Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Quote A Day #4 - The Emotional Life of the Toddler

The Book:

The Emotional Life of the Toddler by Alicia Lieberman.

Quote 1:

The toddler ... is constantly facing circumstances that make her feel either powerful and strong or small and helpless.  In one moment she can dart off and be reckless, and minutes later become clingy and whiny and want everything done for her.

When Johnny can walk from one end of the living room to the other without falling even once, he feels invincible. When his older brother intercepts him and pushes him to the floor, he feels he has collapsed in shame and wants to bite his attacker (if only he could catch up with him!).  When Johnny's father rescues him, scolds the brother, and helps Johnny on the way, hope and triumph rise up again in Johnny's heart: everything he wants seems within reach.  When exhaustion overwhelms him a few minutes later, he worries that he will never again be able to go that far and bursts into tears.

From the parents' perspective, this is a bewildering state of affairs.  If adults experienced and enacted the full range of feelings available to an average toddler in the course of a day, they would collapse from emotional exhaustion or be diagnosed with the weighty psychiatric label of 'emotionally labile.'  As it is, living with a toddler demands that parents be ready for anything.  Gradually, however, the child will come to an increasingly modulated experience and expression of emotions, and the turmoil of toddlerhood will subside into the relative harmony of the preschool years.

Quote 2:

Much of the emotional turmoil in the second year revolves around the difficult task of integrating the child's will into the family constellation.  The child learns that her personal wishes (so cherished, seemingly so right) need to fit reasonably well with what others want.  The parents learn that they, too, have to say 'no' with firmness and conviction but hopefully without harshness.

This is why temper tantrums are so important for healthy development.  Tantrums take a child to the very bottom of his being, helping him to learn that anger and despair are part of the human experience and need not lead to lasting emotional collapse.  If the parents can remain emotionally available even while firm in their position of denying something, tantrums also teach a child that he will not be left alone in his 'dark night of the soul'.

Quote 3:

Many parents are haunted by inner and outer demands to respond always in the same way and not give in to the child.  They cling to every inch of their wavering will power in confrontations with the child because being 'consistent' has acquired for them the aura of a transcendental virtue.

We have to acknowledge, however, that all of us make decisions in the spur of the moment that seem silly or unnecessary on further reflection.  Insisting on that course of action against our better judgment smacks of rigidity rather than consistency.  If another adult pointed this out to us we would agree with relief and change our minds.  Why not do the same when it is our child who protests one of our less inspired edicts?

Toddlers can be remarkably perceptive when it comes to parental shortcomings.  At 34 months, little Josh said to his screaming mother, tears streaming down his cheeks: "That is not fair, mommy.  You should do better than that."  His mother heard him and did do better.  She stopped screaming, put herself together, and explained: "Let me tell you why I got so mad, Josh.  I don't like it when you don't do what I say."  This mother's willingness to change her behaviour led to a very fruitful conversation with her child about what each of them was supposed to do to get along with the other.

Willingness to change our minds in the face of persuasive evidence teaches the child a higher form of consistency: the readiness to engage in dialogue about differing points of view."


I had trouble picking just one quote from this book - it is filled with so many interesting examples and insights into how the world looks from the toddler's perspective that even these three quotes together do not really do it justice.  

Lieberman is a psychiatrist and psychologist from California who specialises in mother-child attachment.  Her book is not a 'how to' parenting manual, but rather it takes you on a journey through common toddler behaviour and discusses what is going on inside the toddler's head.  

As Lieberman explains, at the heart of toddler psychology is 'secure base behaviour'.  Hopefully, over the first year of life a child has learned to trust and depend on his or her closest caregivers - usually mum and dad - and to feel confident that he or she can seek comfort and assistance from them as needed.   By the start of the second year, the child starts experiencing an increasing urge to separate from the parent and explore - and at the same time feels a powerful desire to feel safe and secure by being close to the parent.  Unable to accomplish both simultaneously, they alternate reasonably rapidly between exploration and clinging.  They need to prove to themselves over and over that they can feel safe when they need it, and be independent when they need to.  This is what will over time teach them healthy self-confidence.  The key is to try and allow exploration but be nearby and available, so the toddler can control the pace at which they explore and seek reassurance.

It is not surprisingly, really.  Our own confidence is a mix of both learning we can do things for ourselves, but also knowing that there are those who love us and who are here and available when we need them.

I found the first quote really jumped out at me when I read it, because I had always thought of toddlers as little people with little problems.  But what it made me realise is that to the toddler, little problems aren't little at all.  They are overwhelmingly big.  This is not just because they don't have enough knowledge and experience to have a good sense of perspective, but because the parts of the brain that enable emotional control are only just starting to function (something I learned about when I was researching baby sleep).  At this age toddlers, like babies, rely on their closest caregivers to help them calm down when they cannot do it themselves.

It must be so supremely frustrating and scary at times to be a toddler.  To want what you want so strongly, and yet to be constantly reminded how ineffective, helpless, and out of control you are.  It's so easy to think because toddlers get waited on hand and foot that they have it easy, and to dream of have a parent to run around and pick up after me, make all my meals, cuddle me whenever I want, drive me everywhere...  But really, when it comes right down to it, I like my independence more.  I wouldn't voluntarily choose to be an emotionally unstable paraplegic, just because I'd get a carer, even if they were going to be a really good carer.

The second quote was interesting because tantrums are looming just over the horizon, and we are starting to catch a glimpse of them already.  To be honest, I didn't have the slightest idea what to do about tantrums before I read about them.  I had a vague idea of ignoring the child, or doing something like I'd seen on shows like Supernanny.  But what I now understand is that when toddlers start to tantrum some time in the second year of life - it is not manipulative - it is just pure, uncontrolled emotion.  (I've heard some people prefer to call them 'melt-downs', and in many ways this is more apt.)  Toddlers naturally grow out of tantrums as their emotional control improves and they learn alternative strategies to manage their emotions.  Manipulative tantrums develop down the track only if parents respond to the initial melt-down tantrums by giving the child what they want.  Hence, there is no need to punish tantrum behaviour, but just to be kind but firm in saying 'no' (you can't have that lolly, touch the hot oven etc.), and help the child learn alternative ways to manage their emotions.  Punishing the child for tantrumming is kind of like punishing them simply for being a toddler and having emotions.  

I picked the third quote because I think it is so common for consistency to be the catch-phrase with parenting advice, so it is interesting to get a different perspective.  It makes sense to me that consistency is better for a toddler than constantly changing the rules, but then there's consistency taken to a fault.  Consistency should not come at the price of endorsing stupidity or ignoring common sense.  And it is ok for parents to be people, not infallible machines.

I remember vividly the first time I won an argument with my mother.  I was about six or seven years old.  For some reason I was swearing - probably nothing too serious - something innocuous like 'damn' or 'bloody' - without really thinking, just because I heard the other kids at school say it.  My mother got really angry and we had a bit of an argument until she yelled, "I've told you not to f*cking swear!"  I remember we just kind of looked at each other, kind of stunned, then I pointed out the obvious, and to her credit she gave me a sheepish smile and said, "Well, just don't do it in front of other people then, because you'll get yourself in trouble."

In that moment, I did not respect my mother less.  I respected her more, and I felt closer to her than I had ever felt.  And I felt wonderful, because she had spoken to me person-to-person instead of as a dictator, and to know she saw me that way made me feel so grown up and clever.  I remember that conversation as a turning point in our relationship.  It set the foundation for a closeness with her based on listening, respect, and fairness that saved me in a lot of ways during my teenage years.

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