I treat my toddler like a teenager, here's why...
I have worked in the mental health industry for most of my adult life. For a stretch of four years I worked as a mentor field instructor at a wilderness therapy program. Essentially, we worked with at-risk teens whose lives had derailed for one thing or another and help them to get back on track. A lot of times this was motivated by trauma or anxiety. But before we could get to the more vulnerable emotions, we dealt with a ton of defiance, resistance, and opposition. I learned how to skillfully navigate those situations by guiding them toward de-escalation and eventually compliance. I did this by looking at what was underneath and addressing that. These types of behaviors are often motivated by an underlying need that is extremely understandable and relatable. While the behaviors seem outrageous, what’s driving them is not.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs approaches explains which needs drive all behavior. Two of the needs that all humans (no matter how small) possess are the need for belonging, and the need for power. If someone feels that those needs aren’t being met they may act out in dramatic ways to fulfill their needs.
Fast-foward to becoming a mom. I have noticed that my toddler seems to exhibit some of the same patterns and behaviors that the teens did. And it makes sense to me. At both stages of development they are pushing against the boundaries. They need structure, and they need to know they are safely contained. They need to know that no matter how big or wild they get, someone is still going to make sure they safe. Imagine a teen who can effectively get whatever they want. They know intuitively that they aren’t ready to be the boss of their world, even if they can’t consciously articulate it. Imagine how scary that must feel. It is developmentally natural for both toddlers and teens to push boundaries. They are supposed to do this. They need to know what they can safely do, and what they can’t do, if they are going grow out of that to a place where they can effectively provide safety for themselves.
With toddlers the need for power and control shows up a lot, particularly around feeding time. Parents can decide what and when to feed them, and they decide if and how much they eat. It is one of the only areas of their life that they have complete control over, and they use it if they need to. My son likes me to feed him every bite one night, then throws a fit the next night if I don’t let him do it all by himself. I never quite know what I am going to get at meal time, but I approach with grace and the appreciation that he needs to feel some level of control, and I have found the more I allow that the less he acts out.
Teenagers often assert this need in their behaviors, particularly the risky ones. They control what happens to their bodies, where they go, what they do, what they ingest. So it is a particularly dangerous time as they are pushing boundaries, and fulfilling basic power needs, and being exposed to risky things. Parents pay attention! Guide them without completely controlling them, because the tighter the leash the bigger the fight for a little lead. This is compounded by the other, perhaps more important need to feel love and belonging. That is why peer connection is so much more powerful and influential than a connection to an authority figure during this time. Toddlers are still interested in feeling connect to the authority figure (you), and will act out to get that attention. Give it! They are making bids for your love and it is okay to respond in kind. Eventually you will notice the cues they give for this need before they act out.
So when our toddlers (or teens) are talking back, throwing fits, acting out, take a deep breath. Remember that they are supposed to be doing this, it means they are developmentally on track. Separate the outrageous behavior from the individual and look beneath it. What need is driving this? That is the thing to focus on. Let them know it is not okay to behave the way they are behaving, but put your energy toward the underlying need. By understanding that some stages of development are going to naturally come with more opposition and that’s okay, you will become more attuned to your child, which is probably all they are really asking for.