A hard knot of tension forms in the pit of your stomach as you feel your patience tested to the limit. You try to catch your breath and slow it down, attempting to stem the rising hot crescendo of anger as it bubbles inside you, scared that you will erupt in public. As disapproving eyes stare at you, a sense of shame begins to permeate throughout your body, like a heavy, cold slithering snake, filling every part of your being. Finally, follows an air of helplessness and uselessness, as you despair at your inability to control the situation.
These feelings are doubtless all too familiar among parents of one to three-year olds. Tantrums behind closed doors are difficult enough to handle, but ones in public bring about a special degree of stress and anxiety. It’s little wonder that toddlerhood is referred to as “the terrible twos”, or “the troublesome threes”.
Parents are taught to ignore or punish their toddler’s bad behavior and pile on the praise and rewards when they are good. Toddlers are viewed as mini Machiavellian manipulators, scheming and plotting to get their own way, by grinding their parents down with their unruly behavior. Many parenting experts view toddlers as the enemy in a battle of wills that parents should seek to win at all costs, never backing down to the attention seeking behavior that is a tantrum. In today’s society, authoritarian discipline rules and at its heart is the belief that toddlers deliberately misbehave to get what they want. What if I told you however, that this sweeping assumption couldn’t be further from the truth? While the description that I started this piece with may chime with your own experiences, I wasn’t writing about parents’ emotions, but those belonging to toddlers. You see tantrums aren’t just difficult for parents to navigate, toddlers feel just as bad, if not worse.
Why is it so rare that mainstream discipline methods consider how children feel? Most poor behavior is chalked down to manipulation, selfishness, deliberate naughtiness and attention seeking. The motivation behind the difficult behavior is always considered to be unpleasant and wrong. Solutions all seek to make the child feel bad about their undesirable behavior, whether that’s through punishing or shaming them, removing them from our loving attention (naughty steps and time-out rule here) or missing out on a reward or praise when they fail to act in the desired ‘good’ way. Parents of toddlers frequently pour over child-raising manuals and implement the ‘carrot and stick’
techniques beloved by so many. These same parents are frequently left to wonder why the discipline methods endorsed don’t have the same instant and seemingly permanent positive results shown on parenting TV programmes. The answer is simple – because none of these methods consider how the child feels. If you want to change the way children behave, you must start with changing how they feel!
A child who feels sad, angry, unloved or struggling with a lack of autonomy is a ticking time-bomb. If their feelings aren’t diffused, with parental help, they are going to explode (aka – a tantrum) – and when they do, the answer to long-term, effective discipline, is to support them to safely release these emotions in a way that makes them feel seen, heard and loved. Anything else is doomed to failure from the offset.
One simple way to implement more effective discipline, is to ask yourself ‘Why, How, What” the next time your toddler tantrums. WHY are they doing this? (all behavior has a trigger – tiredness, hunger, invasion of personal space, lack of parental attention, over-stimulation and so on), HOW are they feeling? (almost always the answer here is “pretty bad”) and WHAT do you hope to gain from disciplining them? (to teach them to respect others and their belongings and to behave in a more societally acceptable way most likely). Asking Why, How, What, predisposes parents to empathise with their children. It gets them on the same team, understanding that actually – tantrums are pretty rough for both adult and child. Most importantly it helps parents, from this position of team-work, to look for the cause of the difficult behavior, to extinguish, rather than just superficially palliate it, as most mainstream discipline methods do.
Understanding how children feel when they misbehave helps parents to select the most effective discipline methods, whether the child is eighteen months, or eighteen years, old. Most importantly though, taking a position of empathy and understanding towards children aids emotional connection, which in turn tends to dramatically reduce any difficult behavior naturally, without having to enforce any discipline methods at all. Not only is this approach the most effective and in the best interests of the child, it tends to be the easiest for the parent too.
If you would like to learn more about coping with tricky behavior in a way that is sensitive and respectful to your children (and most importantly, effective!), check out my Gentle Discipline Book. Available in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia/NZ and rest of the world in paperback, kindle and audiobook – now!