Getting angry with your toddler? Ask yourself this, How did you feel about your child becoming a toddler? While some parents mourn the loss of babyhood, most are eager to see their babies become toddlers. (For more on this transition, listen to this podcast.) During this time you see crawling become walking, then skipping and sprinting, babbling become song and story-telling.
Toddlerhood is a beautiful and complex stage in a child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, social and interpersonal development.
But, it can also feel maddening.
By the age of three, a toddler’s physical abilities allow for independent movement, exploration, and ever-increasing curiosity about the world that would never have been possible in the infant stage.
- A toddler has become aware that they are a separate self (individual) from the primary caregiver. This means that they strive for autonomy and independence is the main driver for all behavior.
- A toddler’s language skills are advancing rapidly; however, toddlers are incapable of verbalizing their needs and emotions. They will use behavior to communicate, primarily through tantrums, aggression, lack of cooperation, and a resistance to rules and structure.
- A toddler is a magical thinker—they use symbols and imagination. They have not yet learned to distinguish between reality and fantasy. ( Knowing this will help parents not to react too quickly when toddlers are “lying”).
- A toddler’s foundation for self-esteem and personal will is being built upon and depends entirely on the repeated responses from their primary caregiver (supportive vs. unsupportive).
- The toddler’s impulse is to explore—they want to feel independent. Their trust builds upon the safety of their limits to explore.
- A toddler needs secure attachment and connection with their caregiver for optimal psychological and emotional development.
Increasing independence, learning and exploration, and greater language are all developments to marvel. And yet, these developments give us—and our toddlers—multiple occasions to disagree, get frustrated and for you to get angry with your toddler.
The daily struggles are real and they can pile on stress.
Like when your toddler’s bid for independence becomes him insisting on pulling on his own socks and boots on a day when you are already running late for school.
Or, when your toddler cannot tell you in words that her boots have grown too tight and chooses to communicate this to you by throwing them across the room instead.
Perhaps your toddler is determined to show you that they know where the park is, and strides off without waiting for you, towards the busy road.
And, of course, this comes at a time when you are likely exhausted, overwhelmed, or even taken by surprise as your toddler’s development races ahead while you play catch-up.
Toddlers are also excellent at fooling us into thinking that their racing development means they can cope with more and act more maturely than is developmentally possible, resulting in a mis-alignment of expectations.
Parents may blame “losing it” on just those reasons: our different expectations, our exhaustion, our concerns, our worries and our overwhelm.
At the root of all of these feelings and reactions is one thing. A trigger.
When something your child does causes your emotions to spike, and your reactions become reactive, you are triggered.
These are your trigger moments.
What Exactly is a Trigger And Why Do They make Me So Mad?
All parents bring their “emotional baggage” into the parent-child relationship, just the same as they do with couples relationships and any other meaningful relationships. This can result in getting triggered. When triggered, you become reactive.
If you are committed to a connected, conscious style of parenting, you’ll likely see the task of becoming self-aware as an important responsibility. And you are right that self-awareness is an essential prerequisite to a connection-based life-long relationship with your child.
The intention alone of practicing self-awareness while parenting can improve the parent-child relationship. That’s because this intention moves a parent away from the automatic reactivity of yelling, punishing, threatening to take away “privileges”, blaming, and other mainstream control methods, to compassionate self-inquiry and the desire to reconnect with your child.
Yet, even with this goal in place, your anger still flares.
You still lose your temper.
You still find yourself getting harsh with your child.
The short answer is that most parents haven’t integrated ( i.e., healed) their own anger, and therefore anger becomes the trigger for ugly reactions. But you can reverse this process.
Your own exploration here will be useful to begin chipping away at these triggers.
To move away from reactivity start with exploration. Begin with these two questions.
- How do you feel about anger?
- How do you feel about your toddler’s anger?
Really dig here. These two responses are greatly intertwined.
You can deepen your self-awareness process by answering these further questions about anger in writing:
- Is there a certain moment of the day when I feel most triggered?
- Is there a certain word or behavior of my child that pushes my buttons?
- Is it when I am sleep-deprived or food-deprived that I lack patience and empathy for myself and my child?
- Is it when my needs for support and connection are not being met that I react, only to regret it later?
- Is it when I feel alone and/ or overwhelmed as a parent that I can’t control my reactions?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone, and you are not a bad parent. You, like all parents, just need more support in your life. All parents need and deserve support in their parenting work.
Whatever triggers you identified in yourself, embrace them as new friends. This is valuable information to decode the root of the trigger, which will inevitably take you back into your own childhood.
Allow your anger to talk to you. Ask your anger what did it want to protect and couldn't because you were a helpless child at that time? Locate your anger in your body. Stay with it until you can access the fear, the grief and the sadness underneath it.
Despite being a painful exercise, it is the beginning of your healing process. Journal down everything that comes up for you such as early memories and repressed emotions, anger especially.
How to Reframe Anger for You And Your Toddler And Turn Things Around
Conscious, connected parenting invites you to reflect on how you model self-regulation to your child. By the time we become parents, we develop a strong working memory, but how about inhibitory control and mental flexibility, all elements of executive functioning skills? What happens when we feel triggered?
Unless we ask ourselves these questions, we will be unable to self-regulate in the heat of the moment.
Anger is a powerful emotion and can be scary due to its explosive, volcanic and seemingly destructive nature. Parents who were not allowed to show their anger as children often find they can have a hard time embracing their toddler’s anger. The pain of being reminded of your own (old) anger triggers a response to reject, deny or stop a child’s anger, likely generating more anger, more resentment and more frustration in the child.
In this way, the generational curse of emotional un-safety is passed on.
Working through our own feelings about anger and reframing it as valuable emotion is helpful.
Remember, anger is healthy. It can signal a perceived threat to physical, emotional or mental safety. And anger lets us know that we want to protect something that’s important to us, such as our body, our mental space, our personal values, our principles or an idea.
Teaching toddlers how to safely express anger gives them a foundation for feeling empowered so they can learn to fearlessly protect themselves as they grow older. The only way to teach our children executive functioning skills is to model them ourselves.
Executive functioning skills are highly desirable in our society. They reflect a well-rounded individual who can manage their emotions and make good judgements that are win-win for everybody. But managing our emotions in the heat of the moment is difficult, even for parents who practice mindfulness or meditation.
Five Reflection Questions for After You Get Angry with Your Toddler
Here are five reflection questions that you can reflect on in a listening partnership or journal following an angry episode between you and your child:
- How did my parents treat me when I was angry / aggressive?
- Who does my child remind me of when he/she tries to hit me?
- What is one behavior of my child that is the most difficult for me to stay calm in the face of?
- How hard is it for me to listen to my child cry?
- How hard is it for me to listen to my child raging with anger?
Everybody gets angry every once in a while, and that’s OK. However, if we are in our anger most of the time, or we can’t handle our toddler’s anger on a daily basis, we need to be courageous and seek support, in the form of Listening Partnerships, parent support groups or individual therapy.
How To Stop Losing Your Temper With Your Toddler for the Long-Term
The questions I provided above will give you a good start at identifying where your triggers originate, when they are most likely to flare. Reflecting and re-feeling these past moments of anger will help you move beyond them, to a place of calm responsiveness. You’ll see that behaviors that made you rage once upon a time will no longer cause a big expression of emotion.
These work well with the self-care strategies I recommend below. Together, you will be able to model calmer expressions of your limits and boundaries, and increase your connection with your toddler. You will feel less anger, and will be able to handle the anger you feel or your toddler feels without losing it.
Five Self-Care Practices You Can Use to Stop Getting So Angry
Here are my Top 5 self-care practices any parent can practice in order to nurture connection and emotional safety in the family environment:
- Conscious Breathing: Helps us to “come back” into our bodies and into the present moment. Focusing on slowly breathing in and out calms our nervous system and helps us be less reactive and more attuned to our child’s need in the moment. This practice only takes a minute and it’s easy to do. Start by inhaling one full breath to fill your lungs; then slowly exhale to a count to five. You can make a soft exhaling sound if that feels good. Repeat five or six times.
- Gratitude and Self-Compassion: Helps us remember that we are safe and worthy of living a beautiful life. When we feel triggered, we react because we feel threatened in some way, consciously or unconsciously. The threat may not be real, but the fear we feel it is. Often, under anger lies fear. However, gratitude and fear cannot co-exist. To counter the fear/anger-based triggers, I recommend that you:
- Keep a gratitude journal and write in it daily, either when you wake up or before falling asleep. Write down 10 things you feel grateful for, small or big, each day. Be sure to include at least three reasons for gratitude towards yourself every day.
- Create a mantra of self-compassion and say it aloud when you finish your daily gratitude practice. Consider looking at yourself in the mirror and making eye contact with yourself while saying your mantra. This practice will help soften your self-judgements.
- Neutral-Observer of Triggers: This is probably the hardest of all exercises because of our automatic judgements of ourselves when we “mess up”. The goal of this practice is to notice and take notes, literally, of your triggers without any emotional reactions to the episode: no self-blame, no self-judgement, no self-criticism.
- For 30 days, commit to noticing all of your triggers, mental and emotional.
- When you feel triggered, write it down in your notebook right away. Keep this notebook close and handy.
- After 30 days, spend some alone time reading what you’ve written so far, and reflect on these questions:
- What is it that stands out for me?
- What is triggering me on a daily basis, or most often?
- Is there a pattern in my emotional reactivity? (your feelings)
- Is there a pattern in my mental reactivity? (Your thoughts)
- Inner Child Reconnection: also, called “re-parenting” or “ self-parenting.”
- Find a photo of yourself and display it somewhere where you can see it everyday.
- Look at this photo as many times a day as you can. It will help reactivate your self-compassion and empathy.
- When you feel overwhelmed in your parenting, close your eyes, reconnect with your child-self photo and ask: “what do I need right now?” Whatever comes up for you, accept it and do your very best to meet that need.
- Listening Partnership: All of the above can be useful when you come to your Listening Partnership. Take some of your findings to your Listening Partner, and begin to explore them out loud. When you have the warmth of a listener, and no judgment, new feelings may rise to the surface. As you can begin to get angry or re-live anger with your partner, to cry about the times where things got hard, feel again the the injustice you felt as a child or now, as a parent, you will begin to work through the unresolved feelings behind your anger. As discussed above, anger is a big feeling, and stems from past moments where anger was not integrated orhealed. Bringing this topic, and your discoveries around your triggers, your thoughts and your feelings, to a Listening Partner often provides a regular outlet and opportunity to heal and move on.
Conscious, connected parenting is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s the commitment to the process that will make a difference, not the outcomes we’re seeking. Focus on progress, not perfection. Personal transformation is a slow and painful process, however very rewarding. The parent who commits to this work will change their own life, their children’s life and eventually the world. We are all interconnected, and every small personal change impacts humanity-at-large. Parents are leaders. You are a leader.
To end, I leave you with this mantra from my book:
My child and I have a precious emotional bond that requires daily nurturing and attention. I commit to paying attention to how I feel when I am triggered. I am grateful to my child for showing me where I need to grow.
NOTE: This text was adapted from Mihaela’s recent book, Conscious Parenting of Your Toddler: Strategies to Turn Discipline into Growth and Connection. For more tips and science-based connection tools, get your copy here.