When I went through this stage with my daughter, my googling turned up Janet Lansbury. This was how I got started on my peaceful parenting journey, and I'm so grateful I did. Not only am I already beginning to see the results with my daughter, I'm finding it so much easier to go through this stage with my son (it also helps to know that it does pass).
Here's a summary of testing behaviours from Janet Lansbury's blog:
- Misbehaving, and the problem isn't that they aren't aware of or forgetting the rules (this is especially evident when they look at you and smile/laugh while doing it)
- Become very demanding (requesting specific cups or spoons, not being happy regardless of the outcome)
- Are destructive and aggressive (may be playing aggressively with toys or people: throwing, pushing hitting, biting, etc)
- Losing it at the drop of a hat
- Seeming not like themselves (you find yourself wondering what happened to the lovely kid that you had)
- Pushes all your buttons (seems intentional)
If you find yourself recognizing a lot or all of these behaviours, don't take it personally. Your toddler lacks the verbal skills to tell you exactly what it is that they need and instead uses their behaviour as a cry for help. Toddlers thrive on routine, and if that routine gets disrupted, it throws them off. Things that stress us out, like vacations (either with or without kids), family visiting, transferring to a "big kid" bed, potty training and being pregnant or coping with a new addition to the family are even scarier for our toddlers. They need our help to understand that everything's going to be OK, and that they can get through this difficult time.
First, your toddler needs gentle limits. I know parents from all over the parenting spectrum so I will clarify what I mean for each end of the spectrum. Some of you have got the gentle part down pat. Anything you do that makes your child cry seems cruel. However, if your child isn't sure where the limits lie, they will continue to test them until they figure it out. If they find that the limits are too loose, they will act out out of fear (imagine the difference between crossing a narrow bridge with railings and without). Some of you may be saying, "Limits? Of course I set limits!" What you may struggle with is the gentle part. You don't need to yell. You don't need to get upset. You don't need to show any emotion whatsoever (in fact, the less emotion you show the better, so if you're having a hard time holding your poker face, give yourself some time to calm down). You can state the limit and then act on it (see this article on limit setting for more ideas). "No throwing. If you throw your toys, I will have to take them away." Child throws toy. You take it away. They cry. Which leads us to the next thing your child needs...
..,.acceptance of their feelings. Regardless of which end of the parenting spectrum you're coming from, you may struggle with hearing your child cry. For those from the permissive side, as mentioned, making your child cry seems cruel. You may remember what it was like to feel hurt as a child, and if your parent was authoritarian, you maybe have even been told not to cry. You are determined to do things differently. Parents coming from the authoritarian end of the spectrum also don't like to hear crying, but to them it's not about being mean, it's that letting them cry about not being able to break the rules seems like "giving in." For both types of parents, working on accepting those difficult feelings is important so they can learn that a) I can be sad, but it won't last forever and I will be OK, and b) my parent not only cares enough about me to set limits, they care that I'm upset. At no point should you do something to get the crying to stop, either positive (distracting them with something good) or negative (threatening them). It may seem like they will cry forever, but just see it through until the end. If you don't know what to do, just sit down beside them, close your eyes and focus on your breath (see my post on meditating so you don't get caught up in your thoughts while you're doing this).
The last thing that your child needs is connection. This is probably the hardest thing to do even when your toddler isn't acting like a terror. Dr. Laura Markham recommends 15 minutes a day of "special time" with each kid, and although it doesn't seem like a lot, I still struggle to do it everyday (and when I do do it, it's with both kids at the same time, which isn't ideal). This part might even be harder than listening to your child cry, especially when you are already exhausted from dealing with their behaviour (this is where self-care becomes especially important). Some parents might even feel like this is rewarding the bad behaviour. Your child is trying to tell you with their behaviour that they need to know that you love them unconditionally. It's easy to love our kids when they are behaving. Being able to show your kids you love them when they're behaving horribly is really hard.
I'm not promising that these things will put an end to the behaviour, but they will at least give you a script to follow to get through it. If you're skeptical that it will make a difference, give it a trial period. If what you're currently doing isn't working for you, what have you got to lose?
For Further Thought:
1) What preconceived notions do you have about your child's behaviour? The next time they are misbehaving, try to listen to what's going on in your head before you react.
2) Do you struggle with setting gentle limits? Is it being gentle or the limit setting part that you have a hard time with?
3) How did your parents respond to big feelings when you were a kid? The next time your child is expressing some big feelings, try and listen to what's going on in your head before you react.
4) What obstacles are getting in your way of connecting with your child? Consider if you need more time for self-care, if you feel like connection is rewarding bad behaviour, or if you don't feel like you have enough time.
For Further Reading:
Janet Lansbury: The Real Reason Toddlers Push Limits
Parenting from Scratch: Tips for Setting and Holding Limits With Kids
Peaceful Parent: Helping Little People Deal With Their Big Feelings
AhaParenting: 5 Secrets to Loving Your Child Unconditionally