At around 2 years of age, sometimes younger, sometimes a little later, an infant starts to develop their own identity. The words "NO!" and "OWN!" can become common place.
This can be very confusing for parents to deal with as they may have been used to a (in comparison) placid baby that was happy eating, sleeping, having nappies changed and a little exploring. Suddenly there can be challenges to getting into the car seat, having a bath, eating, having a nappy change, being dressed and lots of activities that had been enjoyable. The seemingly inexplicable change can be blamed on the 'terrible twos" and an onslaught of tantrums occur and the confused parent rides the wave of what seems like inevitable turmoil.
When a child cries, they have passed their emotional capacity to deal with what they are feeling. They need support and healthy role models, parents that can honour their feelings and help them navigate this developmental stage. This stage doesn't automatically equate to tears, tantrums, meltdowns (parent or child!). With careful attention to feelings and accepting a child's right to their own autonomy and gently holding boundaries for safety it is entirely possible to move through this stage without a frazzled nervous system.
If we can understand that under every undesirable behaviour that our child engages with is a request for help; clumsily, inarticulately, trigger-ingly, meltdown inducingly. They don't yet have the skillset to articulate their needs (if they even have an idea of what those needs are!). It is our job as parents to understand those needs, guess when we need to and to address those needs. If those needs are not met, the child is left feeling frustration, anger, upset etc and drives the undesirable behaviour. If we can meet that behaviour with curiosity and compassion and discover the unmet need, we can meet the need or validate their feelings if the need cannot be met. When we give our children the space to be their authentic self, without constant behavioural correction and to be understood, heard and feelings validated it leads to a much more peaceful experience.
For a healthy sense of willpower to emerge, it is important to provide an appropriate environment where the child can exist without regular behaviours being corrected. "don't touch the table, cupboards, don't get paint on the carpet etc" remove as much as possible to provide an environment that won't constantly trigger you. Toddlers require clear (reasonable) boundaries, articulated lovingly, and within those boundaries toddlers need to be allowed to make choices, play, explore, experiment with a sense of power and autonomy. If the will is constantly thwarted, and they start to understand that they can never win (or be heard) then it can drive their will into a covert state, if they cannot achieve what they want to they may develop passive aggressive tendencies, self sabotage, self harming, hurting people, remaining disempowered and acting out. This can lead to a long term belief of being the 'black sheep' in order to hold on to their sense of self and retain their control. Some children can become so frustrated that they become frustrating to their parents and continue this behaviour in order to retain a perceived sense of power over themselves. This belief carries to adulthood where the self limiting behaviour can have a profound impact on relationships to work, money, people, happiness etc.
Using the words "No, Don't, Can't, Shouldn't" can all be inflammatory to toddlers and even older children. If the undesirable behaviours can be met with "yes..." or "I see you are having fun..."in the first instance and then redirecting or finding substitutes to follow up, it is more likely to be met with interest rather than resistance. Saying "no" and reprimanding children stops learning. Where possible allow children to do their own thing without having to ask if it is ok as it is healthier to let a child take their own independence and learn from the outcomes. It is healthier as parents to detach from the feelings or judgements of what the child chooses. Some children really benefit from being part of a decision making process and problem solving, even proposing their own solutions.
A child's emotional dysregulation can be extremely triggering for a parent. It can trigger a belief in the parent that that child is blaming them for something and the parent can take it personally and want to shut the child down. It can also trigger a parents childhood pain leading to discomfort and again wanting to shut the child down. When a dysregulation (tantrum) occurs it is important to take a step back rather than become embroiled in the story of the dysregulation. Following these simple steps can create the space to look at the dysregulation objectively;
Recognise the child is entering into an upset
Verbalise what you see "Oh your toy broke..." and validate "...and you feel really upset about it"
Somethings can be easily resolved, so resolve it. Others can never be resolved and requires changing reality. Accept it and help your child feel validated if it can't be resolved.
Avoid distracting, it's not helpful.
In a dysregulated state a child will sometimes need to cry through the upset as a way of healing, other times they need further validation and sometimes comfort. Children know what they need, make offers but never force physical contact.
As long as the parent is not the source of the upset (if so, resolve it or take responsibility for it), sit with the tears with no judgement and remaining present and caring until the child is ready to move on.
Remember that emotions don't stay for long, when allowed to, they all pass through us. Children have an innate ability to express their emotions and heal when allowed to. It is our role modelling and conditioning of children that interferes with this natural ability, and so much of it happens in the 'terrible twos' when we are so often unprepared as parents to navigate this extremely important developmental stage. Reframed, this stage is a vital time to support our children while they learn to navigate their emotions, role model calmness and share tools to self regulate.