Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Emotional Life of the Toddler, a review

via amazon
Let me preface this by saying, I have very mixed feelings about this book. I think it really influenced me and my parenting, which is the mark of a good book. But I also was rolling my eyes so hard at some points, I thought they would come out of my face. And then I quit reading it. Much of the eye-rolling is because she seems pretty heavily influenced by psychoanalytic theory (Freudian stuff). Which I'm like, uh, really? Seriously? No, seriously? His stuff is interesting, but not really grounded in research or science. It is sort of dumb. She isn't explicit about it, but you see it come out in her psychosexual developmental ideas, which are just nutso if you ask me. So I'm going to ignore all those parts and just tell you about the influential parts of this book.
If adults experienced and enacted the full range of feelings available to an average toddler in the course of a day, they would collapse from emotional exhaustion or be diagnosed with the weighty psychiatric label of "emotionally liable."
The book does a good job of helping parents to realize that kids aren't acting out because they are (a) demon spawn, (b) manipulative, or because (c) you are a terrible parent. But when you think it is one of those things, you tend to react in ways that make things worse for both of you. (sounds a lot like the acceptance and self compassion parts of mindfulness, right?)

Instead, toddlers are tasked with understanding some pretty gigantic concepts (how to move around, how to communicate, how to be independent and stay safe at the same time) with pretty limited support from their nascent prefrontal cortex.

This doesn't mean we should just pat them on the back, say "there, there" and let them do whatever they want (see also, self compassion doesn't mean letting yourself off the hook). Your job is to gently guide them, provide safe boundaries (similar to the cadre model discussed in Bringing up Bebé), and be their secure base so they have the confidence to explore.
This wish for approval is the parent's most reliable ally in the process of socializing the child. Appealing to it is far more effective and much healthier than threats of punishment....Parents need to be careful not to squander the gift of their child's innate wish to please them. Toddlers whose parents are too critical can experience difficulties in their emotional development. Such toddlers can be excessively worried about losing love and may become overly compliant. 
I liked this because it was a good reminder that your kids, deep down, are good people and want to make you happy. They aren't manipulative or wild animals you need to tame. So maybe don't beat the crap out of them or emotionally manipulate them (ahem, Gary Ezzo, author of Baby/Toddler/Child Wise series (hint: if even James Dobson thinks you suck? you need to reevaluate your methods, Gary); Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of To Train Up A Child; i.e., religiously based book that suggest you beat/starve/punish the "evil" right out of your children).

Lieberman also described what I've always noticed, that 18-24 months of age are THE WORST. She says this is because between 12-18 months they are focused on mobility and the new found autonomy it gives them. Once they sort of get the hang of getting around, then they are no longer sufficiently distracted from the fact that they want a lot of stuff and can't really communicate it very well. Hence all the freaking out.

This book makes a good point about how the disappointment that characterizes this part of toddlerhood is actually healthy because by facing it, they realize that they can feel it "without falling apart forever." And if we constantly step in to prevent or alleviate that disappointment, we aren't allowing them to get that sense of mastery. She also points out that by trying to always get your toddler's permission to do anything (e.g., leave the park, go to bed, etc.) you actually rob the child of the chance to dislike something and protest it. You are forcing them to please you just as much as the parent that beats their kid for crawling off the blanket (that is a To Train Up A Child suggestion, btw). It is sort of an ambiguous line to walk though, allowing your child to feel negative feelings while also knowing when to step in and help. You don't want to overburden them, but provide just enough assistance that they can build a sense of mastery and autonomy.

There is also some interesting discussion in the book on temperaments (e.g., active children, shy children, easy going children) and what you can do to help or hurt them. My kids have a lot of "active" in them (which means I need to learn to accept that it is part of who they are, that they won't always be running around and screaming like maniacs, and I need to build in opportunities for them to be active) and a little bit of easy going (mostly Hannah; and I learned I need to not take advantage of that and expect more from her than she can handle, or expect less from Maggie because she is a little less easy going). I also learned that parents tend to be (mistakenly) more resistant to letting "intense kids" (e.g., Maggie) experience frustration because the parents were so traumatized by their colicky and demanding infancy. The big take home message from this section is that you can't parent every toddler exactly the same (which, duh. But at the same time, I think we frequently expect what works for one child, or our child, to work on another or somebody else's. And no. Just no.) Along those lines, a study of children who were identified as "active" respond better when their parents intervene less (aren't saying, slow down! or try this!) while kids who were not identified as active responded better when their parents intervened more frequently. So maybe stop judging that other parent at the playground for how she parents differently than you (I'm looking at you judgey parenting bloggers)??

Here is some other good advice from The Emotional Life of the Toddler
  • Letting your child know, "I am the one who decides that" can actually be very reassuring to a toddler.
  • However, negotiating is a actually healthy way for the children to learn about relationships/decision making and for the parents to reconsider a stance they took that was maybe not ideal.
  • Although, guilt can lead parents to over-negotiate, so you know, don't do that either.
  • It is better not to leave kids alone when they are having a tantrum (e.g., put them in their room and shut the door, walk away)
  • Intense children (ahem, Maggie) may need an intense response from their parent to impact their behavior. So, "honey, please don't" might not affect them as much as "I am angry! I need you to stop!"
  • She also said we need to drop the whole, "what about kids who are in daycare?" debate and ask the real question, what happens to kids in crappy daycare? Because kids of parents who can't afford consistent, quality substitute care is the real issue, not the stupid mommy wars in-fighting. So America, step up your game, start taking care of kids in poverty!!
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