When my toddler is mid-tantrum, all she can hear is a heart pounding in her head. It’s pretty scary for her, if you think about it. At that point, words have no hope of getting logic through – over the shoulder she must go.
But! When I manage to catch her ear before a disagreement escalates, that’s when we share some of our most advanced communication. It happens in the infamous margin of time where she’s not being “bad” or “good,” but simply testing boundaries – an instinct that, while draining, is important to her developmental job description. During this time she pretends to ignore me, but is, in fact, very interested in my reactions. In short, she’s casually taking note of everything I say.
I’ll give you an example from just this week:
As a special treat, I decide to let my daughter watch a show during dinner – but only if she really eats. Predictably, she makes it two bites into a carrot then goes dead-handed and saucer-eyed. Hmm. Maybe this deal wasn’t one of my best ideas.
Pause the show, and she immediately whines and whimpers. I explain that all she has to do is chew and swallow her carrot and I’ll turn it back on. She demands crackers. Aha! I note this means she does want to eat, so we’re not going to debate whether she’s hungry. She also wants to negotiate – but on this, I do not.
So I say, "You eat what’s for dinner because that was the deal." She counters, "I’ll eat nothing and whine until you give me back my show or I’ll eat nothing and whine until your hair is gray." (Well, in so many words.)
And here’s the part where it’s clear we’re having a power struggle, because I know my daughter, and I know she would rather be eating a carrot and watching her show than be hungry and watch nothing. I am sure of this, and were she actually comparing those options, she would agree and give up her strike. Problem is, when she’s fixated on testing her ability to get exactly what she wants, she’s unable to consider any alternative. So I have to tease her into actually visualizing it.
"Really, babe?" I tickle her to break the spell she’s put herself under. "You really couldn’t enjoy yourself chomping on a carrot while watching your favorite show? You would rather sit alone and do nothing and have a tummy ache?"
I continue, and the more vividly I describe the option I’m pushing, the more it becomes a real temptation. Soon it’s no longer worth the work of testing Mama’s boundaries, because in this case, Mama is offering a pretty good deal.
By this point it’s clear only pride is preventing her from chomping at the carrot I’m dangling, so I spur her a bit by making it fun for her to change her mind. "Let’s play a new game." I say while crouching playfully close. "I’ll leave the carrot right here and walk away. When we hear you crunch into it, Mommy and Daddy will race each other to hit play." She takes the bait. Dinner is eaten and enjoyed in peace.
Now for the caveats.
First, this only works because my daughter can project herself into the scene I’m describing – i.e. she has a healthy imagination. Children naturally do, but they have to fight to keep it. As a mom I try to help by treating my kid’s inner world as real, even when it’s not convenient. By that I mean, I don’t just play along with the cute things she dreams up and dismiss everything that scares her – I recognize her right to rehearse feelings and situations that make her uncomfortable. By practicing stressful situations, she’s preparing herself to encounter obstacles in the non-imaginary world, and that’s something I want to support.
So when her fantasies show an uglier face, I don’t deny the monster and with it, the power of her imagination. But I remind her that her monsters exist in a world where she’s in charge. She can tell them they have to be nice, she can banish them from her room with a magic spell.
You can see this approach takes a fair amount of patience, and I admit to not always having the time or energy for all that dialogue. But whenever possible, I aim to give my daughter the tools to calm herself, so she can confront unpleasant feelings without the panic that leads to a meltdown. And because I know that, with a robust imagination under the hood, her mind will be able to visit the outcomes of different hypotheticals and hopefully make the best choice.
The other caveat? No matter what, this technique won’t work all the time. Nothing does. If one of us is too tired or hungry to cooperate, forget it – someone’s gonna cry and that’s not the end of the world either. But giving this a chance is always worth the effort, because when it does work we both feel the pride of a game well played.