My beautiful little toddler is everything an experienced mother expects: sweet, affectionate, super fun, soaks up learning like a sponge, and, yes, ultra-moody. Like most toddlers he’s all sunshine-and-giggles one minute then, with a blink of an eye, he’s red-faced, toy-throwing, screaming mad. It’s shocking. Nearly everyday for the last few months he’ll be happily playing with his train set (he calls it “I play tracks”) while I’m practicing, then I’ll be spooked out of my long-tones or scales with top-of-the-voice screaming and toys being hurled across the room, smacking into the wall. Crazy! And I thought my mood swings were bad… With toddlers, they are “all in” when it comes to emotions.
According to Robert Marvin, Ph.D., a professor of child psychiatry at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, “a 2-year-old has only just begun to develop cognitive skills to make sense of those feelings — and to control them. That fact, coupled with a toddler’s limited attention span, results in what seems like a wildly fluctuating emotional seesaw.” (http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/behavioral/understanding-your-2-year-olds-mood-swings/) When they are happy, they are really happy, and when something doesn’t turn out the way they would like, well, watch out for flying blocks! So, when my toddler is trying to defy the laws of physics with his train tracks, he gets incredibly mad when they inevitably fall down from the awkward position he has assembled them in.
I’ve picked up on a few tricks that I’ve learned over the last few years that seem to work quickly (and they need to, I usually have to get right back to practicing!). First, I’ll typically try to ascertain what the issue is that is making him so upset. Sometimes it’s a quick fix: the train tracks aren’t lining up correctly, the trains aren’t coupling properly, a toy is stuck in another toy. Once the issue is resolved and after a brief lesson on what I did to make it “right”, he’s usually happy and starts playing again. Sometimes, however, he gets so upset and frustrated that he’s forgotten why he’s upset in the first place, and it’s difficult to calm him down — toddlers can have a hard time turning off the “I’m really angry” part of the brain — this often results in him hitting me or throwing things at me (he knows he’s mad, and I’m a convenient target). I’ll have to put him in time-out (it’s never OK to hit), and we’ll count to 60. This does two things: it changes the scene and gives him a chance to just breathe and listen to my very soft counting. We get hugs at the end, all is right with his little world again. Another great tool to use is distraction. Take advantage of their short, little attention spans and when you either can’t fix the issue, or they won’t stop defying gravity, find another toy to play with or take him to another room (change of scenery!) and read a book to him. Moving to another room works so well because then they aren’t reminded of what they were trying to do, and it allows them to start thinking of something else.
This can be a really fun time for the toddler and the parent, but it can also be an extraordinarily challenging time as well. They don’t always understand you, and they certainly don’t understand the world around them yet, so it can be frustrating for the toddler and the parent. When they have older or younger siblings, the difficulty (and the fun) amps up even more. Having a few tools, or a few tricks, as I mentioned above can really help improve the situation, and if you can make it a learning experience at the same time, it’s even better, though, understandably it’s not always possible.
As a performing musician and a mother I feel the pull to keep my children happy and all-around satisfied while fostering learning and independence (within reason, of course) and keep my skills maintained. Helping them to understand why stuff works the way it works really goes a long way towards this goal. Yes, they are young with a limited cognitive ability now, but the more you work with them in a positive setting, they better it will be in the long run and with fewer tantrums. So, for my toddler now and my other children when they were toddlers, I use the above-mentioned methods, and I believe they have worked towards helping them learn to entertain themselves, solve problems for themselves (we’re still working on that!), and behave themselves without me hovering over them constantly. We play together; we work together; but we can also play and work independently, and that is crucial for how I am able to juggle all of my responsibilities on a daily basis.