Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Toddler Things

Can I just say how much I'm enjoying my very last toddler? I'm a big fan of toddlerhood in general, and it's my favorite stage (so far). It's at least the stage in which I'm the most confident and able to handle things the way I'd like to.


Sean's at the age when he is conceptual enough to be afraid of things. Which is, you know, good and bad. Yay for conceptual development! Boo for Things That Go Bump in the Night!

Lately, he's been afraid of robots, Zhu Zhus (robot hamsters), the smoke alarm, a spooky game on the Nick Jr website (which I talked about in our recent podcast), and loud sudden noises of all kinds. There are probably a few things I'm forgetting. Looking over this list, I notice a commonality: all of these things move or make sounds for no apparent reason. Huh.

Brendan has hit on a particularly brilliant way of helping Sean cope with his fears. He and I have always believed that the best strategy to dealing with and even overcoming a fear is to focus on related aspects that are under your control. You might still be afraid of spiders, but which is scarier--an encounter with a spider when you're in the kitchen and can trap it with an upside down glass (I have a friend who used to do this), or when you're standing in a corner of the house with no weapons or traps around of any kind? Aren't fears magnified when you also feel helpless in the face of them?

So our first tactic is to help the kid find some way to have some kind of control over the situation. With the scary computer game, I gave him the tool of "You have control over whether you choose this game. If it scares you, don't choose it. If you don't choose it, it can't scare you."

With the smoke alarm and robots and Zhu Zhus, Brendan thought of this: have Sean "help" fix them. So he'd take out the batteries and then show Sean that they couldn't turn on. That gave Sean a chance to look at them closely and touch them even without the added worry that they might suddenly move or emit a loud piercing noise. Brendan was very patient with this and gave Sean lots of time to come and see the objects.

Then Brendan explained that the object was wasn't working because the batteries were out, and we really wanted it to be working (so Morgan and Ryan could have their toys or because the smoke alarm helps protect our family). He asked Sean for his help in fixing the objects so that they'd work again. He had Sean hold the batteries and put them inside and even help screw on the lid to the battery compartment. Sean always likes to help do such things and even though he was still hesitant, he participated. Then Brendan would turn on the object and talk to Sean about it.

The next thing we knew, Sean is fighting with his siblings over playing with the robots and Zhu Zhus! And this morning, Sean said as we came down the stairs "Hi, Smoke Alarm!" and gave a little wave. I must note that Sean "recovered" from his fears more quickly than either of the others ever did, and I think this is partly due to his personality (stuff just blows over with him). So this is no guarantee.

This is a great strategy because it helps Sean feel supported and loved while we give him tools that he can use over and over again to learn how to cope with his fears independently. He is learning that if he investigates the source of his fears, he might find something interesting about it. He might learn more about how or why it works and as his knowledge of the Scary Thing grows, the mystery diminishes.

Introduction to Communication and Negotiation

Sean is developmentally and cognitively capable of learning problem-solving skills. His communication skills are more than adequate, too. One of the main things I've been doing with him lately is helping him learn the problem-solving lingo and walking him through the steps.

He is starting to tattle, for example. Did it just a little while ago. I can't expect him to play a real game of Tattling Tennis with me, though. He doesn't know the rules. Yet. Because he is young and relatively new at all this, I am more like the tennis coach who stands behind you and guides your hand and racket (does that really happen? I don't play tennis so I have no idea.).

So here's what happened. Morgan was playing his guitar. He wanted a turn and was screaming at her "NOOOO MORGAN!!!! MINE! MINE! NOOOOOO!" (Those of you who have owned or currently own a Toddler Model will recognize this universal speech pattern.)

Before I had a chance to intervene and help him ask in a better way, he came running up to me: "Morgan has my guitar! I want guitar! Morgan! AAAAAGGGGHHHH!" And then ran back to her and tried to smack the crap out of her.

I was right behind him (experienced mommy that I am) and stopped the hitting before it happened. I said to him "No! Don't hit Morgan. That will hurt her." And he started crying really hard.

I said to him "It sounds like you want a turn with your guitar, is that right?" Nodding sobs. "You need to tell that to Morgan. You can say 'Morgan, I'd like my guitar back, please.' and then she will know what you want. Why don't you try that?" 

So he sobbed out "Morgan want guitar back. Please." And she gave it back.

Yes, this is time-consuming. And repetitive. And repetitive. But this will pay off in spades in the next year or so.

Teaching him to talk to Morgan directly about his problem is the first step toward solving his own problems independently. If I had stepped in and said the words for him, he'd learn that my job is to get his stuff back from Morgan and/or handle his problem. And I do NOT want him to learn that. Instead, giving him the tools (words) he can use and having him try them out will arm him for future similar encounters. Standing there with him while he practices those tools helps him feel understood and supported.

You might wonder why I didn't address Morgan directly, but instead, handled all this with Sean right in front of her. I want her to see that Sean's concern is valid and that I support his asking for his property back. It's easy sometimes to look at a younger sibling as a non-human "pet" or even a human "servant" (as the oldest in my family, I know this to be very true!). Supporting Sean's property rights helps her to know that he is a full member of our family who has rights that need to be respected.

Also, I wanted her to see that I stopped him from hurting her and helped him find a better way to ask for it back, which demonstrates to her that I care about and respect her, too, and her right not to be hit. It gave her practice, too, in working out problems with him. She gave the guitar back, and managed her end of the negotiation independently from me.

That's good enough usually. However, after the interaction was finished, I took the opportunity to remind her that she can help Sean know better words to say, and that even though he started off by screaming at her, if she really knew what he wanted (and I'm sure she did!) that she should have returned the guitar immediately, perhaps saying "Here's your guitar Sean! Next time just say 'Can I have my guitar back, please?' "

My toddler guy keeps me busy, and part of me is a little tired of the repetitiveness (because I've also done this twice before), but for the most part it's fun. And I know from experience this time around that the work I put into this now will free up lots more time for me in the not-so-distant future. So that keeps me motivated, too. :)


Hanah said...

It sounds like we are going through a lot of the same things at the same times, but differently. Charlie has been experimenting with the idea of scary things lately. He hasn't actually been scared of stuff (except dogs), but he's started treating things as if they are scary when I can tell that he is not actually scared. This might be anything from a picture of a monster in a book, to his dad, to one of our cats. I think he's just playing with the idea of what it means for something to be scary and how one should react to that. He was very excited when I pointed out that he could be scary, and taught him a game where he growls and I pretend to be scared. I think it makes him feel powerful.

We are beginning to problem-solve, too, but we don't have sibling conflicts over here. Instead we have parent-child conflicts and, more frequently, conflicts between Charlie and an object (e.g. a stubborn shoe that won't go on his foot the right way). I've been working on teaching him to ask for help instead of melting down, or to approach the problem in a different way. We also had this hilarious conversation the other day:

Charlie (running into my room from the kitchen): I want yogurt!
Me: Daddy is in the kitchen. What did he say?
Charlie: Daddy say no.
Me: Daddy is in charge right now. If he said no, then the answer is no.
Daddy (shouting from the other room): He didn't even ask Daddy.
Me: Why don't you go ask Daddy for some yogurt?
Charlie: Ok.

Kate Yoak said...

The fears thing is very helpful, Jen. Lily has been going through a prolonged phase of "you are driving too fast". In general, it caught us by surprise that she is going through the phase at all because she is so fearless with things that she can control, scaring Alex to death with the things she does at the playground.

I haven't found a good way to address the driving fear though... I tell her, she is safe and give her my hand. But lately, she has recognized this as a patronizing maneuver and insists, "No, I am not! I am scared!" Perhaps, Brendan can fix her? :-)

On the tattle tennis... I've been thinking a lot about it since your post. I essentially do what you described with both kids. The problem is, it used to work great, and still has value - but they have learned that it's just a tactic directed against the offender. So, the guitar won't necessarily come back any more. If the item belongs to the offended party, I force the issue (which makes me uncomfortable) and compel the outcome I believe is fair. If it doesn't, we talk about taking turns, etc and use redirection. And you are right: it's loooong and repetitive... Still, works better than, "Would you two please stop screaming and figure out how to get along?!!!!!"

Jenn Casey said...

Hanah--that's so funny about the yogurt! I'm also trying to convince Sean that Daddy is perfectly capable of helping him out. :)

Kate--I don't see anything wrong with compelling the fair outcome after giving everyone to participate. If Morgan hadn't returned the guitar, then yes, I would have taken it from her gently and handed it to Sean. There is a time and place and manner for a parent to use coercion/force. (I wrote a post about this a year or so ago if you want the link.)

It's an unpleasant part of the job, but a necessary one, enforcing limits and sometimes compelling them to do the right thing. This never ever my first tactic, of course, and I give people lots and lots of chances to do the necessary/right thing on their own. But if they are unable or unwilling to do it, then I will intervene and kindly and firmly as I can.

I don't get the sense that my kids see the "tattling tennis" as a mere tactic to get the tattler to do what I want, maybe because I don't use it in that way. I mean, I'm not thinking to myself "I really want M to say XYZ so I'll say ABC." I'm thinking to myself "M needs some better ideas about how to handle her problem so I will suggest ABC." Maybe I'm not making sense here, but I'm really not trying to manipulate them into a particular outcome desired by me (unless I'm off my parenting game which happens sometimes). My focus is on the process of helping them gains tools and skills and not on the outcome of getting them to say or do something specifically.

I could be wrong though--they might see it as a "mom tactic" but even if they do, I'm not going to alter how I handle these situations so generally they have accepted this as a given and move on toward problem-solving.

Kate Yoak said...

You are right: as adults, we have a court system to adjudicate disputes we are unable to settle. In a sense, mommy is that system for kids. I think, I've been thinking and squirming more about it since your tattling tennis post. :-) As far as tactic... this is how I see it: the offender, when presented with a reasonable request from a sibling for the first time is surprised, and kind of caught red-handed in the unfairness of his action. After a while, as he gets used to the sibling using the civil approach, he is still mostly wrapped up in, "but I want the guitar - I don't care if you ask me nicely! Nor that it's yours. And I especially don't care that my actions are unfair. Because if they were - I would feel too bad about it to be hapy!" :-) That last one is a synthesis of multiple occasions on which Alex explained something was my fault because if it were his, it would make him feel too bad!