability to guess everything your little one is trying to verbalize with limited vocabulary and context, and everyone gets to wear their "Hot Mess t-shirt" to bed. So based on personal experience, lovingly quilted together with those experiences of friends and family, I have tried my best to decode a minutia of the cryptic behavior displayed by the common toddler.
When your 5 year old no longer responds to bribes and timers at dinner time and your freaking out about her not getting enough nutrition in her before the days end!
Translation: All day long I am told what to do and not do. I hate not having any say in what happens to me!
What we do and do not put in our mouths is a very important part of how we cultivate autonomy. In a world busier than ever, kids can often feel micromanaged. By holding out at meal-time, toddlers are taking control- and that’s ok! When encouraged consistently, toddlers can be really tuned into their bodies, but it takes a little direction sometimes, like “ Is your tummy talking to you? He might be saying ‘Feed me Sam!’ Let’s take a break from TV and listen. Maybe you can help make it for him!” It’s important to show the, that you understand (because you were a toddler once, remember). By letting them serve themselves or help cook, you give them some power back.
When your 4 year old kids his little sister when she steals his toys even after you have stepped in a few times to “keep the peace”.
Translation: These are my toys and this baby keeps taking them from me! AHHHHHHH! Stop Stop Stop. I don’t like how I feel and I don’t like her!
Sometimes big emotions come in little packages. While it’s definitely never ok to harm oneself or others, scenarios like this are some of the most powerful teaching moments for parents and kids alike. Toddlers, like many adults, tend to lash out when they are feeling uncomfortable, overwhelming emotions. If possible, try to help your little scrapper i.d. his feelings. "Hey Mikey. Hurting your sister is not ok. I know that you know that so you must be feeling pretty upset right now. It must make you feel angry when she keeps taking your toys even when you ask her to stop nicely!
By helping your toddler to i.d. their emotions as they feel them, they can begin to learn to express them appropriately. Offer up some alternatives to your kid in times of duress.
You and your four year old have been planning a trip to the zoo, which is an hour away, for weeks. But twenty minutes into it, she bursts into tears and starts screaming to go home.
Translation: This is not how I pictured it. Look at all of the people! I thought we would be able to touch the lions . I'm overwhelmed!
Hey, who hasn’t had great expectations! Well toddlers have fertile imaginations and sometimes the pictures we paint with them in their minds is not always what they walk into. Sometimes, fear and anxiety can manifest as tantrums and this in turn can lead to a frantic attempt by parents to reel it it and get away from onlookers as fast as possible. Instead try to practice some empathy! “ Hey sweetie. You must be feeling really disappointed that there are so many other people here today! You wanted to have the lions to yourself. Me too! I wish we could have a whole zoo of our own in our backyard. Maybe we can go over here and think of some animals we will put in our zoo and then we can look for them and learn about them here today!”