This month's question came from Carien in South Africa!
Q:"My 2 year old seems to be always whining about everything, and gives a sheer squeak scream when not getting his way. Things at home have been tense between me and my husband with anger and we have relocated recently. Could this all be a form of wanting more attention and our problems affecting him?"
A:Thanks for your question Carien. I was so excited to see a question come from South Africa!
I love your question because it touches on a couple of topics that so many parents struggle with. This first is the Terrible Two's and the second is how change impacts our children.
You asked if the relocation and the struggle in your marriage could be causing your child to have more tantrum-like behaviors. The simple answer is yes. The more complex answer is kind of.
As most things in parenting go, everything is intertwined. The change in location and the struggle in your marriage is definitely going to impact your child. That's the "yes" part. But your child's current developmental stage (i.e. the Terrible Two's) is also going to play into how he is managing his own emotions. That's the "kind-of" part.
The Impact of Stress on Children
Let's talk about how stress and tension in the home can cause your child to display unwanted behaviors. We can think of kids as barometers. They measure the tension of a room quite well. In my new book, The Art of Parenting, I discuss the natural anxiety that all children have. Anxiety is a normal emotion, and it's highly functional. Without anxiety, we wouldn't flee from dangerous situations, prepare for upcoming tasks, and so on. It's an important emotion for survival.
In young children, anxiety is frequently present and displays itself with crying and tantruming. If we think about it, for babies, crying is the only way they can communicate to us their fear and discomfort. Toddlers are not too different in this. Though toddlers have managed some language by the age of 2, their vocabulary is small and their ability to identify their own emotions and communicate those effectively is non-existent. As such, toddlers tend to revert to their baby-like ways by crying, throwing tantrums, and even displaying aggression.
One of the best ways to help reduce and eliminate this behavior is by utilizing routine and structure in your home environment, and consistency in your parenting. Making sure you have these things in place will help reduce the chances of your child acting out. But why is this so effective?
All people thrive with routine. Knowing what is going to happen and how it's going to happen gives a person a sense of control over their environment and life. When we lack routine, we tend to feel stressed, overwhelmed, irritable, anxious, and even depressed.
You mentioned that you and your spouse are experiencing marital tension right now due to your recent move. That's a perfect example of how a change in routine can upset the balance of your emotional life. The same goes for your child. His life has just turned upside down, and due to his young age, he's struggling to understand the "why" of it all. This translates into feelings of uncertainty (i.e. "Why is this happening? Why is everything changing? What's going to change next?!?"), and that uncertainty translates into anxiety.
If you've read my post on Managing Anger in Kids, you'll have learned how Anger is a secondary emotion. In order to have anger, you must first experience a primary emotion. One of those primary emotions is Fear (which is a form of anxiety). Anger is far more powerful and feels less vulnerable than fear. As such, children tend to shift to anger during times of stress. This causes those tantrum-like behaviors you've been witnessing.
Consistency is part of routine. You can't have a daily routine if you aren't consistent about it. The same goes for structure. You can't have a structured daily life if you don't have a daily routine that you maintain fairly consistently. Essentially, all 3 of these words are tapping into the same concept: familiarity.
Using Familiarity & Love to Re-establish the Balance
Hopefully, this has helped you to understand why your kiddo is struggling. Now, I want to help you identify some simple things you can do to help him find balance again. Given what we have already learned, these might seem a bit obvious:
1. Re-establish your routine
2. Provide Warnings for Upcoming Changes
3. Stay Consistent
4. Increase Quality Time
Let's take a look at the first one. Re-establishing your child's routine is the simplest thing you can do to help your son reduce his anxiety (and those behaviors you mentioned). Before moving, was there a daily routine for him? Did he have a specific wake-up time and/or bed time? Did he have meals around the same time every day? Did he nap around the same time every day? Did you take regular walks together or take him to a local park on a regular basis?
It doesn't matter what your past routine was, just try to replicate it now. The more you re-establish your old routines with your son, the easier it will be for him to adjust to all of the changes. If you didn't have a routine, there's no time like the present to create one! Remember that daily structure and routine help to reduce anxiety, which reduces stress, which then reduces the whining, tantruming, etc.
Now what about my second tip? What does it mean to provide warnings for upcoming changes? Well, this ties in to helping your child know what to expect, which will then help reduce the "fear of the unknown." Let me explain a little further....
Kids don't do well with sudden change. Shifting from one activity to another can be difficult, especially if you are shifting from a preferred activity to less a desirable one. In my November Q&A, I discussed how prompting your child when changes are about to occur can help improve compliance and reduce defiance. If you missed that Q&A, I would read it now (specifically Tips 1 & 2). Following these tips will help reduce the stress your child is feeling from all of the changes in his life.
Next, stay consistent. The more consistent you are, the more your child knows what to expect. This reduces that anxiety we've been talking so much about, and helps your child to feel more grounded despite all the change. I have a detailed blog post entitled, How to Achieve Parental Consistency, that will help you understand the 3 parts of being a consistent parent.
Now, let's look at our last tip which is to increase quality time. Quality Time can also be known as Attending. When we increase our attending practices with our children, we strengthen our Parent-Child Bond and create a positive family narrative.
In strengthening our parent-child relationship and creating a healthy family narrative, we provide reassurance to our children, making them feel more loved and more secure in their home environment. This, in turn, is going to help them feel a greater sense of stability and less fearful or anxious.
When you combine all 4 of these tips, you'll see that your son's behavior will begin to improve. Remember, you'll still be dealing with the regular Terrible Two's stuff, so don't expect an elimination of these unwanted behaviors until you tackle that part too!
Back in October, I did a blog post all about the Terrible Two's that provided some great information and tips on how to manage this developmental stage. If you missed it, you can read it now and combine those tips with the tips I gave you here. Following both will put you on the right path to eliminating these unwanted behaviors for your son.
When Can You Expect Improvements?
A final note for you is about timelines. Many parents ask me how long it will take before they start seeing improvements. Because all human beings are different, it's hard to put an exact number on this. What I can say, however, is that you should start seeing improvement after 2 to 4 weeks from the last "significant change." Let me explain a little more about that.
When I say "significant change," I mean any life-altering situation. So, the relocation was a significant change for your son. When you moved, there should have been about 2 to 4 weeks worth of an adjustment period for him. Let's say that, after the move, you start him in a new daycare. That's another significant change. So, expect the clock to restart on that adjustment period.
Essentially, every time you introduce a big change, expect to see about 2 - 4 weeks of an adjustment period where your child's behavior isn't going to seem quite right. This is especially true for young children. Older children typically handle change a little better because they are more able to understand what's happening in their lives.
By applying the tips I've given you here, you'll see that he should adjust closer to that 2 week mark as opposed to that 4 week mark. Remember again, however, that he is in the middle of the Terrible Two's AND there is tension in your marriage that he's probably sensing. As such, you won't see a total elimination of these behaviors, but you should see a nice improvement.
I hope you found this information helpful to you! If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me and I'd be happy to clarify anything. I wish you and your family the best of luck with all of the changes you are experiencing. I'd love to hear from you again in the future to find out how it all turned out. Happy Parenting Carien!