Things I Wish I Knew – A Difficult Toddler Phase

I’m writing this post with a slight bit of embarrassment and shame in my parenting of Ella over the last year and a half. While that is hard to get out; I am also writing this post specifically to any parents out there who have ever felt like you have no freaking idea what you are doing. I used to feel this way mainly in the newborn stage, but as Ella has grown older and started to get into more difficult issues (like moving from weird colored poops into not feeling included by friends) I notice that I tend to feel this way more and more often. So, if this is also you, I’m here for you and you are not alone.

Photo by Sarah Whitney Photography

Ella pretty much breezed through the “terrible two” phase you always hear about. We had little to no issues outside of the usual learning to share and learning to not hit that every toddler at this age seems to go through. However, when she hit three she basically became an entirely different kid overnight. It was like her emotions suddenly caught up to her and she would feel them so intensely without being able to express them to us and ask for help. Her meltdowns were insane and would often last for over an hour. I sometimes felt like she was possessed! At the same time, she began transitioning out of taking naps. This made her overly tired especially on the hard days of many meltdowns, and would cause her to wake up at night.

Photo by Sarah Whitney Photography

As her third year went on, we were not seeing much reprieve no matter what tactics I tried and how many parenting books and articles I read. I began to worry something deeper may be going on with her. In March, during the Covid shutdown, we hit an all time low. She was so close to turning four and we had of course set an unrealistic expectation that everything would be better once she turned four. She was devastated by the shutdown, the closing of her school, dance, and not getting to see her loved ones. Looking back, I now can see how much this contributed to her worsening behavior and meltdowns. We had discussed the idea of seeking professional help for a few months at this point and finally decided to go for it in March. Why is it so hard as parents (and adults, really) to accept we might need help every once in a while?

Photo by Sarah Whitney Photography

We met both with her pediatrician and a parent coach/therapist. We were terrified. When you research excessive/prolonged tantrums in children nearing four, you will basically find nothing but extreme advice relating to ADHD and other problems. But we started anyway, just meeting with them ourselves rather than involving Ella right off the bat. The advice they gave was not ground breaking. It was not necessarily things we hadn’t already thought of ourselves. It was however, slightly harsh and gave us the push we needed to start getting our girl back on track.

I am by NO means the expert here. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go and have even begun seeing new issues arise as we continue to help her with her emotions and meltdowns. I’d like to share with you a few pieces of advice we were given and a few things that we came up with on our own that have worked for Ella. I know every kid is different, but again, this post is mainly just to remind you that we are all in this together and parenting is dang tough no matter what you are dealing with!

Watch Your Words/The Drunken Toddler

The best advice we received from the parent coach was also one of the funniest things I’ve heard in parenting. When Ella would be 30 minutes into a meltdown, instead of letting her cry it out/scream it out/calm down on her own; I would try to reason with her and talk her through it. This did not work. Not even once. The parent coach suggested we look at Ella as though she were a drunk person we were trying to get home safe. Much like a drunk person, trying to reason with her when she is in that state will get us nowhere. We also realized that certain words would trigger Ella to freak out even more. The more we avoided those, the better off everyone was.

Tough Love

This one came from our pediatrician and was the push I mentioned earlier. When Ella is mid meltdown, I often feel like crying as well. All I want is to help her out of her situation; but intervening before she’s been able to calm down always ends in an extra 30 minutes of torture for us both. I’ve learned that I can be a very angry mom in that moment and I tend to yell even when I don’t mean to. I have to later come back and apologize to my four year old, which is humbling to say the least. Also, intervening to help her resulted in making myself her one and only crutch. For the longest time I was the only one that could help her calm down which made it awful for anyone else taking care of her. Our pediatrician suggested putting her in a safe place (her room) for as long as it took for her to calm down on her own. As hard as that was (it was basically like entering a cry it out method period for your baby all over again), it was exactly what she needed to gain some coping skills and realize that she was often making it much more worse than it needed to be. This took away her power to control the lives of everyone in our family and instead made her focus on herself to be able to rejoin us. I think I ultimately needed that approval from our doctor to know it was ok to let her handle it on her own sometimes.

The Calm Down Box

I came up with this concept as an alternative to the tough love/screaming in her room method. As Ella has gotten older, she seems to have a better mental capacity to use distractions and reflect on how she is feeling as a better way to calm down. I also like this better, as I don’t have to listen to my beloved daughter scream and cry alone. My one piece of advice is to use it very sparingly, otherwise you will find your child asking for it all the time which is obviously besides the point.

In our calm down box – yes it’s inspired by T swift!:

  • Stress ball
  • Bubbles
  • Calm down bottles
  • Notebook with a pen

Ella will use the distractions to help get to a calm and reasonable demeanor. She will then “write” about how she felt in that moment in her notebook. This is usually just a scribble drawing but my hope is that it will start a good habit for her future self.

Extra Love and Reassurance

After all is said and done, I’ve come to realize that Ella needs extra love and attention especially after a meltdown. She really thrives on reassurance and wants to know you aren’t mad at her for feeling strong feelings or getting upset (even if I maybe am sometimes). The important things to always remember when you are going through a tough phase are what a great kid you have, that it’s perfectly normal to have hard stages, and that it will eventually end. Or maybe just move on to something even harder, because that’s what parenting is, I’m told. Seek help when you need it and remember kids are hard (especially toddlers!). You’ve got this and I’m here for you if you ever want to vent or chat!

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