Disciplining toddlers is the ultimate test of patience. They are too young to precisely communicate what they are feeling and are still learning how to handle “big” emotions. It can be incredibly frustrating for parents as they look for ways to manage their child.
The next time your child starts misbehaving, imagine this: “Every child has a cup that needs to be filled — with affection, love, security, and attention. Some seem to have a full cup most of the time or know good ways to get a refill. But most children get a little nervous when their cup gets near empty.”
It’s an interesting analogy from Upbility, an online resource for ready-to-use therapy and education materials for children and adolescents. Toddlers do like getting attention from their parents, so they’ll find various ways to get it.
Nikki Bush, a parenting expert and best-selling author of Future-proof Your Child shares in her blog that children are born attention-seekers. “Before they have words, they use their body language and their cries to attract the attention of adults to meet their needs for love, nurturing, sustenance and protection,” she writes.
For the most part, parents can prepare for these needs and respond to them. But inevitably, they get caught up with the chaos that comes with parenting, a time when a child’s “emotional cup” starts running out.
What empties the cup? For toddlers, it can be as simple as being hungry, thirsty, bored, or tired. Getting yelled at, being punished, or being forced to do something that they have no desire of doing. For older kids, it can be stress, being rejected by their friends, failing at school, or feeling lonely and isolated.
“When our children’s basic needs of being tired, hungry, thirsty and bored go unnoticed, or we are unprepared for them because we packed nothing to eat, drink or play with, children will resort to negative attention-seeking behavior to shine a light on their needs,” says Bush.
Tantrums and meltdowns are likely to happen as they approach an empty cup, so Bush reminds us to observe their behavior. Upbility shares some ways that children deal with having an empty emotional cup:
“Steal” from other people’s cups
Misbehave to get your attention and show that they need a refill
Seem to have bottomless cups, or need constant ‘topping off’
Can’t sit still for refills or actively refuse them
Bounce off the walls when they approach ‘empty’
Think they have to fight or compete for every refill
Your child wants your attention because what they really crave for is a deeper connection with you, her parents. So let her know she is loved by responding to her needs. Here are some ways to do that.
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“When caregivers and children play together, they’re actually making emotional connections,” says Yesim Kunter, a play expert, and futurologist. “They are learning about each other. They are learning about who they are as well as the other person, and they are exploring together.”
When playing with toddlers, it is essential that you set aside enough time without interruptions. “No cell phone, no TV, no business calls during this time. Your full attention to him during play time will go a long way for you and him,” educator Regina C. Licauco told Smart Parenting.
According to a recent study, children value “regular moments more than the elaborate, scheduled, ‘fun’ occasions.” So even if you’re too busy doing household chores or running errands, you can still interact with your child by incorporating her into these activities.
Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford University and co-founder of Challenge Success, advocates daily parent-child bonding. According to Pope, even 20 or 25 minutes each day of quality time makes a huge difference. It benefits children when it comes to discipline, values formation, and overall well-being.
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Show your child affection
We already know hugging has science-backed benefits, so don’t hesitate to be affectionate toward your child. In fact, hugging your child to tame a tantrum can be useful. Comfort through loving words or a warm embrace can diffuse a tense situation, especially if a child is upset or frustrated.
Show an interest in what she loves doing
Yes, you need to spend time with your child, but you also need to make an effort to connect. When you see your child doing something she likes, engage her. Ask her questions about it and join in on the fun!
Children still need to learn about emotions to be able to navigate through life. It doesn't mean that just because an action (failure) 'empties her cup' means she should never go through or experience it again. However, refilling her cup is necessary so she can learn how to do it on her own. And as parents, isn't that our responsibility?