Way back in 2009, I wrote my very first Parenting Toolbox article: How to be a Supermodel. I was parenting a freshly minted toddler and wanted to highlight the importance of being a good role model – of consistently demonstrating the qualities and behaviors I wanted to see in my child. Well, easier said than done when your kiddo is, ah, spirited. It’s easy to regulate your own emotions when life is going smoothly. But when there are meltdowns, toileting accidents, and defiance, it can be significantly more challenging (which is often when you have a one-, two-, or three-year-old!).
If your kids are still little, I’m here to share some tidbits in this farewell article (yes, it’s time for me to move on – it’s been a good run) about the parallels between toddlers and teens. Get ready to model those emotional regulation skills once your child is a teenager because there are many similarities. Here are a handful of them, along with some ways you might want to prepare and/or respond:
- They are going through a period of rapid development. While the first three years of life are when the human brain grows and changes the most, adolescence is a close second. It is not only a time for tremendous changes in the brain, but a time of great physical and emotional growth too. Knowing this, and that they are phases that begin and end, can help you get through them.
- They have a strong need for independence and autonomy. Toddlers want to “do it myself!” and teenagers want you to get off their backs because they already know that. In both scenarios, you are called upon to get clear about your boundaries, discern what you will address regarding safety, and decide what to ignore so you can get out of the way as they grow in leaps and bounds.
- They may experience frequent dysregulation and (potentially) big emotions. Littles typically lose their ability to manage themselves quite often – in part due to that previously mentioned rapid brain development. Teens can experience the exact same. And while it’s not particularly cute in a toddler, it is decidedly less cute in an older child. This can impact our tolerance and patience. Whether your kid is big or little, they are likely doing their best, even when they yell, whine, and cry. Hang in there.
- They are really into risk-taking. Both toddlers and teens seek out risks and challenges on a regular basis. They are constantly looking to improve their skills and abilities and taking risks keeps them on their growth edge. Again, clear boundaries and limits will keep everyone sane. Another strategy is to ensure that your child (whether they are three or 13) gets age-appropriate, relatively safe ways to explore healthy risktaking. As Teacher Tom says, there is a “right number of boo-boos.” Meaning that no injuries indicates there has been zero risk – and that is not good for kids either.
- They tend to focus on themselves as the center of the universe. It is another feature of both stages of development that your child, well, thinks mostly of themself. They aren’t doing this to be jerks. It truly is a feature of these time periods. At these ages, many children truly struggle to consider others. That doesn’t mean you should stop
teaching empathy, perspective-taking, and kindness. It just means you might not want to take it personally if you feel like a broken record while modeling these behaviors.
The good news is that you have a significant opportunity to practice partnering with and guiding your child when they are little, which will one hundred percent serve you 10-ish years later when it seems like you’re in a serious Groundhog Day parenting situation. Things will eventually shift. If your child is little, know that every bit of energy you put into your own self-regulation as they move from toddlerhood to preschool prepares you for the future. And if your child is older, just remember that you’ve already been through a similar phase once before!
Sarah MacLaughlin is a parent coach, social worker, and child development nerd. She is author of two books for parents and caregivers: What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and Raising Humans With Heart: Not a How-To Manual. She is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Follow on IG: @sarahmaclaughlin and learn more at sarahmaclaughlin.com.