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Toddlers and Big Feelings

So my son turned one year old on Sunday- and it was a busy, busy day! There has actually been a lot of changes going on lately- he’s teething, learning to walk, and is into EVERYTHING (any moms with little boys can sympathize) which lends me to re-directing him and saying no a lot. All of these futilities have left me little one feeling quite frustrated at times. You can imagine through his little blue eyes that he finally has the courage and mobility to  to explore his world and then an adult steps in and abruptly takes the reins away- I’m sure this feels very disempowering and frankly, pisses him right off. Subsequently, he has sporadically starting to hit me in the face or the arm in these moments of melting down–and here I thought I had till the terrible 2’s to deal with this sort of thing.

Now, do I think my one year old understands that this hurts, no. Does he mean to hurt me, of course not. As as child psychologist I understand that a one year old has no impulse control, nor do 2, 3, or most 4 year olds. During moments of high emotion, the part of his brain (prefrontal cortex) that tells him “hitting is not a good idea, mommy doesn’t like it, and it hurts her” has not yet developed, and it won’t really start to go under construction until 4-5 years of age… if I’m lucky. This means when he has a big feeling- which right now is frustration- that is ALL he feels. When he’s upset, his emotional (limbic) brain lights up like a Christmas tree when he’s upset and the default setting of his emotional brain is fight-flight-freeze-collapse– this morning his brain happened to choose fight.

Now, this doesn’t mean I enjoy getting hit in the face, and yes it can be upsetting; however, I am an adult and I have the ability to control by response and to be thoughtful in how I want to respond to this. Would me yelling at him, throwing him a time-out, or slapping his hands have been helpful- absolutely not. That would be my own limbic brain taking over and I would be responding from an emotional not a rational place, which puts me on an equal playing field as my son vs.  being the mindful adult in the room.   As parents our job is to take the high road.

Today I decided after reading several  facebook posts in a local moms group regarding toddlers hitting, I decided to share with you a few of the things I tell myself, things I have absorbed from being a play therapist, teacher, psychologist, and through my years of training to make this stage understandable and manageable:

1. Your child is inherently good! Despite the slaps, bites, or hits, they want so badly to be loved and connected to you, and when they lose that connection they feel out of control- aggression is often a sign that a child  isn’t feel connected to their parent.

2. Limits are imperative. Children’s brains grow more in the first 3 years of life then any other time in their lifespan. There is so much they need to learn, and we are their teachers. Part of teaching is letting limits, and kids NEED limits. Limits keeps them safe, teaches them what is appropriate, and they then know who is ultimately in charge, which makes them feel safe. Set limits lovingly but firmly. For example with my one year old I said (just this morning): “Ouch! Hitting hurts. I won’t let you hit me” (then I held his hands for a few seconds until the hitting stopped. He then started to cry (Yes! I want this to happen- and no I’m not a masochist, so please read on.

Once kids move from mad to sad they are able to unload their feelings and really “feel” when something is not working for them- this is what Dr. Gordon Neufeld  calls hitting a wall of futility. The brain learns that the limit (no hitting) won’t kill them, and they can learn from their mistake. Once the tears started to flow, I was able to validate he was sad, hug him, and comfort him. Now if I had a child a but older I may have made my limit a bit lengthier to ensure validation of the emotion (i.e., “ I can see you’re frustrated I won’t let you play in the kitchen, but hitting hurts and I won’t let you hit me”). Dr.  Neufeld says our role as parents is to be the agent of futility and the angel of comfort- I love this notion. We have to be the bad cop and say no, you can’t do that, but I am also going to be good cop who also kisses and hugs my son’s sadness away when he becomes upset about this news.

3. When emotions take over- it’s over. Understand a small children are quite “all-or-nothing” in their experience of emotions. Happy OR sad. Mad OR excited. So when your child is upset they can’t have that cookie they are mad, and you will be cast as the worst mommy or daddy ever- for the moment. BUT! when they’re happy- wow. It’s like the simplest thing, such as a butterfly landing on their hand, is the most magical moment in the world. As a parent we need to learn to ride the waves of their emotions.The more room we give big feelings, the less space they take. If your child is frustrated and hits you, they need time for their limbic system (emotional brain) to calm- you cannot reason with a child with a hijacked limbic system (or an adult for that matter) and I assure you, you will have your loving toddler back in your arms in no time. Just remember, in those heated moments the child is ALL emotion and cannot be reasoned with so those are not the moments to teach a lesson– ‘we don’t teach a child to swim when they are drowning.’  When your child is calm and you are connected you can talk to them about other things to do when they are frustrated.

So moms and dads, be patient with you little one as they work through these big feelings. It’s not easy to take a bite to the shoulder or a hit to the face, but our babes need us to hold it together so we can hold onto them when they need to fall apart.

-Tammy Schamuhn, R. Psych

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