Toddlers get upset very easily. Their frustration tolerance is low because, well, their general capabilities are low. Imagine for a second that it took you five minutes to do one button on your sweater. Now apply that to a billion other things and you have a window into what life is like for a three-year-old.
There are many things a toddler struggles with, but one of their greatest limitations is their language ability. They cannot always properly explain what’s bothering them nor do they have the words to handle conflicts.
Lacking both the words and the abstract thinking required to express complex (or even not so complex) feelings causes problems. Toddlers will attempt to handle situations with yelling, crying, pushing, and grabbing. Since all these are generally frowned upon, they usually end up punished while the original issue remains unsolved. Poor things.
Whether your child is pushing or being pushed, that sets off a lot of parental anxiety. Mama bear kicks in if another kid picks on yours. If the perpetrator is your toddler, you probably feel a mix of embarrassment and a need to make a firm statement that the behavior isn’t acceptable.
Of course, you don’t want to allow “bad behavior” like yelling or pushing. You want to teach your child that we don’t grab and we use our words. But that’s the issue. They don’t have the words.
So give them the words.
Prompt the children with exactly what they should say in place of their actions.
If your toddler grabs a toy from another child, say, “Say: Can I play with that?”
If your toddler is the one from whom the toy is being grabbed, say, “Say: I’m playing with this right now.”
If your child doesn’t want a hug and another kid is forcing it, say, “Say: I don’t want a hug right now.”
If your child is the one forcing it, say, “Say: Do you want a hug?”
As long as everyone is safe (and they probably are more often than you think), try walking over to a toddler scuffle and just offering the language. You can even offer it to both kids involved. By giving them a script you’re teaching them appropriate ways to solve conflicts without adult intervention. This supports our kids’ growing independence and boosts their self-confidence.
Staying calm and collected as you give the words needed also models acceptable behavior. Think about it: if you come up and physically separate kids and reprimand one or both of them, you are showing that we use physical force and intimidation to solve our problems. You probably hope to teach the opposite of that!
Getting hyper-involved in kids’ disagreements communicates that conflict isn’t acceptable when really, it is a normal part of life. Providing the language for them to do that themselves teaches the life long lesson that disputes are ok and can be solved peacefully.