Raising Terrific Toddlers: ‘Yes’ vs ‘No’
This series of articles will focus on providing information about development, approaches and strategies for raising terrific toddlers! We are purposefully reframing the discussion of the 2 years to 3 years stage of development, from “the Terrible Two’s” to “Terrific Toddlers”. Toddlers can be terrific! And co-operative! Creative, energetic, loving, expressive – these are some of the great qualities terrific toddlers have. Carers of terrific toddlers can be equipped with information, approaches and strategies which help to foster these qualities and assist toddlers to navigate the unique challenges of this stage of life. Rather than cringe with dread about raising 2-3 year olds, carers can be empowered with awareness and tools to bring out the best in their terrific toddlers while remaining relatively self-regulated in the process (both kids and adults!). Anyone who lives with, raises or cares for a terrific toddler will find something of use within this series. Raising Terrific Toddlers: ‘Yes’ vs ‘No’ focuses on raising terrific co-operative toddlers. No joke, toddlers can co-operate!
‘Yes’ vs ‘No’
Toddlers quickly catch onto the word and concept of ‘no’. From a toddler’s point of view, ‘No’ is not just a simple word, it’s a sentence, declaration of independence, expression of anger (or rage) or just plain science and fun (a ‘let’s see what she does now’ mindset). The quest for carers of terrific toddlers is how to facilitate a ‘yes’ (co-operation) from a toddler in the face of the toddler- imperative-no!
This stage of development is a time where the personality of our toddler takes shape through expression and action. What we do can influence how the toddler ‘person’ emerges and evolves through this phase. Difficult times between carers and toddlers can be kept to a minimum by applying the approaches and techniques discussed. Benefits include calmer toddlers, calmer carers, developing self-regulation skills, ‘wiring’ toddler brains to self-regulate and co-operative behaviour from toddlers. The discussion draws upon child development theory, neurobiological research (study of the brain) and Mindfulness approach. The ‘Mindfulness parenting practice model’ shows how this all links together to foster the development of a calm, co-operative child. The article will give a brief overview of child development and brain development which provides a backdrop for how and why a mindfulness parenting practice can be effective. This is followed by a look at what ‘mindfulness’ is and how the approach can make a difference. Putting a mindfulness parenting practice into action is broken down into 3 steps. Please note that throughout the article, when referring to gender, ‘he’ or ‘she’ is used in turn. Please change to suit your and/or your toddler’s gender.
StopPauseAct If you want to skip the theory (explanation) discussion and go straight to the ‘what to do’ (strategies) section, head to ‘Mindfulness Parenting Practice: 3 steps to facilitating a terrific toddler’s “Yes!”.
Where a toddler is at…
This section focuses on child development and brain development in relation to co-operative behaviour. It is helpful to understand what skills are involved for a toddler in order for him to co-operate. We can match this up with child development theory to get a better understanding of what capacity a terrific toddler has to co-operate and how we can help her learn the skills to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.
What exactly is required in order to be able to co-operate with a request or direction (i.e. for a toddler to do what the adult asks/states)? When we unpack what is involved in the ‘simple’ act of co-operating, it becomes apparent that a range of skills are involved, across the developmental domains. For example, physically a child needs to be able to hear clearly. Cognitively, (thinking skills), a toddler needs to be able to have a level of memory skills to remember what is said and what is expected and be able to make a choice. In terms of speech and language development, a toddler needs a level of comprehension and understanding of language. Emotionally, a toddler needs to be able to deal with emotions such as frustration, to be able to calm down and also know how to stay in control of their behaviour (choose an action). In order to have the desire to co-operate, social development skills involve a secure attachment relationship where the child feels connected, safe and supported by the carer. This breakdown shows how much is involved with a ‘yes’ response from toddlers! A look at what a toddler is capable of developmentally helps us get a handle on what we can reasonably expect from a toddler and how we can support a toddler to practice the skills needed in order to co-operate with a direction (most of the time!).
A Terrific toddlers’ stage of development
At this stage of development, a toddler’s brain is rapidly developing and growing. The brain consists of different structures (commonly referred to as ‘parts of the brain’) each of which have different primary functions. Mapping of brain development shows that different parts of the brain develop at different rates and times. These ‘critical periods’ of development occur primarily in-utero through to 7 years of age (McCain & Mustard, 1999). Throughout the early years of childhood there are times when different parts of the brain are wired to develop. This means that at these stages, the brain is most receptive to stimuli (from the environment and interactions). ‘Bottom-up brain development’ (Australian Childhood Foundation, 2011, p. 35) describes the sequence of brain development from the ‘bottom’ (the brain stem which is located at base of brain) to the ‘Cortext’ (located in top front section of brain). The beauty of the human brain lies in it’s complexity and it’s ability to grow and adapt throughout a lifetime. “Your brain (and your toddler’s brain) is fluid and flexible, able to create new connections up into a very old age”, (Chopra, 2009, p.13).
In order to make a judgement and choice about behaviour (i.e. to ‘think it through’), we need to have developed the thinking centre of our brain, the ‘cortex’. The development of this part of the brain gets into full swing at the ages of 3-6 years (and can continue to develop throughout a lifetime). During the toddler years, the emotional centre of the brain, called the limbic system, is speeding up in terms of development (1-4 years of age). This means that toddlers are experiencing strong emotions and viewing the world primarily through their senses and an ‘emotional lens’ (ACF, 2011, p.35). Here in lies the crux of what is happening behind the scenes of an expressive, angry toddler. Think of a toddler in the shopping aisle who has just spotted the toy section. Feelings of happiness and desire (‘I want this’) arise. These emotions are quickly followed by disappointment and frustration if she hears that she won’t be getting that toy today. The experience can then escalate into anger and tears if she doesn’t get what she wants or doesn’t receive help to calm down (regulate). Our toddler is experiencing an intense emotion (which her brain is wired to do) while not having the fully developed thinking skills or verbal skills needed in order to be able to manage the feelings or think about how to act. For her, the feeling happens (in her brain and body), is expressed and then acted on. This example demonstrates that, “Young children feel then act, they don’t think then act”, (ACF, 2011, p.35).
An understanding of child and brain development provides an insight into why a toddler responds and behaves the way he does. It also helps with understanding the challenges involved for both terrific toddlers and carers with coping with and managing strong emotions. Even though these situations are inevitable, as carers there are things we can do and ways to respond, which help our terrific toddlers develop skills (and their brains) so that they can learn to get calm. These strategies can also assist with preventing an escalation of toddler emotion, keeping their full-blown expressions of challenging emotions to a minimum and with eliciting a ‘yes’ (co-operative response).
A Mindfulness parenting practice
A mindfulness parenting practice can help terrific toddlers develop the equipment (wiring of the brain) and skills (actions and behaviour) needed to self-regulate, i.e. to manage emotions, calm down and manage own behaviour. This approach incorporates mindfulness strategies, communication strategies and behavioural management strategies. It’s a ‘practice’ in that the approach involves repetition. Repetition is the key for mastery of the strategies and for getting results. ‘Results’ include changes in toddler’s behaviour and promoting brain development (wiring of the brain). Be rest assured though, that carers don’t need to belong to a religious order or spend hours practicing mindfulness in order to be able to incorporate the methods!
What is ‘mindfulness’? It has been defined as, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally”, (Kabat-Zinn in Hooker and Fodor, 2008, p.77). This involves making a conscious decision (having an intention) to bring our thoughts (attention) to what is happening right now, in this very moment. By taking this step and accepting what is happening (without needing to change it immediately) we set off a calming chain of reaction both within ourselves and our toddler. A mindfulness approach creates a space for a thoughtful response compared to a reactive one (ACF, 2011, p.11). Consider that, “The next thing you think, the next action you take, will either create a new possibility for you, or it will repeat the past”, (Chopra, 2009, p.14). It makes sense to create a pause so that we can facilitate a desired outcome. This approach can be empowering for carers in situations (like being in the shopping centre aisle with a yelling toddler) where it is easy to feel a sense of being out of control with no way of managing what is happening.
As mentioned, a mindfulness parenting practice can set in motion a calming chain of reaction. This is a result of what can occur within the individual (both carer and terrific toddler) and the relationship when a mindfulness strategy is used. Within the carer, a stress response or calm response triggers different reactions in the brain and behaviour. For example, when feeling stressed, the adult connections to the cortex (thinking part of the brain) are blocked. This makes it difficult to thoughtfully respond to what is happening and may then translate into reactive behaviour. In contrast, the use of a mindfulness strategy can trigger a relaxation response in the brain, activating the thinking part of the brain and switching off defensive systems and reactions. The carer is therefore more able to be in a relaxed state, be more able to think about what is happening for the toddler (be more ‘attuned’) and have greater choice about how to respond and behave (ACF, 2011, p. 37). A regulated (calm) carer can trigger a calming response within the toddler. This relates to what happens when in relationship with another and the energy exchange that occurs. For example, when we are confronted with an angry person, a stress response may be triggered (as described above). When we are in the presence of a calm person, a calm response may be triggered. We are responding to the other energetically, emotionally and bio-chemically (Chopra, 2009, p.36). “When you see someone you love, your brain aligns with the love they have for you, and energy passes between you”. Therefore, when in relationship (in the presence of) a regulated, calm, caring adult, a calming chain reaction is more likely to occur within the toddler. In turn, the chances of a ‘yes’ (co-operation) from the toddler increase.
Mindfulness Parenting Practice: 3 steps to facilitating a terrific toddler’s “Yes!”
A mindfulness parenting practice can get complicated. The 3 step approach outlined here aims to keep it simple. And effective. And quick! It is based on an evidence-based approach developed by the Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF, 2011). The Mindfulness Parenting Practice model also incorporates communication strategies and behaviour management strategies. The key to this practice is repetition, repetition, repetition. This is what it takes for terrific toddlers to change in terms of learning skills, develop the brain wiring related to self-regulation and to grow into being a calm child.
The key steps are: Stop. Pause. Act.
The key concepts are: Stop. Pause. Act.
The key actions you take are: S_ _ _ _. P_ _ _ _. A_ _.
The key to success is: Repetition, repetition, repetition!
Step 1. Stop.
- Come to a halt.
- Completely stop what you are doing and saying.
- Stop your own actions and words.
Step 2. Pause
- Breathe in…through the nose, bringing the breath deep into your belly. Pause.
- Breathe out…slowly (through the nose or mouth). Pause.
- Repeat if required.
Step 3. Act
- Pay attention to the child, to one-self and to the world around you (environment).
- It may be helpful to also make eye contact with your toddler, get closer if necessary and get on eye level (bend down to child’s height).
- Reflect: consider whether the environment conducive to talking (ie is it safe, can everyone be heard). What do I need? What does my child need?
- Take action, communicate (reflection, boundary, feedback)*.
If required, repeat process of StopPauseAct.
A little more on communication…
The communication strategies carers employ can help a toddler to get calm. This involves reflecting (saying out loud) what you observe is happening for the toddler, in simple short sentences. With a calm voice and tone. Exposure to raised voices while a child is angry or crying can have the effect of increasing anxiety levels while a calm tone of voice can have a regulating effect (Clarke, 2012, p.4). The following communication responses can assist with getting the child’s attention, getting the child to calm down and encouraging the desired behaviour.
Reflect what the toddler has said or done (feelings, actions or words). For example, ‘You don’t want to’ (if the toddler has said ‘no’). ‘You feel…(insert feeling word). Pause after each sentence.
Reflect what child does in response to you, give feedback. For example, if your toddler stops and looks at you and listens, you might say, “Thanks, you are listening to me!’. Pause. Followed by, “You look calmer”.
Verbally reflect when you see your toddler showing the behaviour you want to see. This is referred to as a “shaping” technique. It involves noticing and rewarding (with verbal feedback) the starting-point behaviour. (Raising children network, 2012, p.3). For example, as soon as your toddler appears calm or starts doing as request, reflect what you see. You might say, “Well done, you are listening to me”. Pause. “Good job, you are packing away”.
This process may seem like it would take forever. Stopping to breathe deeply three times can feel like an eternity (it actually takes between 6-10 seconds). One reflective dad’s insight about this is, ‘Just do it…unless there is danger’. The reality is that, as carers, we can spend our time with our terrific toddlers, getting stressed, getting angry and shouting while the situation and everyone’s emotions escalate or we can spend it breathing…deeply…
StopPauseAct is a simple 3 Step Mindfulness Parenting Practice which can facilitate a ‘yes’ from our terrific toddlers, promote child development and grow calm toddlers (and children). Through repetition, this approach can bring out the best in terrific toddlers and help them to master emotions so that they are more able to co-operate. Employing the techniques during the early years also can have benefits both in the moment (short-term) and long-term (Duncan, Coatsworth & Greenberg, 2009, p. 5). Co-operative toddlers can become co-operative teenagers…No joke!
Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF). (2011). Bringing up great kids: Parenting Program, Program Manual. Victoria: Australian Childhood Foundation.
Chopra, D. (2009). Reinventing the body, resurrecting the soul: How to create a new self. United Kingdom: Rider Books.
Clarke, C. (2012). Taming toddler tantrums. Health+Medicine, The West Australian, (Wednesday November 7, 2012). Western Australia: Newspaper House.
Duncan, L., Coatsworth, J. & Greenburg, M. (2009). A Model of Mindful Parenting: Implications for parent-child relationships and prevention research. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 12(3). Available at http://www.ncib.nlm.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2730447/ Retrieved on 17th September 2012.
Hooker, K. & Fodor, I. (2008). Teaching mindfulness to children. Gestalt Review, 12(1). Available at http://www.gestaltreview.com/Portals/0/GR120Hooker&Fodor.pdf Retrieved on 7th February 2011.
Mc Cain, M. & Mustard, J. (1999). Neuroscience and early child development. In Reversing the real brain drain: Early years study final report. Canada.
Raising children network. (2012). Helping your child develop more skills. Available at http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/developing_skills.html/context/457 Retrieved on 15th June 2012.