There are few things that are certain in life, but one thing you can always count on is that toddlers are moody. They are laughing one minute and crying the next. Sometimes your 2-year-old is brimming with smiley revelations and a mere minute later, the sky is falling, and fast. The majority of these ups and downs are a very normal part of growing up, and it’s important not to mistake them for misbehavior. To you, however, many of your child’s perfectly normal mood swings are frustrating, not to mention noisy. Your mood could easily sour if you’ve driven all the way across town to your toddler’s favorite ice cream shop, only to have your child change his/her mind and dump the cone, rainbow sprinkles and all, in the parking lot. Understanding why your toddler is so mercurial and learning the best ways to adapt to constantly shifting moods can help lower your stress levels and help your child learn to tame emotions.
So why are toddlers so moody, and why are they so explosive when their moods shift gears? There are a lot of reasons and all of them are purely developmental.
- They can’t communicate their wants and needs as well as they’d like to. For kids between the ages of 1 and 3, the world is enormous, fascinating, and ever changing. It sounds great, but when you consider that most toddlers are under 3 feet tall and have a 20-word vocabulary, you start to realize how frustrating their lives can be. What to do: Sometimes you’re not going to be able to figure out what your child wants right away. Stay calm and realize that the situation isn’t anyone’s fault. Try to help your toddler by picking up items he/she might possibly want and labeling them. Say the name of each item out loud and point to it. It will help expand your child’s vocabulary so he/she can tell you their exact wants/needs in the future.
- They have no concept of time. “Delayed gratification” are two words no toddler on earth understands. Your child may know that he/she is thirsty, and may even tell you so. However, when that juice box doesn’t appear a nanosecond later, watch out. A calm afternoon can quickly turn stormy. What to do: There’s a big upside to this particular toddler phenomenon. Having no concept of time means that many toddlers get sidetracked very easily. Use this to your advantage! Despair over a delayed drink can quickly turn to joy over a sink full of bubbles. Always be ready with a distraction. You don’t have to do a full-on juggling act. It just has to be appealing enough to warrant a change in attitude and activity.
- They have trouble controlling their emotions. A young child has had very little practice in managing changing moods and emotions, so they are very easily swept away by strong feelings. Toddlers don’t have the logic and reasoning skills to move beyond their outrage. For example, you tell your toddler bath time is almost over. This could lead to blood-curdling screams and a soaked bathroom due to all the resulting splashing and thrashing. At this point, your child cannot grasp the concept that something better might be waiting outside the bathroom. What to do: Calmly tell your child that while he/she can’t stay in the bath or in the sandbox for as long as he/she may like, there are other activities that can be done. To help your toddler better understand changing emotions, label them. For example, you could say, “I understand that you’re having fun in the bath right now and you don’t want to get out. That must make you angry.” Of course, it will take time before your toddler connects the words to the feelings. If you continue to label emotions, your child will have a better understanding of how words and feelings link up.
- They have trouble switching from one task to the next. Another classic trigger for toddler mood swings? Making transitions. It takes a lot of physical and mental energy to adapt to the ever-changing world. Sometimes a child who doesn’t appear to be all that engaged in play is concentrating a lot harder than you think. Kids get very focused on one activity and then we expect them to change gears instantly. This sort of transition takes a toll on even an adult mind, so those expectations are way too high for children. What to do: Take advantage of your child’s burgeoning skills. Toddlers have a solid understanding of sequencing; they are well-aware of how one action follows the next. Activity changeovers can be eased with warnings that come early and often.
- They want to call all the shots and do exactly as they please. When they try to call the shots, sometimes they find that they don’t have the physical or mental skills to do what they want — or worse, they’re greeted with an emphatic “NO!” from Mom or Dad. Joyful curiosity turns to tears in a matter of seconds. What to do: The bright side: Parents can often give them what they need. Temper your toddler’s outbursts by giving reasonable choices in which you control the outcome.
Dealing with Tantrums
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to distract, entertain, or jolly your child into a better mood, things go south very quickly. This doesn’t mean you’re an incompetent parent — or that you have an incorrigible child. Such outbursts are completely normal.
Toddlers are busy teaching themselves which behaviors are successful in getting people to do what they want. Tantrums are just one of their many experiments. However, if you constantly give in to the screaming, you’ll teach your child that this is an acceptable way to accomplish a goal. So, what do you do instead?
- Don’t try to rationalize or argue with a toddler. If he/she is screaming over a cookie, forget about that Oreo. Once you’ve hit tantrum ground zero, the cookie is no longer the focus of the problem — controlling the situation takes center stage.
- Put your toddler in a safe place — the crib or playpen, for example — and walk away for a minute. This will help your child calm down and self soothe, as well as take him/her away from the temptation that spurred the tantrum.
- When things are calmer, pick up your toddler and carry on with your day. Whatever you choose to do, don’t fork over that cookie. That would render the tantrum a success.
After some trial and error, your toddler will eventually learn that throwing tantrums won’t get him what he/she wants.
Keep in Mind
All of these ideas may seem like a lot of work for a pretty short developmental period. However, taking the time and patience to use them is well worth it, and someday, you may be able to adapt them to a moody teenager!