Editor’s note: The authors of the Terrific Toddlers series are Upper West Siders. A lot of Upper West Siders have relationships with toddlers. This story is in the interest of making those relationships better for them — and for the toddlers.
Time To Go!
By Carol Zeavin and Rhona Silverbush
Leaving an engrossing activity can be hard for anyone, but in the toddler phase the reasons go deep. A toddler will resist stopping one thing to move to another as if their life depended on it (because it feels that way to them). Transitions are a kind of separation and feel to toddlers as if it’s the end of the world as they know it.
Toddlers are in the phase of development when they can only comprehend what their bodies can sense and move. They are very much rooted in the here and now, unable to think things through to a future time (“but you’ll like it when we get there!”). They feel most secure with the status quo, because it helps them feel safe and in control. On top of that, toddlers have deep attachments to their possessions. When they’re torn away from both their treasured objects and the security of the status quo, they feel ungrounded and out of control. It’s no wonder they resist!
So, what can you do?
Anticipate resistance by giving a heads-up a minute or two in advance, to give them time to digest their upcoming anti-status-quo challenge. It won’t take long for most toddlers to understand what the heads-up means. But then, fair warning, you can start to expect those endless negotiations (“Five more minutes! No, fwee more minutes!!”).
Set matter-of-fact, reasonable limits. Reasonable, consistent limits are the secret to achieving a healthy balance of power between toddler and grownup. Toddlers have so little control over what happens in their lives, so they fight tooth and nail (sometimes literally) for it. Plus, toddlers have a powerful, unconscious survival need to make sure limits exist! By testing limits, they’re fighting for their own security: a toddler testing limits is a toddler asking for limits. So, when you set them consistently, toddlers feel safer (despite the fighting. Stay strong!).
And, as always:
Acknowledge what they’re so deeply involved in, thus validating their (justifiable) need to keep doing it, before trying to wrench them away from it. Starting with validation of what your toddler is experiencing (“I know you want to keep singing…but now it’s time to go”) is important in limit-setting because toddlers thrive when they feel seen and understood — especially in the midst of a struggle like a transition.
Limit-setting can be tough, we know — all day, every day… So, try adding a few more techniques to your repertoire:
Give two choices. Toddlers love choices. Deciding things helps them feel in control. (“Which shoe goes on first — this one, or this one?”) Why only two choices? Because toddlers are just now starting to understand the concept of “two,” a conveniently concrete concept based on the physical body having two of pretty much everything (hands, arms, legs). Giving more than two choices usually leads to confusion at this age, so they get frustrated and lose focus — not what you want when you’re trying to get them organized!
Use a transitional object. Carrying an object from the current activity to the next creates a sensory and psychological bridge for toddlers. It helps fulfill their status-quo needs and (importantly!) shows that you understand those needs.
In Time To Go!, we also use a transitional phrase — “Bye-bye, (whatever is being transitioned from). See you next time!” It’s a comforting routine, and routines help toddlers feel more secure.
But if they just can’t do it, for whatever reason, after a heads up and two reasonable choices… just pick them up and go. Endless negotiations are frustrating for everyone, and will not produce the result you desire.I Ultimately you are in charge — which toddlers find reassuring, because they somehow do realize they’re not qualified to run the household. So, first validate (“I see you’re having a hard time”), then set the limit (“I’ll help you”), and go. You’ll be fulfilling the toddler’s need for secure, predictable boundaries.
Yes, they will fight — but you don’t have to fight with them. When you’re clear, firm and validating, both of you will feel more secure when it’s time to go!
Read other columns in the Terrific Toddlers series here.