Mindful Parenting for Toddlers
Toddlers are moving and exploring the world so quickly! They want to be part of everything and are learning about the world at a massive pace. They’re so cute! And their tantrums and “No!” can drive us bananas before we even realize it.
The toddler years are not something “terrible” just to get through (even though they drive us crazy)...they’re actually a big opportunity to teach habits that can last a lifetime. They learn lessons like: does my parent listen to me? Am I a helpful member of the family? Am I capable? I invite you to look at the toddler years as an OPPORTUNITY to teach and model loving, skillful ways of being.
The Mindful Parenting method is all about calming our reactivity so that we can choose to respond skillfully to our children. We want to stop yelling, get off autopilot, and become present so that we can see what our children need in this new moment.
My daughter was fussy as a baby and highly sensitive to changes in the environment. She cried and fussed a lot. As a toddler she let me know that she did not like my parenting style (the “firm” part) with some big, loud “no’s” and crying. Despite my best intentions, I found myself triggered, intensely frustrated, and shouting at her. I scared her. Seeing the fear and disconnection in her eyes, I felt ashamed and guilty for not meeting my own expectations.
After breaking down in the shame of yelling at my adorable toddler, I realized two things: (a), I didn’t control her, and (b), I didn’t actually have a whole lot of control over myself at that point. I didn’t want to shout and scare my daughter. I had not consciously chosen to act like an enraged rhino…yet that’s how I had behaved. It was time to focus my attention less on controlling my daughter’s behavior and more on regulating myself.
This low point was the start of creating Mindful Parenting and the CLEAR method:
C - Calm reactivity (so you can use your whole brain)
L - Listen reflectively, creating connection
E - Express yourself honestly & effectively
A - Attend, be present
R - Resolve problems based on needs
Here are six ways to practice the Mindful Parenting CLEAR method with toddlers!
#1 PRACTICE GROUNDING YOURSELF
Our emotional world is an open system, so we feel and are affected by each other’s emotions. Small children especially, depend upon the relative stability and groundedness of their parents to regulate their own feelings: picture a toddler running to mama for comfort. When we cultivate the habit of pause, we are able to be that grounding, calming presence for our children. Without doing anything, we help our children calm down by our open and accepting presence. Our children borrow our calm.
#2 TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF OUTSIDE OF PARENTING
Parenting toddlers is exhausting! The role of mom or dad demands a huge amount of your energy and patience as these little humans go about meeting their needs. It's vital that you take some time away from that role to just be you.
Regular breaks from your kids and parenting make you a better parent. You know that raising children is demanding of your time, your attention, and your patience—that to do it well, a lot of time and energy is spent focused on your kids. Where does that energy come from? You are not a bottomless cup of giving and you don’t have to be. Taking regular breaks revive you so that you can come back to your children with more patience, more fun, and more calm, curious attention. Neither ourselves or our children thrive when we are overstretched, exhausted, and burnt out.
#3 UNDERSTAND YOUR CHILD'S DEVELOPMENT
Or, their lack of development! We often expect way too much of young kids. The pre-frontal cortex area of their brain, which is associated with impulse control, is not fully developed until their early twenties! That means little kids are impulsive, and they need a lot of help with emotional regulation.
Here are some guidelines:
Infants and Toddlers Ages 0 - 3: They need our loving interactions to soothe them again and again. A two-year old shows independence from their parents but is not emotionally independent—they need to co-regulate, or “borrow your calm.” Name and acknowledge the emotions you and your child are feeling. Model healthy emotional regulation as best you can.
Preschoolers Ages 3 - 5: They can make choices based on their own interests now. This is a great age to harness the “do it myself” energy to involve kids with household tasks. Give your child the language of emotions and normalize feelings. Kids continue to co-regulate, but you can start to introduce strategies to help them calm down.
#4 coach, don't control
At some point every reasonably alert parent realizes that they are not actually in control of their child. By the age of two, it’s clear that children have their own minds and make their own choices. Yes, we can set expectations and standards—we can guide and coach our children—but they are not puppets on strings to be controlled.
Before you have to give your child any instructions, crouch down to their level and wait until you have their attention. You can help them learn how to focus: “Willow, I need your eyes.” “Asher, I need your ears.” If you need to correct your child’s behavior, make sure you connect first. This can look like acknowledging the feelings: “You are really upset! You didn’t like it when she took your ball.” It can also look like reminding the child how valuable they are to you, while holding a boundary: “I love you, and the answer is no.” Be a patient coach on how to be a good human.
#5 reduce or eliminate screens
When we give our kids screen time in order to get stuff done around the house, not only do we teach them not to help, we are reducing their ability to do this kind of deep, creative play in the real, non-screen world. I encourage you to limit screen time so that your child can instead build their inner resources—their energy, creativity, interests, resilience—as well as become a more helpful member of the home.
Give your child some unstructured, non-screen time and you will see them rise to the occasion (after some minor complaining) and find something interesting to do with it. Without the overwhelming stimulation of screen time or too many toys, our children can be “entertained” by daily life.
#6 invite your child into family life
Rather than structuring your time around child-centered activities, try to bring children into your adult life. Children can watch while you do chores around the house and get involved in small ways. Folding laundry? Let your child play under the towels. Do they need to be put away after? Show your child how you fold and bring the towel to the shelves. Want to go for a picnic or a hike? Bring your child and adjust the level of activity so they can be involved. Yes, this takes more time, but instead of moving at our fast, adult pace, we can slow down and make the everyday activity the main event.
Instead of feeling responsible to entertain your child, consider the time when they are young as a chance to slow down and do less—to instead focus on your daily life at the slower pace of childhood. You don’t have to be the entertainer: just live your daily life and bring your child along for the ride.
I hope these six tips are helpful. Do you want to go deeper? I've written a whole book about changing your own autopilot reactions and creating a relationship with your child based on love and mutual respect. It's called, "Raising Good Humans," an international best-seller, and you can find it here.
My new book, Raising Good Humans Every Day gives parents 50 in-the-moment mindfulness-based strategies to stop generational parenting patterns of ordering and threatening, and start to cultivate closer, kinder, more cooperative relationships with their children day to day.