What is Your Toddler Really Thinking
Toddlers' new mobility feeds their natural curiosity and that’s the cornerstone of an active, intelligent mind. But as a parent, you’re forced to find a balance between supporting exuberant exploration and keeping your child safe.
BY: Paul Holinger MD
Kids may say the darndest things—but toddlers seem to have the market cornered on defiant expressions of opinion. Your once sweet—but inarticulate—baby turns into a fountain of “No!”
Sometimes, it may sound as if your two-year-old doesn’t like you much anymore: “No.” “Go Away!” “Mine!” “Stop!” But toddlers aren’t looking to make you mad. They’re just not yet fully fluent—at 24 months they only have about 200 words to express all their complex feelings. And that turns into blunt-sounding expressions of their likes and dislikes.
Remember, as toddlers start to talk and walk and explore the world around them, they’re developing a sense of self. That’s why you’ll notice that your two-year-old is beginning to separate from you, a bit at a time—sometimes defiantly, sometimes confidently, and sometimes fearfully.
Toddlers’ new mobility (boy can they run!) feeds their natural curiosity and that’s the cornerstone of an active, intelligent mind. But as a parent, you’re forced to find a balance between supporting exuberant exploration and keeping your child safe. And you may even experience your own sense of loss as your growing child becomes able to come and go, attach and disappear at will.
No wonder having a toddler in the house is a time of remarkable opportunities and challenges.
But you can turn your time together into an exciting adventure that you both enjoy. The key is to realize that your toddler is far smarter—and much more able to understand things—that we used to think. And kids this age are a soup pot of feelings. If you know the ingredients that make up your child’s emotional life, you’ll be a lot better at managing his or her rambunctious and contrary expressions of self and nurturing positive personality traits.
Infants’ and toddlers’ built-in emotions (we all have these hard-wired into our nervous system) are expressed through nine signals: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell. (That’s an aversion to smell; don’t ask why academics use that word!)
And parents’ role is to act as a translator of their child’s actions and awkward expressions of feelings (raw surprise, blatant fear, sheer enjoyment), so that they really GET what the child is trying to tell them. Then they can help the child shape his/her feelings in ways that lay the foundation for a happy personality–a blossoming little person who can become socially adept, resist peer pressure, and control anger and frustration in ways that allow for a productive life.
To do that, my mantras for parents are:
- Put words to the feelings. When your child acts out, offer them the words to express what they are feeling; if you get it wrong they will let you know. If you get it right, it should help them calm down.
- Maximize positive feelings. No toddler was ever too happy or too self-satisfied; the world will dish out enough hardships later on. Now you want to make them feel confident, secure and brave.
- Minimize negative feelings. Their causes, not the child’s expression of them—a toddler has to vent and feel as though he/she has a right to feel those emotions. If you don’t want your child to vent like that, or have those negative feelings, then you have to identify the triggers and remove them. And at the same time you have to help your child learn alternative ways to express frustration and anger. That’s called tension regulation and it’s key to becoming a happy, successful adult.
Whew! I know that’s a lot to think about! But it’s really important for your happiness –and for your child’s.
Paul C. Holinger, MD, MPH, is Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Training/Supervising Analyst and Child/Adolescent Supervising Analyst, and a Founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy at the Chicago Institute. He is also Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Dr. Holinger is Board Certified in Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and Certified in Psychoanalysis (adult and child/adolescent) by the American Psychoanalytic Association. He is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. His best selling book, What Babies Say Before They Can Talk, has been translated into several languages. For more information visit www.paulcholinger.com.