Everyone loves babies! So precious. So sweet. So innocent. What a gift!
But just as soon as they get their legs under them, the warnings flood in.
“Uh-oh, watch out.”
“You’re in trouble now.”
“Here come the terrible twos.”
“If you think two is bad, wait until you have a threenager.”
Somehow in the span of just a few short months on earth, innocence gives way to deviance. And if you listen to the messaging, what you hear is that your sweet and innocent baby is now your adversary. He’s out to push your buttons, test your limits, and overthrow your home. She will see what she can get away with and try to be the boss.
What are you going to do about it, huh?
Well, if you’re a good parent, they tell you, then you’ll get a handle on them quickly. You’ll show ‘em who’s boss. You’ll nip those naughty behaviors in the bud and run that home of yours with an iron fist.
Because that sweet baby has become a tyrant.
Sounds crazy, I know, but think about it. Listen to the narrative surrounding young children and think about how this messaging influences the way you view their behavior and how you treat them.
Maybe the labels we have pinned on young children, such as “terrible twos,” “tyrannical threes,” and “fearsome fours” distort the lens through which we see them.
What if the messaging is wrong?
What if innocence is not lost?
What if our children have no ill intent?
The majority of the “problem behavior” that we see in young children is because we are looking through a distorted lens. It’s really that we are assigning negative intent to developmentally normal behaviors.
Dr. Becky Bailey, author of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, says, “When you attribute negative intent to others, you subtly attack them. You actually implant a feeling of danger in others every time you try to make them feel bad, wrong, or responsible for your upset, and this sense of being in danger usually creates conflict, as the other person becomes defensive, not cooperative.”
We can choose to perceive positive intent instead, thus rewriting the narrative about young children and their behavior.
Negative intent says they are manipulating us through tantrums. What if, instead, we perceive they are overwhelmed with emotions and need comforting?
A basic understanding of brain development is extremely helpful in helping us switch our lens and see positive intent.
Let’s divide the brain into parts - lower, mid, and upper regions.
- The lower region is the brainstem, and this is fully developed at birth. It is responsible for regulating breathing, digestion, sleeping, etc.
- The mid region is the limbic system, the emotions center. This is developing rapidly in those early years and what is governing your young child’s behavior.
- The upper brain houses the “thinking brain” where logic, reasoning, and emotional regulation take place, and takes decades to fully mature (around age 25).
So, we know now that young children do not have the mental capacity to formulate a deceitful plan of manipulation. This would require use of a part of the brain that is barely online at this age, much less fully functional. Rather, they are guided and driven by their emotional centers, and because it is also still quite immature, it is easily overwhelmed.
Tantrums are a developmentally normal emotional release when the child’s brain feels flooded with big feelings. Punishing a tantrum cannot make a brain develop faster, but there are things parents can do to lessen tantrums.
- Stick to a routine as much as possible. Make sure young children get adequate sleep, play, and nutrition as hunger and sleep deprivation are triggers.
- Use a calm-down area with soothing sensory items such as pillows, playdough, crayons, SnuggleBuddies, etc. to help your child calm their overwhelmed minds and bodies.
- Replace Time-Outs with Time-Ins to begin teaching emotional regulation. The Time-In ToolKit has everything you need to teach social and emotional skills. In a Time-In, the parent or caregiver stays with the child to co-regulate, which lays the foundation for that child to self-regulate in the future.
- Adjust your expectations. With a basic understanding of where your child is developmentally, you’ll be able to show more empathy and support through these overwhelming moments.
Negative intent says they are testing our authority. What if, instead, we perceive that they are attempting to get a need met in the only way they know how?
You’re probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Each one builds upon the next.
Once we meet the physiological needs of a child - food, water, sleep, shelter - they will seek to get their safety needs met. If we provide security, they will move to get their emotional needs met. This is where a lot of us get hung up. The need for belonging, attachment, and connection is so strong that we cannot move on to esteem needs for achievement, self-respect, independence, etc. until our emotional needs are met. If they are, we move onto esteem and eventually self-actualization.
But, if at any time, a child feels that one of these needs aren’t being met, they will act to get it met in the best way they know how according to what stage of development they are in. This might mean they display what we perceive as negative attention-seeking or defiant behaviors. This is where we can switch to positive intent, which will help us refocus on meeting the needs of our children rather than on punishing the symptom behavior.
Negative intent says they are defying us. What if, instead, we perceive that they are developing autonomy?
Self-determination theory suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate and universal psychological needs - autonomy, competence, and connection to others. If we are too controlling, children’s counterwill instinct will be triggered and they will naturally fight for their autonomy. We can minimize power struggles and support this need by:
- Creating an environment that supports autonomy.
- Providing rationale and explanation for family rules.
- Validating and supporting children’s feelings and opinions.
- Encouraging them to make choices.
- Supporting them through challenges without rescuing too quickly.
It’s important to remember that the same sweetness and goodness you saw in your infant is still there. No matter if a child is two, twelve, or twenty-two, they can always be our bundle of joy if we choose to perceive them that way.
Let’s get rid of the negative labels and choose to see the positive intent in our children’s behaviors. Children are never terrible - only misunderstood. We can rewrite the narrative so that all people, regardless of age and development, are treated with love, dignity, and respect.
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