“What are the toddler years like? I’ve heard they’re really challenging.” I was recently asked this question. My response was that yes, they are challenging, but there are resources and ways of thinking about this season that can empower you as you navigate it. As I write this, we have an almost 6-year-old and a 3-year-old. So we’ve weathered one stormy toddlerhood and are currently in the midst of the second.
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Here are the most helpful approaches and books that I’ve found so far:
#1: Take Care of Yourself First
It’s common to think that parenting is about the kids. But it really starts with us, the parents. One of the most formative books for me has been, “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” by Dr. Laura Markham. (Also helpful: “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings.”) This book reminded me that if I don’t take care of myself first, I cannot expect my child to respond well. Of course, it’s a tricky thing to actually do because young children are endless in their neediness.
What self care has looked like for me has evolved as my kids have grown. For a time, I had a jigsaw puzzle set up in our office and I would retreat there for 10 or 15 minutes while my husband watched the kids when I was feeling too overwhelmed. Now that I don’t have to worry about my kids eating my art supplies, I have a watercolour set that I pull out when I need to reset myself with some creative work. Another resource I’ve adopted recently is listening to Pray As You Go (available as an app and online) while I get ready for the day. It’s a 10-minute guided prayer and reflection time that helps me connect with God and set the tone for the day.
#2: It’s How You Frame It
“Terrible Twos” doesn’t have to be terrible. It is definitely an emotional rollercoaster and full of illogical behaviour, but this age is when they are trying to figure out who they are. In Denmark, they call this age “trodsalder” or “the boundary age” (from “The Danish Way of Parenting” by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl). This is an age of testing boundaries. They aren’t purposely trying to make your life miserable. By seeing my child’s defiance as her attempts to learn where she begins and where I end, I can have more compassion and patience – not always, but it helps!
#3: Toddler Brains aren’t Fully Developed
I first came across this concept in the phenomenal book, “The Whole Brain Child‘ by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. I got the book when my firstborn was beginning to exhibit typical toddler behaviours and I really wanted to understand what was going on in her little mind. Through this book, I learned that in the toddler years, not all the connections have been made in their brains. They have lapses in judgment and difficulty controlling their emotions because they’re physically not developed yet. “Threenagers” behave the way they do also partly because of hormonal changes. As my child’s parent, I can help to foster those brain connections and nurture an environment where her brain can develop. “The Whole Brain Child” offered me many practical tips for doing this.
#4: Discipline is about Teaching and Reconnection, not Punishment
In “No-Drama Discipline,” also by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, they apply the principles and concepts outlined in “The Whole Brain Child” to the realm of discipline. In our home, we do not use “time-outs.” It makes sense to me that children act out when they are in need of connection. After all, as an adult, don’t we want to lash out when we feel hurt, angry, or afraid? Those are all emotions of disconnection. So misbehaviour in my kids becomes an opportunity to help them understand their emotions and thought processes behind their behaviour. Taking the time to help them calm down and talking them through each incident takes time and effort, but for us, it’s starting to show positive fruit.
Another great resource on this topic is “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich. Applicable not only for toddlers, this book has practical approaches for relating to your kids in a positive way as they grow. This book even has little comics to help convey their message.
#5: Play is Powerful and Essential
I learned a lot about this through the book, “Rest, Play, Grow,” by Deborah MacNamara and Gordon Neufeld. Preschoolers need sufficient rest and ample opportunity for free, independent play so that they can grow – particularly in their understanding and sense of self. When they play, kids learn their likes and dislikes, they learn to regulate themselves, they interact with their immediate world and notice things like the effect of gravity. Their main “job” so to speak, is to play! Based on this principle, we haven’t enrolled our kids in many classes or activities, opting instead to offer them free play time. We let them play at home (and make messses, to my chagrin) and in the backyard, but we also take them to parks and the nearby river. Our 3-year-old could be in preschool now but we’ve chosen to enroll her next year instead.
These early years of uninhibited play are short and fleeting and especially in this current culture where you almost feel pressure to have your kids in tons of activities, it is important to us to guard our kids’ play time. This idea was further emphasized for me when I read “Simplicity Parenting,” by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross. When I think about the type of adult I hope my children will become, I hope they will be self-aware and always learning. The foundation for these qualities find their roots in these toddler years.
#6: The Magic Rhythm: Connect First, Then Separate
I can’t remember if I read this idea in a book but it’s one of my secret weapons. The concept is this: when my kids’ connection bucket is full, they will more happily play on their own. So if I know that I need to start making dinner in 15 minutes, I will intentionally engage with my children and do what they want for those 15 minutes. It might be reading, playing Lego, or entering their world of make-believe, but I’ve found that after we’ve spent that time connecting, they’re much more likely to let me do my own thing afterward. This also goes for the times I need some quiet. I’ll read a book with my toddler first (as hard as it is when I feel spent) and then I’ll tell her “Mama needs some quiet time” and go to my room. It is a rhythm that carries us through the day. We connect, then separate, connect again, and separate. If I find them getting easily agitated, one of the questions I ask myself (aside from whether they are hungry or tired) is “Are they in need of connection?”
#7: Keep a Broader Perspective
The toddler years require a lot of grace. A couple books that helped me to see parenting struggles in light of my faith were, “Grace-Based Parenting,” by Dr. Tim Kimmel, and “Sacred Parenting” by Gary Thomas. “Grace-Based Parenting” reminded me that my relationship with my children is a reflection of God’s relationship with me. God, as my Father and Mother, extends so much grace to me. When I remember that, I am more able to extend grace to my child when she sticks a bead up her nose or empties half a roll of toilet paper into the toilet. “Sacred Parenting” reminded me that as much as I hope to shape my children as I parent them, God is shaping me through the process of being a parent. This helps me remember that we are all in the process of learning and growing together, which keeps me humble and hopeful.
Bonus: Potty Training is Do-able
Potty training is one of the milestones during this time period. The most helpful book I have come across on this topic is “Oh Crap! Potty Training” by Jamie Glowacki. You can read more about my experience with potty training here.
The toddler years are difficult at times, but they’re also full of rewarding moments. I hope something in this list of books and ideas is helpful to you! Know that you’re not alone and don’t hesitate to contact us if you need someone to talk to.