Toddlers: you know them, you love them, and they're frustrating. This month's focus has been on all things toddler, narrowing in on brain development, building emotional regulation skills, and even how to find grace and appreciation.
"Our body is always doing what it thinks is best for us."
Dr. Stephen Porges
While this statement is true for everyone, it especially rings true for toddlers. Our bodies are in control, not our brains - especially when we are dysregulated. Whether it's running away from a parent when we see a friendly dog at the park, hitting an older sibling, or falling asleep in the middle of a crowded room, the body is always doing what it deems is best.
This is in response to the environment, but also relates specifically toddler development.
Statistical learning refers to the brain's ability to learn and understand patterns. For toddlers, this skill is just emerging, because they haven't had a whole lot of life experience yet. Anytime something is unexpected for their brains, such as when they didn't get to be in charge of unscrewing the bubble lid, their body immediately tries to protect them. Once their brains collect enough 'data' to make sense of patterns, you'll find a lot less dysregulation related to changes in the routine.
"When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not to join in their chaos."
An adults role with a toddler is to co-regulate. That is, remain present while the child is dysregulated. In her book Brain Body Parenting, Mona Delahooke reminds us that tantrums throw toddlers - not the other way around. And when that tantrum comes around, it's our job to share our calm, not to leave the child on their own to manage being thrown.
Ask yourself: are you co-regulating or co-escalating? Avoid passing judgement or shame. Acknowledge what is happening and move forward with co-regulation.
Parents need nurturing too. In fact, it's essential for children's' well-being. Regulating ourselves involves bringing you into connection with yourself. First, identify that you are beginning to feel dysregulated. Then, see if you can change the way that your body is positioned so that you are more in line with the child. This might mean getting down onto the floor and ensuring that we aren't hovering over them.
Try not to worry about imparting some wisdom right now; staying quiet and present can sometimes be the regulating force that both you and the child need most.
Here's the good news: you'll get lots of opportunities to practice co-regulation with those toddlers!
Again, Mona Delhooke (Brain Body Parenting) provides insight into the different kinds of 'deposits' we can make to stabilize a child's system.
The first thing to consider with a dysregulated toddler, child, or even an adult, is if they are in need of something basic:
Snack; hangry is a real thing.
Nap; is everyone exhausted?
Movement; have we been cooped-up inside all day?
Environmental Change; are they overwhelmed by the sensory input that is present?
Check these off your list before you go into a deep-dive of co-regulation ideas.
Now that you're sure that basic needs have been taken care of, it's time to get more specific. Brain Body Parenting outlines six interventions that are going to be different for every child (sorry).
1. Proximity - Do they prefer that you hold them, or stand near? Maybe they want to be able to see you, but be across the room.
2. Vocal Tone - Your voice provides safety cues to others. Does your child respond best to a quiet voice or a more sing-song tone?
3. Touch - What kinds of touch calm your child? Light touch or more of a firm hug? Maybe they don't want touch from another person, but respond to a soft blanket or preferred toy.
4. Motion - Is rocking a helpful strategy or do they prefer to have access to their own safe movement?
5. Visual Cues - Is eye contact helpful, or is it best to keep a more neutral face that is looking away?
6. Words - In general, less is best. Choose simple phrases that convey understanding, empathy, and validation.
"There is no such thing as a perfect parent. So just be a real one." Sue Atkins
Being a toddler is hard. Their brain is developing at an alarming pace, but they still have a long ways to go in being
emotional regulation masters. As parents and caregivers, we want children to go through life with minimal struggle. However, we also don't want to deny them the chance to experience and tolerate disappointment. This means that you'll be getting a lot of practice co-regulating. You'll be a pro before you know it.