A sudden wail from a little girl pierces our calm, sunny afternoon at the playground. I guess her age to be 18 months. I’m at the swing set with a family, and over in the sand pit sits a father flabbergasted with his daughter’s reaction—to I don’t even know what (in other words, something seemingly small and insignificant). Out of his mouth comes a frustrated, “Now that’s a bit of an over-reaction!”
Toddler behavior can seem baffling and exasperating. Your sweet baby has changed. And it doesn’t help that society tends to be uncomfortable with expression of emotion and expects parents to be able to “manage” their kids (whatever that means).
This discomfort is old. Did you know that during Europe’s Middle Ages, children who cried or tantrumed a lot were believed to be possessed by a demon? This view indeed changed—which just meant that parents were then blamed for spoiling their children.(1) Fortunately there’s new understanding and research these days. But unfortunately, the taboo lingers.
Why does your toddler suddenly know how to push your buttons?
Let’s have a look under the surface. You’re most likely right when you think to yourself (or out loud), “but that’s small and insignificant!” while wondering why your child is having such a giant reaction.
This is key! But don’t stop there. If the current matter seems trivial, then what could her reaction mean?
Bingo, deeper needs. Pent up stress. Unexpressed emotion. Old stuff. How old? Eh, 5 minutes, last week, or maybe even birth.
(That’s the sound of shrinking yourself down into toddlers shoes.)
Look around at the world as a little human. It’s exciting! So many new things—trees, swings, rocks, another child, your new toy except the other child wants it too, flashing lights, sounds you don’t understand, grown ups you love, grown ups that seem stressed out, a bigger and stronger and noisier older brother, that child who now has your new toy…
Oh, and by the way Grandma left yesterday, and that terrifying sound once during a big storm, and the time mama had to leave to go on a trip without you, and how no one ever understands what you’re saying, and of course that time you got stuck inside mama’s belly and couldn’t get out for a while and everyone was afraid…
So, leftover feelings. Birth challenges, a parent leaving, overstimulation, or even ‘mundane’ situations we don’t realize were stressful—those feelings hang around inside us until they get let out. Babies are born with a full set of emotions, they don’t just learn or develop them later. Alongside new feelings and hurts (like the other child taking a toy), these old ones can bubble up to the surface if your beautiful toddler hasn’t finished telling you about her sometimes-very-intense experiences.
It’s called the “broken-cookie phenomenon”
When toddlers feel stress or strong emotions, a broken cookie (or whatever seems ‘small and insignificant’) becomes a pretext. “The need to cry gradually builds up until the urge for release is so strong that the child can no longer hold it back,” says Aletha Solter, Ph.D (Tears and Tantrums). “At that point almost anything will trigger tears.” This is why your child’s emotion may not seem to match the present situation, or why you can’t seem to figure out why she’s upset.
How does this change things?
Think back to the dad on the playground. Or yourself on the playground with your screaming toddler. As you listen to her frustration, how would your response change by holding the awareness that she has a deeper need underneath and is trying to share her deepest feelings with you? Her brilliant and wise nature is finding a way to release pent up stress. Be present there with her–we all feel much better after we ‘get it out’!
It’s not always easy…
…can be an understatement, especially if you were not allowed to freely cry or express your own deep feelings as a child. Get support when you need it!
For more, see “Understanding Tears and Tantrums,” article by Aletha Solter, Ph.D. (hint: great video about “Why Temper Tantrums are Good” at the bottom!).
Note, (1) above, from Solter, Tears and Tantrums
Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator® (work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen), Aware Parenting Instructor (Aletha Solter, Ph.D), Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and trained Feldenkrais® Practitioner.
© Eliza Parker 2016, All Rights Reserved, links welcome