Parenting a toddler is, oh-boy, quite rough. I recognize that every stage of parenting has challenges and areas of growth and I know, of course, that each child is different. But as a youngest child who often babysat or worked in day camps with older kids, I don’t think I was prepared for just how confusing this stage can be. And so I learned. I asked friends and even took a fantastic virtual course to learn more about this stage: the lack of predictability, the tantrums, the “I’ll ask for one thing but then change my mind and become angry when you can’t foresee this” occurrences.
This stage, in my opinion, does not truly end. I think about my past emotional experiences and of the work I do with clients, and I recognize that we all have that “id nature”—the part of us that feels confused and wants to tantrum and quickly changes our mind and can barely keep up, even with ourselves! The difference, though, is in how we externalize.
Sure, some of us may continue to yell and scream, acting in an aggressive manner. But all too often we actually have become over-regulated. This may be related to how this stage was handled when we ourselves were younger, but likely is related to myriad factors that contributed to how we learned to cope.
The result, in some cases, may look like a sort of numbness, or no apparent reaction even when something goes terribly wrong. Or perhaps the person holds inside an emotional response, and it grows and grows until there is an explosion.
We are told outwardly or with subtle messaging that some feelings are wrong and need to be avoided or obliterated. Ultimately, what we strive for both in toddlers and children and within our adult selves is connection to the emotion as a starting point.
Feelings are not inherently wrong, and we must begin by accepting the feeling. Toddler is angry? Anger is totally OK! It’s normal, encouraged, and healthy. What we do with our anger is where we target growth. As the ladies of Big Little Feelings (the toddler course I took) explain, “Anger is OK, but hitting is not.”
And so, too, with ourselves. Jealousy is OK. Anger is OK. Love is OK. But these emotions—among others—can feel scary and so the response has become, “I shouldn’t feel this way.” That line of thinking, reader, gets us nowhere. Yes, we can process by exploring our rational responses and irrational responses, noting that maybe a feeling we have is totally irrational. That’s OK! Feelings don’t always make sense.
First start by validating that even if it feels confusing or wild, having that emotion is an OK experience. Breathe. You cannot begin to look at reactions to an emotion—in most cases—until you start by giving yourself some space for validation without judgment. This is no easy feat, but it is one that is possible when you take the time to practice.
Next, you can explore your reaction. Has this emotion become fused with a behavior? What is it you’d like to do with this energy (whether it be by avoidance or reaction), and is that helpful to you in the short term? What about the long term? It is important to reflect on what you may have internalized as the “wrong” part of this feeling; the feeling is never wrong, but perhaps your gut response has hurt you or others or ignores your need to process.
If the way you typically react to this emotion is one that you know is not working for you, explore alternatives. I make this sound so easy—but it’s far from simple. We tend to rely on habits, even ones that may not be helpful to us. Breaking said habits takes commitment and typically discomfort. That discomfort, though, is evidence of growth. Explore how you might feel once you start with acceptance of the emotion and the creation of space to choose how you’d like to handle this. Perhaps consult with a friend, write it down in a journal, weigh pros and cons, consider your current self and future self. These questions will allow you to connect with your experiences, rather than react to them.
“It’s totally OK to be angry and we don’t throw cups. Would you like to find another way to get out your energy?” This used to be a common refrain in my home, and still is occasionally, but I can see that my daughter has learned this to be true. Sometimes adulthood is re-parenting ourselves. So feel those feelings—they are truly OK—and create the time for yourself to decide how you’d like to respond. Change may be overwhelming, but so is the avoidance of your true experience.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 14+ in New York and New Jersey (virtually at this time) struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and a Metro-NY supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, please visit www.temimah.com.