My daughter is currently receiving services to help her with her developmental delays. Her developmentalist (yes, there is such a title, and well-deserved, too!) observed my daughter having a meltdown. Several, in fact. And what she said to me was that the most important thing a parent can do in a situation like that is to attend to his/her own regulation.
What does that mean, exactly? How can we achieve it?Toddlers become dysregulated with some frequency. They have limited language skills, and limited frustration tolerance, and seemingly limitless desires that sometimes have to be thwarted (because of safety issues, or time management issues, or a whole host of reasons.)
At any rate, your toddler is inevitably going to face frustration, and he or she is going to respond to that–often quite vociferously. Your toddler wants you to know “I AM BEING FRUSTRATED, YOU NEED TO FIX IT PRONTO!”
And as parents, we want to fix it pronto. We don’t like hearing our children suffer, particularly in such demonstrative and histrionic ways (and sometimes in public places.)
It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing, and it’s easy for a parent to become dysregulated, too. You might feel pressure to immediately silence your child in order to not bother others. Or you just want to make your toddler isn’t uncomfortable.
So as parents, we feel the pressure to DO something.
But what the developmentalist pointed out is that sometimes we can’t really DO anything that will change our children’s emotional experience. Sometimes, our toddlers are going to get frustrated and be expressive about this. It’s entirely normal.
What we can DO is attend to our own internal state. Stay calm, and model that for our child. Be empathetic to the frustration, make sure the area is clear of anything that can harm our toddlers while they have their meltdowns. Sometimes we need to step away and let them regain control on their own (with continued supervision, of course.)
For example, with my daughter, I notice that if she’s very upset at my taking away an object and I try to introduce others, she will angrily throw the new objects. She is communicating quite clearly: “No, I don’t want this, give the other one back!” So if I continue to try to substitute, she will continue to try to communicate her displeasure at the inferior nature of the new object.
I’ve noticed the best thing is for me to step away. She will soon discover objects that are soothing to her. But she has to do it on her own, without my interference.
And in stepping away, I’m better able to attend to my own internal state. I can stay calmer. I can pay attention to my breathing. I can remind myself how developmentally normal this is–the process of her becoming frustrated and distressed and then learning how to deal with those emotions.
By remembering that what I can do is handle myself, I am relieved of the burden of handling her. Because toddlers can’t always be controlled. They shouldn’t. They need to express their emotions and know that they won’t unduly upset their parents or risk losing their parents’ love.
So if I focus on me instead of her–on something I can control, which is my own responses–the whole system works better. Also, I’m modeling what I want her to learn: that distressing experiences can be borne and managed, that storms subside and leave calm in their wake.
Toddler pouting image available from Shutterstock.