“My toddler screams when her 4 year old sister ‘bugs’ her. What to do?”
It makes sense that when a toddler uses screaming to protest, it can be jarring for you – and especially so if you’re worrying about neighbours being disturbed.
I suspect that this isn’t an easy ‘one day fix’ situation but it’s going to take time to bring the change you need.
So here’s eight tips towards dealing with this challenge.
1. Create in your mind a clear picture of what you DO want instead of this screaming behaviour. It’s obvious that you want ‘calm’ but what does this ‘calm’ look and sound like on a day to day basis?
Try finishing these sentence stems for yourself:
‘I want to feel … ‘ (Find three words to describe how you’d like to feel with your children).
‘I’d like the atmosphere in our home to be …’ (Find three words to describe how you’d like the atmosphere to be).
When you have a clear picture of what you’d like home to be like you’ll have a point of reference to steer towards during the frustrating moments.
2. How we think about any situation is likely to impact how we react or respond. If we’re thinking ‘This is awful’ / ‘I can’t cope.’ / ‘I don’t know what to do.’ – we’re going to add to our own stress levels, which means we’ll be pushing cortisol into our own systems and be less likely to think clearly and create the results we really want. Remind yourself that this is an opportunity for learning and that you can figure out what’s needed. As one wise grandmother said,’This too shall pass.’ Just knowing this is a phase can help you to stay calmer, and think more clearly about what’s needed.
3. A toddler’s brain is still ‘under construction’. The reasoning part of her brain that expresses itself through language is not yet adequately formed. This means that when she’s overwhelmed she’s likely to scream or lash out. Trying to reason, particularly when she’s upset, won’t work.
4. I’m not saying that letting her scream, or giving her whatever she wants, is the answer. Very often the most helpful course of action is to distract her or to rechannel her energy.
5. We may wonder if it will be helpful to ignore behaviour that bugs us. What matters is that we ‘listen to the behaviour’. What is she trying to express through this behaviour?
Perhaps at different times her behaviour is trying to say:
‘I need a bit of space from my sister.’
‘I want to do this MYSELF. I don’t want my big sister to do it for me. ‘
‘I feel overwhelmed when….’
Reflect on how you might respond to her need if she could express it in words.
6. So what do we do instead? Firstly try to pre-empt the situation. One tool that helps with this is to keep a brief diary – recording the upsets. Record details like:
What time of day (e.g. early morning, supper time)
What else was happening? What’s the outcome?
Just as a diary can be a useful tool to discover food allergy problems, once you start recognising the pattern, you’ll have a sense of what’s causing the eruptions. It’s likely you’ll find that the upsets often happen around a transition time – when the family is moving from one activity to another. When you can identify the causes, you’ll be able to figure out what’s needed.
7. This is not just about your toddler, it’s also about your four year old. Ask yourself, ‘In what way/s is this working for her?’
‘What might her behaviour be trying to tell me?’ When you’re calm reflect on what her needs might be: perhaps some time alone with you?
8. It could be helpful to involve your four year old in helping you to find solutions to this challenge. If she feels part of creating a solution, she’s more likely to co-operate. See my YouTube clip ‘Power Struggle’ for more about this.
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