“If you don’t stop crying, we’re going home.”
“You can’t play because you’re crying.”
“There’s nothing to cry about.”
I hear these cringe-worthy phrases from desperate parents and caregivers on a regular basis when I’m out in public with my toddler.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the impulse. It’s embarrassing for our toddlers to have meltdowns in public, and frankly, it can get REALLY annoying.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What if I told you that you can just LET THEM CRY?
Let them cry, and let the others judge. That’s their problem.
Most of us were conditioned ourselves as children to feel like it’s not OK to express certain emotions – anger, fear, sadness. How many times have we told ourselves (especially us women) that we have no reason to cry, or that we “shouldn’t” feel a certain way? It’s messed up.
We know it’s OK to be happy, silly, smile and laugh, but crying or throwing fits is out of the question.
When you’re a toddler, there’s no distinguishing between good and bad emotions, until we as parents or caregivers do it for them.
When we attempt to stop our child from expressing their emotions, we are teaching them to be ashamed of their feelings and to hide them from the world. We are so uncomfortable with sadness and anger that we need it to stop immediately. We also don’t like to see our children unhappy, and we want to fix it away with distractions, treats or – in some cases – threats.
But none of those responses are doing our children, or ourselves, any favors.
We need to be their safe place, whether they are angry, sad, or happy. We need them to know it’s OK to feel how they feel, and that we will help see them through it. I’m not advocating abandoning your child in their feelings. I want us to lean into them.
It takes work. It takes practice. It can be exhausting. It’s not easy to be OK when your child is unhappy.
Here are some tactics that have helped me as the parent of a 2-year-old:
1. Know there’s always a reason. This has been a game-changer for my mental health. If I can understand that toddlers ALWAYS have a reason for their behavior, even if it’s not immediately clear, then I can reassure myself that it’s going to be OK. You don’t have a bad child, you just have a toddler! It’s their job to fully express emotion without restraint. All we can do is learn how to ride those waves together.
2. Name the feeling. You might think giving a name to their feelings will just feed into their tantrum, but in reality, it normalizes the situation and gives them some control when they’re feeling unhinged. Something that was once foreign and abstract becomes concrete. Eventually, they will learn to describe how they’re feeling with words.
3. Describe the situation. Rather than attach judgment or emotion to what’s happening, I’ll simply describe what I’m seeing, like a color commentator of a sporting match.
“You didn’t want to leave the party. That made you angry.”
“She took that toy from you. That’s upsetting.”
“You fell down. That looked like it hurt.”
4. Set healthy boundaries. It’s never OK for your child to hit you or another person, and we should always intervene in a dangerous situation. If you can see it coming, it’s best to be close by, so you can calmly intervene.
If it looks like my child is going to hit me or another child, I will gently hold his arm/block the blow and simply say “I can’t let you hit/kick/bite/fill-in-the-blank.” That’s it.
Don’t raise your voice, don’t rush toward them and don’t give a lecture or speech about how hitting hurts or makes people feel bad. The more attention you give to the bad behavior, the more likely they are to try it again and test your response.
If the situation persists, it’s possible your child is letting you know they need to leave, because they are tired, hungry, overstimulated, etc.
“I can see you’re having trouble playing calmly right now, so we are going to take a break/go home.”
5. Give yourself some grace. There are some days we’ll lose our patience. And that’s okay. Progress is perfection.
Now, before you think I’m some magical parenting guru, I get all my wisdom from Janet Lansbury. I highly recommend checking her out. In fact, if you’re having a specific issue, just Google the issue + “Janet Lansbury,” and solutions will follow.
As Janet always says, “you’ve got this.”