Friday, May 13, 2011

How To Think Like a Two Year Old

Why is it so hard to understand how a toddler thinks? If you think about it, they are simpler versions of us adults, right?
Luckily for me, K has a pretty mellow temperament and is not prone to temper tantrums. He is however a two year old, and as all parents of two year old know, temper tantrums happen. I don’t care if you are Dr. Sears reincarnated. . . though that may be a bad example since he is still alive. . . at some point, your toddler will get so frustrated with his/her situation that they will shut down. I have heard tantrums being described in many ways. It is perfectly normal for some kids to bang their head against the floor or other hard surfaces during tantrums. Thankfully I haven’t had to deal with that little gem myself, but I feel for those parents that do.
I try my best to wrap my mind around a temper tantrum; the level of frustration a child must be experiencing must be crazy to cast aside all sense and reason.

K and I take a class through our local Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) center.  It is a weekly class specifically for toddlers ages 1.5 through 2.5 and their parents. The parents get to go to a separate room for an hour of the class and discuss parenting related topics that is directed by a teacher with an educational background in child psychology. Our teacher is Kathy and she has all sorts of wonderful insights that I look forwards to each week. One particular tidbit that Kathy visits quite frequently is thinking like a toddler. It sounds obvious typing it out like this, but the more I consider the thought, the more I realize I don’t really stop to put myself in his shoes very often; at least not in respect to negative feelings.
Today K spent some time with my mom at the preschool where she works. I had lunch with friends and didn’t want the stress of dealing with both kids at a nice restaurant. I am exceptionally lucky to have free babysitting pretty much whenever I need it, and today, I did. K LOVES spending time there with all the new toys, new kids, and of course grandma. After I was done with my lunch I came back to pick him up. He was fine when I arrived back at the preschool, and I watched him play for 15 minutes while I chatted with my mom. As soon as it was time to leave, K flipped out and started crying. The whole way home he whimpered and I chalked it up to him needing a nap.

When we arrived home K’s situation went from bad to worse. I carried him in because he would just dead weight me if I tried to set him on the ground. When we arrived inside I set him down on the floor, he dropped down onto his belly, and he started screaming.
This was one of his unusual, full-on, temper tantrums and it wasn’t pretty; the kind of tantrum where no matter what you do he will continue to scream. I tried talking to him, but realized quickly that my speaking only made him angrier. I didn’t even try to distract him with anything because he was too far gone at that point. The only course of action left was to set him in a safe place to work his emotions out a little, so into his crib he went.
K screamed for a long time. I didn’t keep track of how long, but it was at least a half hour. He was in rare form. After a while he calmed down but he was still whimpering in his room. I went in there and could tell he was still very edgy. I knew a small step in the wrong direction would throw him back into tantrum mode again so I tried to tread lightly. He had thrown everything out of his crib during his tantrum; everything being his plush monkey, his musical plush dog, his monkey blanket, and his pacifier. He recently reverted back to wanting a pacifier at bedtime because H uses one. He is getting better about not using one again but when he is upset he especially likes to have one. I figured I had better give him his comfort items back to help him calm down. I picked up the blanket and pacifier (since I know those are his biggest attachments), and tried to hand them to him. He promptly started crying, grabbed them from my hands, flung them back onto the floor, and stared at me angrily.
I was getting really frustrated myself at this moment and considered telling him “fine, stay in your crib with nothing until you calm down.” I really wanted to just shut the door again and not deal with it, but I knew that would be wrong. I looked at him for a while. I really tried to think about how he felt and tried to imagine what he wanted. Here he had been having a blast with grandma at preschool, then I came, swooped him up, forced him to get into the car, forced him to go inside the house, forced him into his crib, and now I was telling him to take his blanket and pacifier. He didn’t care why I did what I did, nor did he care for me to try to explain it to him. All that mattered was that I made him do whatever I wanted and he got no word in edgewise.
I took a deep breath and calmly told him “I’m sorry you are angry, what would you like bud?” He looked at me for a few seconds as if confused. I asked him again what he would like and pointed down onto the floor at his plush monkey. He never asks for the monkey first. His priorities are always the blanket and pacifier, followed by any stuffed animals. What he really wanted at that moment was to tell me what he wanted, and not have me force my assumptions on him; whether they were right or wrong. I went ahead and passed him his monkey, and he graciously accepted it. He then smiled and pointed to his blanket and said “bankie peas.” I passed that to him and then we repeated the process with his pacifier and dog. As soon as he had the 4 items, he laid right down, put the pacifier in his mouth, pulled the blanket over him, and closed his eyes. I was amazed at the complete 180 his temperament took.
It is a hard transition for me going from a baby that wants me as a parent to take care of everything, to a toddler that wants to be able to call the shots. Independence is a funny concept to a two year old. In so many ways they are not ready for it, yet they at least need the perception of it. K wanted me to help sooth him by giving him his comfort items, but he had to be the one telling me how to do it and in which order.
It is hard to step back and find what it is that will make a child happy. Even when you do figure out what will help, sometimes their request will not be reasonable. I think that the majority of the time, trying to see the situation from their point of view will yield ways to appease an angry toddler. Their worlds are incredibly self-centered. Think about it, only a year ago they had barely discovered that objects still exist when they aren’t in sight. It takes time to really be able to think about situations critically and not just in reference to yourself. In fact, that is an ability that even some adults struggle with. Thinking like a toddler is hard, but the first step is to forget about reason beyond what they want. Inevitably, tantrums will still happen, but I have learned that a little empathy goes a long way in preventing and diffusing them. I sure hope I remember this for next time.

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