By Zahava Goldstein, MS Ed.
I would venture to guess that as adults we would not want our schedules to be dictated by others or to be denied the very things that we desire most. So imagine a two-year-old who has limited capacity to express his feelings having others constantly telling him what he is expected to do.
Piaget describes the stage of development from 2 to 7 as “pre-operational,” during which thinking is still egocentric; a child of that age has difficulty taking the viewpoint of others. Especially between the ages of 2 and 4, children are attempting to exert their independence, which develops their self-worth and self-confidence. This is the reason parents will often hear their child saying no, screaming, or throwing a tantrum until their needs are met.
Toddlers are in the midst of developing their language skills and typically lack the verbal skills necessary for communicating their needs and wants. This is the reason they resort to screaming or yelling no! when they want to express their displeasure. They are not trying to be “terrible”—they simply have no other means of verbalizing their emotions.
I propose that the moment a child begins a tantrum is the moment a learning experience begins for a parent. The parent can either give in to the tantrum, which teaches the child that his wants will be met when he engages in negative behaviors, or children can be taught by giving them the words that they are missing to express their needs or wants in an appropriate manner. For example, a child who is called for lunch and starts screaming no! might be trying to communicate that he is not yet hungry or that he is in the middle of playing and wants to finish before he eats, or he simply wishes to pick a battle.
The parent can choose to scream back and drag the child to the kitchen—or to look the child in the eyes, maintain eye contact (which develops respect between the parent and child), and say, “I see that maybe you are not ready for lunch, but it is lunchtime. You can have either macaroni or grilled cheese [or whatever lunch choices the parent is offering], or you can just sit at the kitchen table.” In this scenario, the parent acknowledges the child’s feelings while at the same time maintaining the rules.
The parent is now developing the child’s self-confidence by enabling autonomy in allowing the child to make a choice of his own. Children by nature want to please and want to be praised for their efforts; however, it is up to us to give them the opportunity to succeed. While it takes more time and patience to communicate and offer choices to our children, the rewards are endless.
Our children will learn to communicate and will understand that their needs are met by expressing their feelings appropriately as opposed to throwing tantrums and screaming, and a level of communication will develop between a parent and child that will yield rewards for years to come.
When my children were infants, I would tell them to use their words, and those around me would laugh and ask me which words exactly I wanted them to use. The point was that if language was encouraged from an early age, there would be no reason for crying, kvetching, screaming, and “tantruming.” When children learn that their needs and wants will be met as they “use their words,” language expands, respect is cultivated, and praise develops the child’s self-confidence, which lasts a lifetime.
Wishing you a positive parenting day.
Zahava Goldstein is certified as a school psychologist.