A Valentine for Toddlers
To begin with, toddlers cry and rage and despair, and they often stamp their feet. They want what they want and what they feel they need. They drive us to change our minds and “give in” or they drive us to stamp our own feet and insist it is our way or the highway. And of course, we have good reasons: they need to learn to be polite and now, without signs of shyness, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We all have our standards which to some people some of the time will feel “off” or harsh or not harsh enough. Some of the time to some of us the standards of grownups in general seem frenzied or they don’t seem to make much sense at all.
But then again, who am I to say what makes sense, right? Well I’m a grandmother, and a seasoned psychotherapist who has spent years on what I call “taking the power out of power”. By this I mean a process of going from power struggles to moving through parenting based more on relationships.
The premise here is that boundaries work well when they are not in the form or the intention of punishment, and when they do not involve shame and blame. And, when changing our minds is based not on communicating our child was monstrous and “impossible” enough to wear us down, but rather that we have seen the error of our ways and at the very least the opportunity to shift our stance.
There of course is the inner toddler, stamping around in our insides, when we want ourselves or our partners or people outside our inner circles, to behave the way we want them to. As such, in the spirit of allowing the inner stuff to come to the surface so we might get to know it and tame it — or integrate and access it in the world, it feels only fair that I admit that this is at work here and now, in me that would be.
When it comes to toddlers — like actual chronological toddlers — I want them to be heard, no doubt also as I wanted to be heard much better and more extensively than I was when I was at that same age. I am also fairly convinced that should their parents get more help and support — psychologically but as much physically — they — the adults — might be calmer and less like toddlers in wanting their own toddlers and preschoolers and children of all ages to conform and do so fast.
Some methodology used by parents and caretakers — professionals and not — can seem calm but are really tantrums in disguise. When I worked in residential treatment with children with severe behavioral difficulties often compounded by shizophrenia as well, it at first shocked me to hear a therapist say to a child in a meltdown, “Go to your room and when you calm down and feel settled enough to talk about this, you can come out.” Now it seems that the particular therapist was in essence stamping her own feet. My internal reaction was, “Wait a minute, isn’t this child here inside and locked up because he/she cannot self-regulate enough to have a minimal idea of what is wrong?” My idea was to sit there with a child till the meltdown was over and then pose a question like, “Do you have any idea what just happened?”
I confess: the inner toddler inside of me is not always as tame or as settled as I would like, or as much so as those close to me would like. That it is quieter than it was is testimony to the fact that, a propos of having children, I knew and too well that I needed help. This means I knew, and begrudgingly so, that I would not have been at my best as a fulltime mother. Not only did I crave the emotional and intellectual stimulation and company of a work environment that impassioned me. I also needed the practical help of someone who could straighten up, clean up, do some chores so when I got home, I was relatively safe from my own meltdown.
The conclusion I have come to over the years is that we all need help, if we are to recognize the existence and persistence of our own toddler within. Without shame and self-loathing, we need appreciation for the vast array of emotions inside us. What is more we need appreciation, without mockery or even self-mockery, for the fact that parenting does in fact need a village. We need support, not unbridled approval for potential abusive acts, but lovingkindness along with practical help.
There is a lot of talk about being privileged in these times. And while I recognize that some groups of people, in terms of race and prejudice and inequalities of all kinds, have been deprived of basic human needs and rights including parental and child care supports, I worry about the people dubbed as privileged. I remember way back when that many parents hid in their basements or their attics or with their pills or other kinds of addictions; the fact was that parenting on one’s own or without enough assistance and nurturing, was just too much. It was just too much also because expectations from their own childhoods or from the larger often perfectionistic and judgmental culture, could be merciless in pointing fingers either at their children’s failures or at their lack of completely joy in what for many was way too lonely a vocation.
Right here in the realm of feeling and being and acting like toddlers I’d like to suggest equalizing the playing field, and being a little less quick to judge. Please trust me, I know how hard this can be which only means we need understanding, compassion and recuperation after the fact, after we have been too quick to be snarky or smirky or just plain mean, either to each other or to ourselves. If — a big “if” I know — we can meet in the middle, we might make room for all of us going crazy because of the demands of parenting — and the demands, not to forget, of being a child, a toddler no less. (Preferably this going crazy doesn’t have to happen all at once.) I use the term even when I’m the grandma here, because I still identify with the toddlers that are my grandkids, my children and myself as well.
Lest we forget, we have seen toddlers in positions of vast power, like you know the Presidency of our country. We have the toddlers who are us, insisting on our sides of a given argument, all citing the proofs that impress us and discarding and making fun of the evidence of anyone who disagrees. We are so adept in the use of words that we utilize to drown out objections, and many of our retorts have become all too practiced. It can happen to the best of us.
The toddler parts of children won’t be quieted as in integrated in meaningful ways if they have no practice in being heard and listened to and respected. I know this also because my own toddlerhood has lived on enough to inform me — to alert me — when I sense it as hyperactive not only inside me but also in those I love.
So, to all, to toddlers of all ages — the inner and the outer ones, Happy Valentines Day. Here’s to recognizing there is an inner toddler in all of us, like it or not. To all of them and all of us, how about a little chocolate to top things off?
A psychotherapist, a New Yorker living between Colorado and Italy (in good times) I am passionate about the role of emotions and awareness for evolving, sanity.