Welcome back to our series on toddlerhood. Today’s blog will focus on five ways to PREPARE our little ones for their lives ahead. If you missed any of the previous blogs on toddlerhood, you can find them here:
As parents who love our kids and want them to thrive, we obviously want to give them the emotional tools they need to do so. Here are five things we can do to help PREPARE them:
1. BE RESPONSIVE WHEN THEY ARE UPSET. A huge part of what toddlers are learning at this age is emotional regulation. Their little brains are still forming the connections and structures that allow them to process their feelings, and we can help them with this.
A researcher named John Bowlby was a pioneer in developing what is now known as Attachment Theory. What his research demonstrated is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for proper emotional and social development. The characteristics of this child-caregiver relationship (or multiple caregiver relationships) influence how they regulate difficult emotions, and how they are likely to behave in future relationships. He categorized several different attachment styles between children and their caregivers, the healthiest of which is called “secure attachment.”
When a child has a secure attachment, they have a sensitive and responsive caregiver that they use as a “safe base” from which to explore the world. They like to stay physically close to their caregiver in case something feels scary or appears dangerous, but also venture out to learn and interact with their surroundings. They experience that they can rely on their caregivers to attend to their needs for safety, protection, and emotional support while they learn about the world and try new things. When we respond to them warmly and calmly in their times of upset, we are helping to form neural pathways in their brains that let them know they are safe and that it is okay to keep exploring. The back-and-forth dance between venturing out and coming back for comfort and security is what builds the ability to eventually regulate their emotions for themselves.
2. GIVE THEM ROUTINE AND STRUCTURE. Just like the repetitious back-and-forth of a secure attachment builds emotional health, a consistent daily routine can also promote a sense of security and safety. Our goal should be to provide enough regularity to the daily slate of activities that our toddlers know what to expect without becoming slaves to the schedule itself.
A good way to start developing a daily routine is to make some traditions around special times of day such as wake-up time, eating meals, bath time, and/or bed time. For example, our little guy likes to have us light candles on the table during mealtimes–even breakfast! So, part of our new tradition is to light the candles (just when we’re eating at home), and allow him to blow them out when we are finished. He looks forward to it and seems to be a good marker for him to signify the end of that activity.
Other ways to build structure might be to read a book together, sing songs, or have prayer time before bed. There are many ways to develop routines, so pick what works for you and your family.
3. WATCH THEIR INTERESTS AND FOLLOW THEIR LEAD. In order to best prepare them for the future, try to observe what they become interested in doing and begin to feed their curiosity in the areas they show preferences. For example, is your child musical? Then introduce them to various instruments and types of music. Give them opportunities to play or sing, even if this is just banging on a toy drum. Are they ahead of the curve with their motor skills? Then give them opportunities and challenges to stretch themselves physically. This may be as simple as helping them climb up the steps, or as involved as putting them in a toddler gym class. Try giving them a multitude of experiences and steer clear of pushing them too strongly in one direction or another. We all want to influence our kids, but it is important to remember that we are helping them discover the individuals THEY are, and not just the people we want them to be.
4. TEACH THANKFULNESS, APPRECIATION, AND GRATITUDE. Over the last 15 – 20 years there has been an uptick in the amount of study regarding the concept of gratitude, specifically how it relates to overall happiness. Most of that research has been careful to point out that while gratitude may or may not cause an increase in happiness, there is definitely a correlation between the two. Hopefully future studies will continue to shed light on how the two are related.
There are probably several ways to define gratitude, but one of the best definitions I have seen is that it is “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.”* Sometimes it may be a transient feeling, but deep gratitude represents a more pervasive state of being. According to a description by the Harvard Medical School, “with gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside of themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals–whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”**
So what does it mean to teach gratitude? As we have discussed in previous blogs, modeling any behavior is the best way to teach it. Our brains are wired to detect and focus on threats and problems. While this is a helpful and necessary characteristic, it can often be “overactive.” Try intentionally focusing on what you have, and not just what you lack. Write it out. Talk about it. Share it with your children. Tell others you appreciate them. By doing so, you are teaching your toddlers by example. You are also giving your brain a rest from the way it constantly scans for threats. Much like meditation, gratitude can ground us in the present, preventing us from becoming immersed by regrets of the past or worries about the future.
5. PRAY WITH THEM AND FOR THEM. Thankfulness can often lead to prayer. Part of what we do in our nightly routine is to say prayers of thanksgiving before dinner and before bedtime. We take time to consciously focus ourselves and acknowledge what we have been given. Speaking for myself, this process certainly does help me feel connected to God. It reminds me that there is a safe base to which I can turn, and it grounds me in gratefulness for this moment. It gives me peace, knowing that even when the world doesn’t make sense, in this moment I am okay. By praying with and for our little ones, we can teach them that there is always a source of peace and groundedness to which they can turn.
By Matt Thames, M.A., LPC
*This definition of gratitude is from Randy A. Sansone, MD, and Lori A. Sansone, MD
** This excerpt on gratitude is from the Harvard Medical School website, http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier
A collection of studies on gratitude can be accessed with the following link: http://happierhuman.com/the-science-of-gratitude/