Mindfulness and toddlers sounds like two words that really shouldn’t go together. Toddlers are like the stick that is constantly poking the wasp’s nest, inevitable disruption and chaos looking to surface at any given moment. Zen-like states are a well and truly a forgotten, distant memory. And that is the reason why parents of toddlers (and other adults coming into contact with toddlers for that matter) need mindfulness more than almost anyone else.
It’s amazing to think that in what almost seems another life, I thought I was pretty calm and peaceful in my approach to life. I thought I had my emotions under control and not much knocked me off balance. Enter baby no1!!! God did I have a lot to learn.
Understanding first something about brain development in young children sounds utterly boring no doubt, but stay with it, it can be really useful understanding. Babies and young children are quite literally a bundle of raw survival needs and evolutionary urges. Our brains are made up of essentially different ‘layers’. At the core are our ‘reptilian’ brains. This is in evolutionary terms the oldest part of our brain and is all about survival. The needs to eat, have shelter, have a social group that accepts us, to reproduce all come from here. Then we have our limbic system which is our instinctual emotional drives. When we feel that strong surge of anger, love, disgust, that’s all coming from this area. The limbic system is all about what we want here and now (sound like any small people you know?), it’s a very instant system which doesn’t take consideration of long-term goals or what is best for us (or others). The last ‘layer’ of our brains is the cerebral cortex. This is what’s seen as the ‘human’ brain. The fascinating neural network and prefrontal cortex which is responsible for our planning, reasoning, logical thinking, and crucially, the part that keeps the other ‘layers’ in check so that we don’t go running riot (at least most of the time anyway).
Our advanced cognitive abilities are dependent on the cerebral cortex and the prefrontal cortex is especially crucial in keeping our emotions and behavioural reactions in check. Frontal lobe development however is not complete until late adolescence and brain development in general can really be seen as continuing throughout our lives (at a slower rate as we get older though). Every time we create a new habit and go outside of our automatic responses, we are creating new neural pathways in the brain.
A really good website for learning more about your baby’s brain is http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/brain-development/baby-brain-map.html and for a really simple video tutorial of understanding the brain see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw (don’t worry it’s only 2.5 minutes long and uses visuals to help understand the brain!)
So how do we help support our toddlers with their raw, unprocessed emotions, tap into and develop the wealth of their potential, particularly in the prefrontal cortex? The ultimate answer is that we show them how to do it by modelling it ourselves. Not the easy answer I know. Their brains are like a huge sponge at this age and will soak up the behaviour that is on display to them, good or bad. Its basically this magic thing called ’emotional regulation’ that you may have come across. Below are some mindfulness strategies to help us adults engage the prefrontal cortex and weather the storm of the toddler….
If we sense we’re in a toddler tantrum storm, the first thing to steady ourselves is to ‘ground’ ourselves so we don’t get lost out in the storm. We do this by feeling (sensing) the contact between our feet and the ground, or our legs and body on a chair. Feel what is here. Maybe you can feel the sock or your shoe, perhaps different parts of your body making more contact than other parts. Perhaps the roughness or smoothness of a chair fabric. Perhaps the holes in the socks that you haven’t got round to replacing yet. Breathe as you make this contact. You are not lost out in the storm like your child. You are standing (or sitting) firm, strong, steady, rooted.
Make yourself into a weather dial
This is the time to check in with yourself, asking what’s here now? You allow yourself to become open to what physical sensations are present (if you’re like me it may be gritted teeth and a tight chest!), what emotions are bubbling up (anger – the really pure stuff, overwhelmed), what thoughts are here (the ‘why me?’ and ‘why is my child like this?’ stuff amongst others). Comparisons to weather can be really helpful. What’s our weather right now? Dark and stormy, with a threat of thunder, or maybe cloudy, overcast and feeling like we can’t do this anymore.
Divert the wave
When its more of a minor irritation or issue, you’ve managed to catch it pretty early one, or your child isn’t in the throes of excessive hunger or tiredness etc, you may be able to ‘divert the wave’. I increasingly think of human emotions in terms of energy and use the comparison of water. If we’re feeling low or depressed we might be like a stream with water trickling through it. If we’re feeling enraged we’d probably be more like the force of a tidal wave. So for most of us, toddler emotions often feel like the latter, and if caught early enough we might just be able to divert the course of the wave. Instead of meeting the tidal wave head on (‘No for the millionth time you cannot have the b***** blue plate because you broke it last week!!’) we try and divert, and this can feel similar to distraction. So people often talk about distracting, but in diverting we acknowledge the pain and frustration of our child, and from a place of love and compassion if we can muster the energy (‘I know you really wanted the blue plate, I’m sorry that it’s not here. Let’s go and sit in the lounge and have a picnic on your blanket instead’). And suddenly (when it works anyway!), we’ve diverted the tidal wave and your toddler is bouncing along with all that energy and taking it to a more appropriate outlet. Well done you.
Weather the storm
So we all know what I mean by saying your child has got to the ‘point of no return’. The tantrum is in full swing. You’ve probably done or said one or two unwise things (ok, maybe a few hundred) that haven’t helped the situation (that’s because you’re human you know?). If you’re lucky you might be at home alone with no audience and no neighbours for miles. If you’re really unlucky you’re in the middle of a packed shopping centre with seemingly endless judging faces.
But there’s hope.
Maybe you’ve tried diverting and it’s not working. What’s left now is to weather the storm. By that I mean sit tight, hold on for dear life and wait for that thunderstorm to pass. And it will pass, even if your child is particularly ‘wilful’ and it feels never-ending. And the most important part of this? Dear god, don’t leave your child out in the storm alone to weather it. This is overwhelming at best and terrifying at worst. So we join them in any way we can. We tell them we’re sorry for what’s upset them and that we couldn’t fix it/give them what they want/buy the whole toyshop etc. We sit close to them, hold their hand, put a steady hand on their heart or back, whatever we can. We show them that we will weather the storm with them. This is raw unprocessed emotion but we can handle this, together. And somehow, the storm passes, the tidal wave crashes, and we’re starting to notice the sun peaking out from behind a cloud.
By Dr Sarah Maynard