Two tiny toddlers make circles around the table, clomping in their oversized heels. Around and around they go until one's heel slips off. The other one curiously leans over and picks it up, clomping on. Upon noticing the loss of their shoe the other one throws her self on to the floor in tears. Out of curiosity the clomping buddy returns only to inadvertently begin a loud, tear filled shoe tug of war.
Many of us have been in the middle of a toddler tug of war. More often than not we operate on instinct doing what is 'right' in an effort to keep everyone happy. We often become right fighters, taking toys away or labeling children with abstract words like nice, friendly, mean etc. Particularly with toddlers these attempts to impose what we see as socially accpetable behavior leave them confused. The actions we hope will teach them confuse them often leaving them feeling deeply misunderstood.
So what are toddlers looking for from us when they are embroiled in an emotional tug-of-war?
- They need us to stay calm first and foremost. This can be really difficult if you see what seems like an egregious act of toy stealing. We have to remember that toddlers are always examining the world and with it all manners of cause and effect. What we see as "mean" or "aggressive" is simply a toddlers expression of their curiosity. It may also be an outward manifestation of a difficult to manage emotion. In any case all toddlers involved in the situation deserve to be heard and respected. Our job isn't to fix the situation but rather to help both children get back to a state of emotional equilibrium.
- Narrate the situation. By putting words to the children's actions many situations can be neutralized immediately. Hearing the language that explains what is happening makes children feel understood and it helps them to understand others. This can be helpful starting at a very young age, never underestimate a toddlers ability to understand the language around them.
- Avoid judgements. In the moment it can be hard to let the judgements go especially if one of the children is your own. Everything inside of you screams "That was so mean! He was playing so nicely with that! How COULD you?!?" But if cooler heads prevail you will be able to give both children a better sense of how to properly handle themselves in the future.
- Sometimes it helps to remove the toy from the situation, particularly with very young toddlers, because the toy becomes the focus of all the child's frustration. Saying something like "I see a problem. I am going to put this shoe on a shelf while we figure this out." Sometimes we can also let it go, let the offending child run away with the shoe and deal with the feelings of one child at a time.
- Don't make a problem if there isn't one! If a child takes a toy from another and the other child doesn't bat an eye, let it be! Sharing is a social activity that involves both children but it should involve us as little as possible. Many young toddlers have no investment in ownership. To them taking and giving toys is just part of their social experiment. Our job is to support the children not enforce arbitrary rules.