Even when our requests seem fair to us, it is only reasonable to accept that toddlers might react with strong feelings. To ask them to deny their feelings of frustration and disappointment is to ask them to deny their humanity. It also sends the message that we adults are unable to tolerate their negative emotions. But when we handle toddlers’ strong feelings calmly, and refrain from using permissive or punitive strategies to end them, we send a different message: that conflict with a loved one does not mean the end of that love. I believe that it is far more important to provide healthy outlets for expressing emotions than to seclude, ignore, or punish children for having these emotions at all.
For example, a toddler experiencing aggression or anger could pound play, bounce a ball, scribble, or run. Likewise, a sad toddler might need to cry, look at books, snuggle into a nest of pillows and blankets, be rocked, nurse, or take a soothing bath. Because toddlers are concrete learners, a picture chart of constructive choices for managing emotions could serve as a reference. Perhaps the most effective strategy is to sit quietly and peacefully on the floor while the toddler feels free to vent frustration, disappointment, and anger.
As it turns out, attempts to control children’s emotions are likely to backfire anyway. Researchers have found that restricting children’s negative emotions may result in children who have more explosive emotions, (1) display more emotional distress? (2,3) and are less emotionally competent (4,5) than their peers. Parents might be able to control their children’s outward displays of emotion through methods of negative control, but they can’t make those feelings disappear. By punishing or ignoring our children’s negative feelings, we forgo the chance to guide them through more effective ways of handling these emotions, or to show our empathy for them by offering our support and encouragement. When a toddler is feeling overwhelmed, a parent might be needed to help the toddler understand his or her feelings and formulate a solution to the problem.
Fortunately, constructive approaches to handling conflict with toddlers not only insulate them from the risks associated with restricting their emotions, but can help support later socio-emotional and sociomoral development. (6) Studies have shown that positive approaches to handling conflict with toddlers actually predicted the highest socioemotional and sociomoral competence at age three. (7) The mothers of the most socially advanced children were more likely to offer compromises and use language rich in values and feeling. Because toddlers are not yet able to independently negotiate, we often forget the importance of taking their perspectives into account and suggesting compromises. For example, if a toddler wants to squeeze catsup out of a bottle but the parent doesn’t want the toddler to be wasteful, a bottle filled with a mixture of water and cornstarch might be offered as a compromise. Likewise, a toddler with i an affinity for unrolling rolls of toilet paper might be happy enough to unroll a ball of yarn. When we put the effort into supporting a toddler’s initiatives by creating milder, safer, neater alternatives, we model love, and a willingness to consider a loved one’s perspective–approaches that have far-reaching implications.
These socially advanced children not only had mothers who made more frequent references to the feelings of the toddler and of others, these mothers also more actively encouraged their toddlers to consider the impacts of their actions on others. Such strategies seem to both strengthen the parent-toddler relationship and offer the child a wealth of lessons in human interaction that will be useful in future relationships. Conversely, other approaches to conflict, such as explaining rules and consequences of actions, were not significant predictors of future socioemotional and sociomoral development. This research implies that toddlers are wired for learning pro-social behaviors, and will develop them if they are modeled in the context of a supportive relationship.
These findings counter the traditional assumption that encouraging obedience in the early years is the best way to foster long-term character. In fact, rules and consequences seem to affect only behavior. Take, for instance, the example of my daughter crying in response to having her hand held while crossing the street. I could have trained her to stop protesting by punishing her. But even had that worked, it would only have been because Julia feared punishment, not because she respected me or understood my adult logic.