A child’s transition into toddlerhood is both magical and mystifying. They’re mobile, on-the-go, and constantly absorbing new information from the environment and people around them. Jennifer Gillette is a child development and family specialist who is also the founder and owner of The Loved Child Family Center, an organization that offers education, community, and support to parents-to-be and parents of kids of all ages. Jennifer joins the podcast to talk about all aspects of a toddler’s development. She walks us through some of the physical, intellectual, emotional, and social changes that happen at this pivotal time for a child and a parent. And, she answers some of our listeners’ most pressing questions – everything from bedtime routines to picky eating to dealing with the dreaded tantrum.
Listen to this episode to learn:
All Things Toddler
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard but when you're the parent of a toddler, that my friends is even harder. I'm your host, Emily Paisner. Today we're talking all things, toddler. A time when parents immediately think of tantrums and the terrible twos, but this is also one of the most rewarding times, watching your child grow into this little human, constantly exploring the world around them. Today's guest is Jennifer Gillette. She's a child development and family specialist who supported and educated families raising young children for more than 25 years.
She has a master's in child development and clinical psychology from Tufts University and has worked at Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children's Hospital. She's also the founder and owner of the Lovechild Family Center. It's an organization that offers education, community and support to parents to be and parents of children of all ages. Today we dive into what's really going on inside those growing brains, how to handle constant tantrums, picky eating and the importance of choice. Have a listen. Jennifer, thank you so much for being here today.
Jennifer Gillette: It's so great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Emily: Today we're going to talk all things toddler. I always remember the saying, "The days are long, but the years are short." Boy did those days feel very, very long. That transition from being an infant to a toddler is also so exciting. They're little sponges, they're picking up new information, they're seeing new things around the world. Can you tell us what's going on inside a toddler's brain when they're going through this transition?
Jennifer: To begin with, I love your simile of a toddler being like a sponge. When I shut my eyes and think of a toddler, I see this little scientist running around the room, conducting experiments trying to figure out his or her world, but yes, let's talk about brain development a little bit. I'd like to focus on the work of Dr. Dan Siegel. He's the author of The Whole Brain Child and he talks about thinking about the brain as the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. When you think about the downstairs brain, that's your brain stem that was very well developed at birth, and then you've got the upstairs brain, the cerebral cortex that was not well developed at birth. As parents of toddlers, what we need to do is we need to make sure that we're connecting that downstairs brain with that upstairs brain.
Emily: That's a really interesting way to think about it. That's really helpful.
Jennifer: Yes. In terms of that downstairs brain, that's the area of the brain that focuses on the fight-flight response. Our little ones are often in that downstairs brain, but what we really want to do is reinforce the skills of the upstairs brain. The upstairs brain focuses on voluntary actions, those thoughts and feelings, empathy, memory, and I cannot forget well-regulated emotions. That does not sound like a toddler, right?
Emily: I think that those are still being formed in my kids. [laughs]
Emily: Whenever anyone talks about a toddler, they talk about tantrums. What tips you have for dealing with the dreaded tantrum?
Jennifer: I truly love tantrums. Now, that might have been-
Emily: I've never heard anyone say that before.
Jennifer: I know, but if you talk to any of the families I support I love tantrums. I'm also a mom, I have now two teenagers. If you would have asked me this question, when they were toddlers, maybe my answer would have been a little bit different. Let's start with, what is a tantrum? Remember we just talked about that downstairs brain and that upstairs brain? Get yourself downstairs. That is what the toddler is going through. He or she has, as Daniel Siegel says, flipped his or her lid in that fight-flight response. There isn't a child out there that wants to be in that disorganized, dysregulated state so what can we do when our toddler is in a tantrum?
There's a little bit of controversy around us. Some folks feel very strongly, oh, my gosh, you're going to ignore the tantrum because you don't want to reinforce that behavior? Well, I'm not so sure about that. If we can get into our toddler's shoes, if we can empathize and we now understand that they don't want to be in this place, perhaps what we can do is try to support them. What does that look like? Well, once your child has fallen into the tunnel, if you will, of a tantrum-
Emily: The point of no return.
Jennifer: - there's a point of no return. You've got to wait until they come out of the end of the tunnel if you will. Maybe what you could do is you could sit down next to that toddler while he or she is on the floor, or as my son-
Emily: The middle of the grocery aisle.
Jennifer: Exactly. In the middle of Target, as I remember my youngest. I had a moment in the toy aisle sitting on the floor.
Emily: We never forget those moments, do we?
Jennifer: No, we don't. You're not going to see those shoppers again in that store. First and foremost, and this is part of peaceful parenting, you want to make sure that you are regulating yourself. You want to do whatever you can to control your body in the heat of that moment. Second, you want to connect with that child. Let him or her know that you are nearby. You're not going to try to do any explanation or conversation or work through anything because remember they're in that downstairs brain.
Emily: I think we sometimes think that we can rationalize with them and that never seems to work.
Jennifer: No, it doesn't but you know what you can do when your little one is in a good space, I call them uncharged moments. You're cuddled up on the couch, you're looking at a picture book together, you're playing with Plato. You can revisit that moment in Target and you can talk through that. First and foremost, just remember that downstairs brain, that's what's going on in that moment. That child is not in control of his or her body. Really this is not the time for punishment, for raising our voices, for setting limits. It's really just to be there until they come out at the other end of the tunnel.
Emily: You started this by saying, this may be a bit controversial because I do think that there are two very different ways that we've heard about dealing with this. One is the way that you've just shared, which sounds very rational and another is to ignore. How can we be consistent when this happens to try and help them learn how to deal with these situations moving forward?
Jennifer: That's a great question. One of the things that I recommend is to be very preventive. In fact, I say to the families I work with, collect some data over the span of two weeks. See what tends to send your child into a tantrum. What sends them into that place where they flip their lid? My hunch is you're going to come up with some patterns. You're going to say, "Oh gosh, it's at the end of the day when he or she's really hungry, really, really tired." Then you can put some preventive techniques into place. What I also recommend, and you can do this with toddlers, is you can start doing some coping work.
When you start to feel like you're going to lose control of your body, what about smelling the flowers and then blowing out the candles, smelling the flowers, blowing out the candles. You can have a cozy little spot in your house that you go to a snuggly spot when you start to feel that you're getting frustrated, you start to learn to take care of your body.
Emily: Aside from tantrums, we experience hitting, biting, and of course not sharing or not wanting to share all that fun stuff. How can we reinforce positive behaviors at this age so that they know the difference between right and wrong?
Jennifer: Let's start here. Listeners, please rest assured these behaviors, the hitting, the biting are typical for toddlers. Yes, we can do things in our daily care that can help these little ones over time learn how to control their behavior. Sometimes it helps if we have a little picture in our minds. We're at the local playground and your child just threw a sand bucket at another child's head. I'm sure many of us have been in that place. The first thing as I just talked about is you need to regulate yourself even though you're mortified and you want to run from the playground, I recommend that you stop and you do whatever helps calm yourself down.
Some of us count up to 100, 1,000. Some of us picture the waves crashing into the beach, some of us pinch our hands. Do whatever you can that is going to help you respond and not react. Then the next thing that I recommend is to care for the child that just received the hurting behavior. That child-
Emily: Check in with them.
Jennifer: Exactly, connect with the child that was just hurt. Now why are you doing that? Well, because you're trying to model pro social behavior. You want your little one to see, oh, okay, when I hurt somebody this is what I can do to fix my mistake. You're going to check in with the child that just got hurt and then yes, come back to your little one that threw that sand bucket. You want to make sure as I always say, to have a yes with a no. It's not okay to throw the sand bucket. What you can do is you can fill the bucket up with sand, or when you're feeling angry, you can use words such as, and you can give some examples to your little one. Just like we talked about with tantrums, remember in the heat of the moment, that might not be the best time to have these conversations.
Emily: We asked some of our listeners what questions they might have for you. The first is coming home with a new baby. How do we as parents help our toddlers get prepared for this?
Jennifer: I'd like to remind parents that we can do everything that the 55,000 books on Amazon tell us to do around parenting, and preparing older siblings for a new baby coming home. Every child responds so differently. I guess the place I begin is to involve those older siblings as much as possible with the upcoming transition of the baby coming home. There's little things that we can do to help those older children. For example, it's time to feed that newborn baby. I recommend having a special box, the feeding box, if you will, that you keep up high and you bring that feeding box down just at feeding time. Inside that box, there's some fun new little things that the older sibling can play with while you're feeding that baby. I love the idea of baby carrying, so making sure that you've got that newborn baby strapped to your body while you're reading, for example to the older child or playing Legos right on the floor.
Emily: This was a popular one, the transition from a crib to a big kid bed. They come out, you got to bring them back in and it's just the process is endless. It can end up with just saying "Forget it just come into bed with me" and it starts to create all sorts of bad habits. How do we set up this transition to be a good one?
Jennifer: Well, I always joke around at TLC that keep those children in that crib until they go to college, or at least High School. No joking aside, one of the things that I try very hard not to do is to be judgmental around sleep and family sleep.
Emily: I'm sure parents appreciate that.
Jennifer: I hope so. In fact, I grew up living all around the world and there's lots of ways to handle sleep. Some of us really enjoy all sleeping together. Some of us, well, we don't get a good night's sleep and it affects our parenting and our professional lives the next day. We really have to have a consistent routine in place around sleep. Let's just say that you are a parent that you don't sleep particularly well with a warm little body next to you. I'm going to recommend that you put a very clear bedtime routine in place so that your little one knows what is expected of him or her. For example, you can have a chart that's posted right up on that bedroom wall that lets them know the sequence of the bedtime routine. You could even put Velcro behind each step and they can even move the different steps around so that they feel like they're in charge, but the end-all result is they're getting into that crib.
Emily: You're going to laugh. When my son was little, we had challenges around this and so I created a picture book. I took a picture of him at every stage of the bedtime routine, and I bound it together and wrote a little storyline along with it. I think I might still have it somewhere, but it did help for him to be able to visualize. Now I brush my teeth, now I do this. So, yes [laughs].
Jennifer: Brilliant. I love it now. Gosh, I need to hire you at TLC. I love the idea of having the little ones be the model. So great now you have your little one in the crib, but guess what? Pitter patter. You hear those little feet coming down the hall. They've climbed out of their crib, they've climbed out of their toddler bed-
Emily: Hopefully not hurting themselves in the process.
Jennifer: No, right. You know what, you can do, put a stool right next to that crib and so they can get out safely as they're going through that.
Emily: Do you want to do that to keep them safe or does that encourage climbing out?
Jennifer: While pediatricians might just agree with me around this, but one of the things I know as a developmentalist is typically a phase, climbing out of the crib. Some of us rush and we get the new toddler bed, but really it was just a phase. We want, while they're going through this phase to be able to safely get out of the crib and you can just put a step stool.
Emily: That is always so fearful [laughs] such a fear that someone can get injured.
Jennifer: We too quickly get a toddler bed and then you've got these little people with underdeveloped brains wandering around the house at night.
Jennifer: So yes, if they come in and visit you at night, it's up to you. If you want to invite them into your bed, or if you very calmly with little words want to walk them back down that hall and put them back into bed. Guess what parents and caregivers you might be doing that 263 times before it really sticks.
Emily: Just to recap, your advice is to keep them in the crib for as long as you can, and then when they do transition out of the crib to make sure that you have a very clearly defined bedtime routine.
Jennifer: You got it.
Emily: Next one, picky eaters. How do you know when you need to be concerned? If you're concerned they're not getting enough nutrients because they're only eating macaroni and cheese? Is this normal? Am I going to have a picky eater for life?
Jennifer: Instead of worrying about what your little one is eating, meal to meal what I recommend is to focus on what your little one is eating week to week. That will take some pressure off of us. Let me just say, I get it as a mother, that this can be an area that we worry a lot about.
Emily: It's in our nature, we can't help it?
Jennifer: Exactly. Isn't it? There's biological, that's our role of a parent to make sure that our little ones are thriving, but the thought is, is that these little ones are better than we think around knowing what their bodies need over time. The caregiver has three responsibilities, and just three responsibilities in terms of healthy family nutrition. Our job is to decide what the family is going to eat, where we're going to eat that food and when we're going to eat that food. Our job is done. The child has just two responsibilities, whether he or she's going to eat that food and how much of it she's going to eat.
What happens when you follow this technique is that you're taking all the emotion, all those little tricks of eat one more bite and you get such and such. If you do this, then you're having dessert. If you take that away and you try as much as possible to have some family meals together during the week. They don't just need to be dinner, they can be breakfast, they can be lunch. Over time your child is going to healthily be in touch with his or her body, and you're going to take all that tension away during mealtime.
Emily: This is a big one. Potty training. How do we potty train? What is the secret?
Jennifer: Oh gosh, I wish that there were just one secret. I'd be a multi-multi multimillionaire.
Emily: It'd be really helpful to understand when is the right time for my child?
Jennifer: I love it. I love it so you're coming at this as do I from a developmental perspective. We're waiting. We're watching for readiness signs. What are some of those readiness signs? Well, gosh, you have your little one up on the changing table and he or she is not pleased that you're trying to change his/her diaper. That's a child letting you know that they want to be autonomous. They want to be in control of their bodies. That's a good readiness sign. How about this one? You're going to the bathroom and there's another person, a little person in that room.
Emily: Does that ever change?
Jennifer: Well, as a mother of teenagers, luckily it does. You've got this little person very curious about what you're doing in the bathroom. You hearing language like "Me do it, I can do it." You have a little person that wants to pull up and down his or her clothing. These are signs that it's time to put in a very predictable routine into your daily schedule.
Emily: If you feel like they're ready if you're seeing some of those signs, what do you propose? Are you one of those experts that says, "Spend a week at home, focus on it?" What's your advice? How do you even begin to tackle it?
Jennifer: That's a great question. One of the things that I recommend is that we start a routine where we're focused not on what they're producing in the potty, but rather that they're willing to go visit the bathroom. Think of a very experienced preschool teacher. How does that professional get all those little people in and out of a bathroom in that classroom? Well, what that professional does he or she makes sure that there's a routine in place. The routine could be something like when you hear the little bell go off, which is better than you saying "It's time to use the potty."
You have that bell go off and the little person goes into the bathroom, gets to choose, give them a choice, choices are great for toddlers. "Do you want to sit on the blue potty or do you want to sit on the white potty?" The little one sits on either potty, doesn't need to produce anything, gets off the potty, washes hands and goes back to their play. You do that about every hour to every hour and a half. Over time, this routine is going to be ingrained in the child and he or she will begin producing on the potty. Make sure that the positive reinforcement isn't around what they produce in the potty, but that they're willing to follow your routine.
Emily: The behavior.
Emily: That's great. If you could leave us with any parting words based on your personal experience, your professional experience about toddlerhood, what would these wise words be for our listeners?
Jennifer: Well, I always say in my workshops if I could only tell you one thing right now, is I strongly recommend with toddlers to give them two choices. Now notice I didn't say three choices. I didn't say four choices. It's not, "Hey, what are we going to wear today? What do you want to wear?" Rather "Do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue shirt?" Because toddlers, they want to be in charge. They want to be in control. They're testing out their autonomy. Let's set them up for success. Yes, you're the grown-up here, the caregiver, but give them two choices so that they feel like they're in charge in the moment.
Emily: That's amazing. Great advice. Jennifer, it was so great to talk with you today. I am sure that our listeners learned a lot about the toddlers in their lives, and we really appreciate you being here.
Jennifer: Thank you for having me.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of equal parts. See you next time.
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