5 Ways to Support Toddler’s Big Feelings and Challenging Behaviors
This guest blog is written by Hannah and Kelty, co-hosts of the parenting podcast: Upbringing.
We’re spending more time with our kids now than ever before as many of us struggle to juggle working + parenting in captivity. Our beloved babes’ burgeoning feelings and challenging behaviors can downright undermine our productivity and threaten our sanity, often leading us to feel conflicted, frustrated, and helpless.
The critical work of building skills and nurturing connection with our toddlers naturally happens during joyful times like reading, playing, and cuddling, but equally-magical opportunities await amidst the more challenging moments, as well! From whining to yelling to clinging to hitting, the perplexing displays of mischief and bravado our kids perform ultimately show us that they need our love and guidance now, more than ever. Let’s show up and grow up!
Below are five ways to thrive- not just survive- the current and chronic parenting situation so many of us are experiencing. These research-informed ideas aim to raise awareness, elevate skills, and nurture connection as a family so we can all grow closer rather than further apart in these challenging times.
1. Approach with curiosity
Toddlers’ big feelings and challenging behaviors always happen for a reason, and when we can approach them with curiosity rather than judgment, the interaction can play out optimally for us both! Setting the scene asks that we consider our proximity, vibe, and tone. For example, when our toddler is digging into a beloved plant or flinging themselves onto the floor, we try to get closer, make some eye contact and use a curious, non-judgmental voice that invites their attention and can begin to calm their upset.
- “Hey... how's it going in here?”
- “Whatcha up to with the plant, sweetie?”
- “Oh honey, I’m hearing you... you’re struggling.”
We want our kids to know that home is a safe place to learn about themselves and their world. If we react to their anger or antics with surprise, urgency, disappointment, or frustration, those negative vibes can exacerbate their response or associate with how they may perceive our guidance as they grow. Though calm curiosity isn’t always possible, it’s a helpful skill that gets easier with practice!
2. Hold limits with warmth
Before we can support our toddlers’ feelings, understand their needs and give them information, we’ve gotta hold fast to our boundaries and limits to keep everyone safe! This also sets the scene for better understanding and our sharing ‘the why’ and ‘what’s next’. Whether it means we stop a hand from hitting, a pot from crashing, a dog from biting or a door from opening, we are showing kids what to expect with our bodies and simple words. This act is incredibly validating for our kids’ ultimate sense of security, even if it can sometimes seem to upset them more in the moment.
- “Oh honey, I’ve gotta stop your hand from grabbing that...”
- “I’m just gonna set this vase up here in a safe spot while we talk…”
- “I can’t let you hit me-- I’m gonna set you down for a moment.”
Toddlers’ growing brains are overwhelmed easily by feelings and impulses, and our instinct to chide or challenge them to stop can undermine their learning and our connection. Setting a boundary as warmly and calmly as possibly honors their natural impulse while holding fast to our respectable limit! It also helps kids feel less stress about the security of our attachment, letting them to focus more on the matter at hand where better learning can take place.
3. Validate with empathy
We might believe that we know our toddlers well, but in reality we can’t even begin to imagine, let alone know, how they uniquely experience the world! Their extreme feelings and perplexing behaviors are critical information that can help us to better help them. From anger to frustration to fear to disappointment, toddlers’ developmentally appropriate responses to us and their world simply shows us where and how they need some extra support. Holding space for their personal experience calms their nervous system and sets the scene for collaboration and growth!
- “Seems like you really wanted to lie on top of the dog… His fur is so soft, I get that!”
- “Did you wish you could have another cookie? You love them so much!”
- No talking, just nodding with a warm and understanding expression while they express their feelings and needs the best way they currently know how to.
Resilience and high emotional intelligence are dreams we hold for our kids, and investing the time to hold space for their inner experience can build towards that goal. When we can take the time to validate and reflect allll of their toughest feelings, our toddlers can eventually learn to identify, manage and express their own underlying needs more adaptively.
4. Inform with creativity
Toddlers are like little scientists, endlessly curious about their world! When big feelings have subsided and their brains are more receptive to learning, we can invite them to explore the reasons behind our limits, what alternatives there are to meet their needs and how we can collaborate to move forward. Trading lectures and sternness for humor and creativity when sharing information fosters a sense of security and trust for our toddlers. It validates their natural impulses and shows them that we can help their world make sense as we adventure alongside them.
- “Can I tell you why this plant is so sensitive?”
- “If you’re wanting to throw blocks, follow me- I have the perfect place that’s safe!”
- “What would help you right now? I’m here for a hug… or a pillow fight!”
We want our toddlers to learn that emotional challenges or “mistakes” aren’t obstacles to their success or our relationship, but paths to it! Bringing kids into the problem solving process empowers them with a sense of agency in their lives and shows them that their behaviors don’t rattle or offend us... They’re just clues to their deeper needs that we can help them identify and meet.
5. Proceed with trust
Let’s face it: when we’re pulled away by pressing demands or simply at the end of our rope emotionally, it’s not always possible to approach our toddlers’ big feelings and challenging behaviors with curiosity, hold our limits with warmth, validate their experience with empathy and inform them with creativity. And that’s ok! We’re only human, and our little humans can understandably push us beyond our patience and wherewithal. Circling back with them later to process what happened, apologize and collaborate for next time raises their awareness, builds their communication skills and keeps us feeling close.
- “Earlier today was tricky for us both, huh? I’m sorry I got frustrated…”
- “It’s hard when I need to work and you want to play, isn’t it?”
- “What would help you feel more comfortable sleeping in your big bed…?”
One upside to these constant emotional and behavioral struggles with our toddlers is that we get plenty of chances to elevate and fine tune our approach, giving grace and growing up alongside them. With ongoing patience, effort and bravery we can consider what worked, what didn’t, and what can be done differently next time. Because in parenting, there is always a next time.
Hannah & Kelty are twins, mothers and co-hosts of the parenting podcast Upbringing. Certified coaches in Simplicity Parenting, Positive Discipline and trained in the respectful parenting approach, RIE, Hannah & Kelty empower parents to grow up alongside their kids for sanity and social change, elevating their discipline one conversation at a time.
They are co-parenting in captivity on a farm outside Portland, OR that they share with their partners and kids, ages 3, 4, 5, and 6. Learn more about their coaching, Siblings Guide, and RESIST Approach on their website and catch their live Parenting In Captivity Q&As weekly on Instagram.