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How We're Helping Our Toddler Learn to Regulate Her Emotions

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Here we go again. Our toddler, covered in spaghetti sauce, is towering over a plate of lukewarm peas and half eaten orange slices. In a blink, she’s in the air. A freeze frame would show the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. She has all her teeth and is able to string together phrases like “Hi. It’s nice to meet you,” and “How was your day?” Another blink and she tumbles to the ground, barely missing the outside of our cabinet, a storage compartment of pots, pans, bubble wands, socks and part of a doll. She’s an expert forager, and hid the remote to our ceiling fan a few weeks ago.

My wife and I work full time jobs in education. She’s K-5 and I’m higher ed. For that reason, we’re emotionally tapped by the time we arrive home. But, it’s important for us to be present, engaged and loving with our daughter, no matter what we’ve dealt with before clocking out. Sometimes, I tag out to take a shower or read a book. Sometimes my wife does. We’re getting better at setting boundaries as parents. Like most, we want our kid to have the best. So, when our little one has had her third twirl-climb-jump-roll-crash incident during dinner, I know it’s time for some empathy laden accountability.

Here’s how it went down recently:

“Sweetie, I’ve asked you to stop jumping off the chair twice now. It’s not safe and we don’t want you to get hurt.” I’m crouched at eye-level, her level.

She cries. Knocks over the chair. Wails.

I remain calm and assure her: “it’s OK to feel frustrated, but I need you to be safe. Let’s sit on the chair for now.”

More cries. She runs to her mother who is packing a lunch for the next day, ready to turn in early. She gently redirects our daughter back to me. It’s time for a time-in.

Things don’t always run this smoothly. We, as her parents, have a full range of emotions too. But, we’ve actively worked to get to points where we can call our daughter in this way.

When I was growing up, behavior like this was met with anger, impatience and worse. I remember feeling small, unsafe and alone whenever I was disciplined. We don’t want that for our daughter. While we could choose to put her in time out for a minute or two, that’s ineffective as well.  According to child and adolescent therapist, Bonnie Compton, “Children experience feelings of isolation and abandonment when placed in time out.” She adds that “kids who are sent to their room often believe their isolation is a result of being bad enough that parents do not want to be around them.”

So, we opt to sit and talk. I let her know it’s OK to be upset. Sometimes it’s breathing exercises. Sometimes, it’s asking if she’s OK with hugging me. Sometimes, it’s just sitting patiently with her until she’s able to feel calmer. We don’t rush it. The goal is to help her to regulate her emotions, gain some recognition of why she’s being called away from an activity, and to show her we’re here.

Originally published: August 4, 2021
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