Wednesday, August 1, 2012

5 things that work: Part 1

I have about seven posts started and either don't know where they are going or they feel too deep and emotional right now to post.  So, I am solving this problem by starting an eighth post.  And that eighth post has turned into a series of posts because I'm too long-winded to keep things concise.

So, I give you the first installment of:

5 Things that Work (right now) for Parenting (my) Two-and-a-Half-Year-Old

Disclaimer: These purpose of these posts is two-fold: first, to remind me later what our life was like in this stage of the parenting game, and second to pass on some tips/obeservations I've uncovered in the trenches of parenting a toddler.  I share them, not to suggest that I'm an expert or that I have it figured out or that they will work for every kid, but in the hopes that they might work for some of you with younger kids who will eventually be in my shoes.

1. Realistic Expectations. 

oh yes, she LOOKS innocent
If you are the parent of a two and a half year old, you have my sympathies.  If you are like me, you heard experienced parents talking about the "terrible twos" and dreaded that 2nd birthday and the doom it threatened.  But two years old rolled around and you were pleasantly surprised by your child's behavior.  In fact, two years old seemed easier than 18 months.  You begin to think, Maybe we experienced the terrible twos early? or (more likely) Maybe my child is exceptional.  Maybe she won't ever defy or disobey or throw a fit! Surely that's it!  She IS perfect after all!   But then, everything starts to unravel.  Your little compliant angel begins to birth a holy terror of a thing with teeth and elbows and a will - oh the will! - and suddenly everything is a battle, everything is an argument, everything is tantrum-worthy.  One day you find yourself the recipient of sideways glances and judgmental head shakes as you stand in the aisle of Target watching your child throw an Oscar-worthy tantrum.  At that moment, you'll wonder if the e-card your mom sent you as a joke was actually some sound mother-to-mother advice:

And you think, Where have I gone wrong!? I really screwed her up! She used to be so sweet and I must have made some wrong turn somewhere in my parenting that created this monster! 

Not so, friends.  Don't you worry.  The reality is your kid is simply - NORMAL.  Because research - specifically, the extensive research done by the Gesell Institute of Child Development and child development expert (as in, I had an entire class on him in college for my Elementary Ed degree), Jean Piaget, shows that in normal child development, the brain and body are on a virtual roller coaster.  There are certain predictable stages during which your child must learn new things, master new skills and break free of infantile abilities.  And with those new skills come frustration, anger, and a lack of competence for your child.  The result of which are fits, arguments, and general misery for everyone involved.  The reality of 2.5 is that their brains and their bodies are in disequilibrium.  The good news is that this disequilibrium is temporary and will eventually come back around to an evening out of emotion, skills, and behavior (equilibrium).

While not every child is the same, in general the first few years of a child's life are characterized by peaceful and stable "whole years" (12 months, 2, 3, 4) and unpredictable and difficult half years (18 months, 2.5, 3.5, 4.5).  You'll notice in the chart below that as a child ages, the time between equilibrium and disequilibrium lengthens.  I even read somewhere (can't remember where, of course), that adults still experience stages of disequilibrium!  (Does that explain anyone else's college years to them or is it just me?)

You may have also noticed that the illustration on the disequilibrium side is a sort of swirly loop.  This indicates the regression that is likely to occur in previously mastered skills and behaviors while a child begins to develop new skills.  As a side note, another interesting thing is that often when a child is working on mastering a new fine motor skill (such as eating, speaking, drawing, writing, hand-eye coordination, etc), a gross motor skill (such as walking/running, jumping, balance, etc) may regress and vice versa.

What this means for me parenting 2.5 year old Lila is that I can't expect behavior from her that is fitting a child in equilibrium.  I can anticipate that she will be easily frustrated, overly emotional and lack coping skills for the most basic of obstacles.  Anticipating these things can keep me prepared to respond to these behaviors if not avert them.  I can give her choices, set her up for success, give her words for her frustrations, be patient when she responds unreasonably.  I can keep my eyes open for the proof that she is in fact mastering new skills that might explain the frustration she is experiencing.  And I can remind myself that her behavior at 2.5 is not necessarily indicative of her future character (thank Heaven!)  It IS indicative that she is on a "normal" developmental swing into disequilibrium.

This knowledge will also come in handy when well-meaning (or perhaps not-so-well-meaning) people make comments about your child's "was-she-raised-by-wolves?" behavior.  When those comments are made, remind yourself that most likely this person A) has never parented a 2.5 (or 3.5, 4.5) year-old child, B) parented a child that age so long ago that he or she has forgotten what kids at that age are actually like and/or C) really has no place making that comment in the first place.  As an example, I will quote one such comment I recently received, "Parents these days let their children get away with way too much.  They excuse away poor behavior by saying, 'He's just two! He doesn't know better!' when really that child shouldn't be allowed to act the way he's acting."  To which I responded in my head (because really, what's the point of arguing with someone making that kind of comment?), "He may know better, but he lacks the developmental skill set to act on that knowledge.  Give the parents a break!"  Someone making these comments has unrealistic expectations for the child's age.

The bottom line is, if you understand the reality of what your child is experiencing developmentally, you will have realistic expectations of your child and her behavior - which will benefit everyone.  Including bystanders at Target.

I'll post number two tomorrow - it's not nearly as scientific (or rather it's not scientific at all) so if you were bored to tears reading this, take heart - tomorrows post involves stickers!


LA said...

You are a good mama. I hope you really truly know and believe that in the debths of your being.
I get looks at target too- but I figure if its older women looking, they have been through this too and its probably a look of "oh honey, you will survive this!" or its someone who hasn't had the joy of children and thinks I am a terrible parent...the later I kinda feel sorry for. What a sad thing to miss out on!
Hang in there. And good work mama.

brit said...

I feel like I am reading about MY daughter! she turned 2 in feb which brings us dead smack in the middle of 2 1/2 years old. 18 months was awful, then it got easier, now its harder again! your graph makes perfect sense! I will have to try the sticker chart. there has been more than one occasion where leaving the park was the worst thing I could ask of her and/or we left a store with me holding her like a football. a yelling, kicking screaming football just so we could get out of that store as fast as possible. thanks for the advice!

Katy said...

I love this post Kelsey, I have had that look too in Target or grocery stores. Tony is almost 6 and have had some behavior issues the past couple months maybe we are past it!