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Airplane Thoughts on Parenting a Toddler (with emotions)

Norah is in this emotional stage where at times the littlest (to me) thing will set her off. The other day she dumped her entire salami packet in her car seat and crying asked me to buy a new car because of it. It’s funny now but it was not in the moment.

“Yeah, we’ll go buy a new car because you spilled your salami” I replied sarcastically.

Not my proudest moment.

While this stage has been my favorite, it has also been one of, if not the, most emotionally draining yet. The “mood swings” often throw my body into a whirlwind and the lack of control sends my heart into a rapid rhythm.

How do you “control” an out of “control” human who is experiencing these new things called emotions for the first time, I wonder? (pst- we can't).

While flying back home a couple days ago, Norah was entertained with a little sticker craft and I had a miraculous 5 minutes of journal time. I've been reflecting about this stage a lot lately. The perspective so many well meaning people have shared with me hasn’t fully done it for me. The “just distract them”. Then there's the parenting is hard so numb it with Netflix and wine. It doesn’t feel right and doesn't cut it for me.

It seems a lot of adults don’t appear to have the emotional intelligence to process/manage/ honor emotions ( myself included- I’m constantly working on this and desperately want to be better). Could this be at least a part of why? From the time we’re toddlers we’re distracted with a snack or shiny object to deflect our emotions (because it’s uncomfortable for the adult..?!), instead of naming it, relating and being a source and model of calm and emotional safety.

I try to focus on why I’m triggered (for lack of a better, less overused word) in these moments. Paying attention to why my body does what it does when my amazing toddler “loses her mind” when her little potted sunflower seed tips over. I process through why it drives me crazy. I’m the adult after all. It’s not fair or realistic to place my own peace of mind on her emotionally stability.

So, back to what hit me during those magical 5 minutes of journal time on the plane. This stage, is just that. It’s a stage. It’s a normal and necessary part of development. Just like all of parenting, it’s messy and beautiful and what if I could shift my perspective on these behaviors that cause my heart to beat a bit (or a lot) more rapidly, and find beauty in it. To find the honor in guiding her through what she's feeling. Because again, it’s developmentally appropriate. “Good” kids in our culture are the ones who don’t act out, don’t cry, don’t whine. But it’s not realistic.

So, here’s what I’m thinking and trying. Just like parenting in general, it’s an absolute gift. It’s an indescribable honor. And it is the biggest responsibility. We literally are guiding a little human and sending the world a (hopefully) confident, strong, kind, empathetic human to put their mark in the world. So what I’m trying is to reframe my perspective on these behaviors. She’s trying to navigate this new experience of feeling an unfamiliar thing and learning what to do with it. She’s not bad. She’s not trying to be manipulative. Not saying this is going to be easy, but realizing why is everything. As her parents, it’s our job to help her navigate these new emotions. Not numb, not distract, but model how to respond in these emotions.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying it’s as simple as that and that’s all we have to do. But I am saying that instead of chalking up an “irrational” response to the typical cultural lingo of the “terrible twos” or “threenager”, what if we as adults (with developed brains capable of regulating, unlike the 3 year olds) shifted our perspective to recognize that it’s like any other stage of development like learning to roll over, walk etc. Honoring it and modeling healthy ways of navigating my own emotions will prepare her while getting frustrated and modeling distraction doesn’t set her up for effectively managing emotions later on.

It makes me think about the bigger picture. What impact would being raised with a healthy model of emotional regulation do for a child and therefore on the world? How many common issues we see in our world today would be solved if we were able to recognize, honor, and respond to emotions in a healthy way? It starts now. I’m still learning myself, but deeply hope I’m able to be an effective and healthy model of this for Norah and shift my thinking to see her emotions as the beautiful things they are- a normal part and gift of our human experience.

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