Hey friends! Today I wanted to write a little bit about tantrums, behaviors, and toddlers! Though, I am writing with my children, who are two years old, in mind. I do think some of these things work with any age group.
If you know me well, you know that studying behavior was something I really enjoyed about my job as a teacher. Why? To me, it was one of the most important aspects of what I did because when my students went into adult life and tried to find a job, or to find a volunteer experience, or to engage with people in other settings – the thing that I would argue would hold students back the most was inappropriate behaviors. It really didn’t matter if a student was on a 1st grade reading level or 3rd grade reading level, if they weren’t kind to other people or able to interact as appropriately as possible with other people. Anyways, that’s a little bit about my background and my passion for studying behavior. My poor children!
With that being said, there are a few things that I believe in my core.
*Most people like knowing what’s going on and what is coming next (some more than others).
*Most people like to feel heard.
*Most people like to feel respected.
*Most people want to have some sense of control over their lives.
*Most people want to have positive relationships with others. With these things in mind, I can better respond to my toddlers when they are having a tantrum over something that appears to be ridiculous – like when they just have to have a certain towel or when they loved strawberries yesterday but the next day they are gagging just seeing them on their plate.
I’ve heard the twos are described as “terrible twos”, but I don’t think that’s accurate. I think two year olds are little people processing A LOT of emotions and stimuli. We need to definitely keep that in mind as we think about their behavior.
Another thing to keep in mind about anyone is that behavior is COMMUNICATION. People are communicating to us through their behavior. With my girls, I try to observe them to see what new behaviors or old behaviors are occurring in their day (behavior doesn’t mean it is bad – it is just how they are acting). Let’s say a specific behavior is reoccurring – like one of my girls biting the other. (I won’t mention any names) The first time it happened it caught me off guard and I didn’t really have time to observe so I had to “react”. My first attempt to curb this behavior was to say “we use our teeth to bite food. we use our words to tell sissy what you need.” If possible, I like to tell my kids WHAT TO DO instead of WHAT NOT TO DO. (you are most likely already doing this, but i’ll write some examples below) Well, the next day she bit her again. I repeated my language. The next day it happened again. I repeated my language. The next day it happened again. Okay, the language wasn’t preventing this from happening, so I said “no ma’am. if you bite your sister again, mommy will have to spank you.” It happened again. I spanked her and then ignored her and focused on my baby with the bite marks. The reason I did this was to discern whether she was biting for attention. If she was getting attention from biting and attention was her motivator then I needed to fix that. It continued to happen, even with me spanking her. I started to notice a trend with the timing of her biting… it would be during a time that she was really focused on an activity (like playing with her animals a certain way in her barn) and her sister would come in like a wrecking ball and join her…interrupting her thoughts and processes. Quite honestly, this would piss me off too. I was able to observe and catch her mid bite one day (i wish someone had video evidence of these days) and I “prevented” it. I stopped both of my girls and explained to her if sissy was interrupting her, she could say “wait sissy” or “no sissy”. If that didn’t work, she needed to come find me. I told her that would we need to use our words and we don’t bite. Then to my other, I explained that she was interrupting her sister. She needed to say “can i play?” and then if she said “no”, she needed to find a different toy at that time.
Okay, that’s a lot of information to tell you this: I had to figure out what the function of my babe’s behavior was in order to really help her work through it. Keep in mind, this was a behavior that I wanted to nix as soon as possible. Thankfully, it never happened to anyone but her sister but my concern was that it would eventually start happening in other settings if we didn’t work through it at home.
Common functions of behavior are attention, escape, sensory, and tangible. Here’s a little chart that explains it. I would best describe her behavior as tangible because she wanted a preferred activity and it wasn’t happening for her in the way she wanted. However, I do think some of it was related to the inability to express herself the way she needed to because of the language skills she had at the time. I felt like it was my job to give her an easy script for the situation and it really helped.
In my classroom and as a parent, I try to prevent behaviors when I can. There are a few things we can try…
- predictability. I for one do not like just being tossed around without any information about who, what, when, where, or why. We have to know our kids and their developmental level but for some kids, verbal explanations are sufficient, for others we may use a visual schedule, maybe for one child we have to explain it several times for them to understand, or maybe we show our child a picture of where we are going. It doesn’t have to be complicated. This morning when we were eating breakfast, I said “today is Wednesday. Daddy is at work today and mommy is at home with you. Today we are going to take a walk in town because we need to go to the post office. I paused for them to think on that. Then I said, after the post office we will go to story time at the library. They responded with “two shakers mommy. leave some for people” (this is a script we have gone over when they want more than 2 shakers so it is cool to see them understand and apply the information). A year ago, our conversation would have been much simpler perhaps something like “first post office then story time”. Over the summer, we want to add a visual schedule. Life is always changing and so is the way we engage the girls.
- Positive commands. I don’t know about you, but for me when someone says “don’t walk on the grass” I just have this temptation to stick my toe on the grass when they aren’t looking. We just seem to have this innate desire to rebel again what people tell us not to do. These are easy easy things to fix.
- don’t run – walk please
- don’t touch that – look with your eyes please
- don’t eat that – put that down please
- don’t yell – talk quietly
- stop arguing – be kind to each other
I don’t use positive commands 100% of the time of course. There are times, especially in times of danger that I have to say STOP. or NO. to get my girls’ attention, but here’s something to keep in mind… if we are constantly saying STOP or NO then they hold little weight when we actually need them to.
- control. Most of us like having at least a little bit of control. God has ultimate authority and control, of course but we do have free will which means we get to control aspects of our lives. The desire to have control is something I see with my two year olds, my husband, myself, my students, etc. I’m not saying complete control, but some control. Something Ethan and I think about are ways to give the girls control over things that don’t change the outcome of the situation. For example, do you want to eat dinner inside or outside tonight? (We give them this option because the goal is to eat dinner, but we don’t have a preference where it happens so this gives them some control). Do you want to use blue or pink toothpaste? Doesn’t matter to me which one they use as long as they brush their teeth. Do you want to nap with your bunny or your kitty cat? Nap/rest time is happening, but you can control what’s with you.
We can’t prevent melt downs, or tantrums, or tears, or negative behaviors from always happening because our two year olds are humans. Little people with big emotions. We are big people with big emotions and we still have melt downs, tantrums, tears, and negative behaviors.
So what do we do when our tools have been pulled out of our toolbox and our kids just tantrum?
- Breathe. Most of the time no one will be injured from a tantrum – ha!
- Stay calm. It can be hard not to mirror the emotion our little ones are feeling and sometimes we need to know when to remove ourselves if we aren’t able to stay calm.
- Hug our child if that helps them. Sometimes they just feel too much and can’t process and just need physical touch and reassurance from us.
- Give them space to process their emotions. We tend to fill space with words and that can complicate a situation. We can’t reason with an irrational person – and let’s be honest sometimes toddlers are irrational.
- Use language that they can understand. Keep it simple.
Those are just a few simple things that Ethan and I agree work really well at home with our girls. We have both seen fruit from using this in our classrooms too! Do you have tips for preventing negative behaviors and promoting positive ones? All kids are different so I would love to hear what works for you and your family.
Ps: I highly recommend reading “the gift of imperfect parenting” by Brene Brown – she’s much more eloquent that I am 🙂