Imagine your child comes to you and asks for a banana. Without giving much thought you grab one from the fruit bowl, peel it and offer it to your child. With that, your little one melts into a puddle on the floor, devastated.
With clenched fists and tears rolling she says, “But I didn’t want a peeled banana!”
Within seconds your child transforms from a happy tot into an inconsolable toddler.
And then, there you are, standing above her with a perplexed look on your face wondering how a peeled banana could cause such pain and upset. Who knew, right?!?
Why is my toddler crying so much?
It is easy to forget that our children are children and not mini-adults. And although the peeled banana doesn’t warrant a total meltdown to our adult logical mind, it does to their still-developing brain.
Think of a stoplight. Red. Yellow. Green.
Well, the Red is the region of the brain called the brainstem. This is our little watchdog. It is always looking for a perceived threat. Is there one now? Now? What about now?
When the brainstem detects a threat or is over/under-stimulated, it causes a reaction of fight, flight or freeze. When this area is fired up, so are our child’s emotions.
Ever notice your child hitting/kicking, running away or shutting down? This is Mother Nature’s way of allowing our children to release stressors. Tantrums are a sign that their active brainstem is barking - literally hijacking any higher-level parts of the brain.
And because our toddlers cannot yet name, tame and manage big emotions, we see a puddle of kiddo parts on the floor with tears over a peeled banana.
When our child is in their red brain, we can help by communicating safety. When a red brain feels safe, it can regulate and integrate.
The Yellow is our limbic region, or midbrain, which serves as our emotional control center. The limbic portion of our brain works closely with our brainstem in regulating emotions. When our child is in this part of the brain, their tool for releasing the stress of dysregulation is whining. A whine is an evolved cry -- a cry for help regulating their body. It is here that our child desires to be heard and validated.
Green is our higher-level learning brain, the prefrontal cortex. This is where the learning of life skills happens such as personal insight, impulse control, reasoning, problem solving and empathy.
As parents, we often want to fast-track to this brain so we can teach the lessons, right? But, it’s not quite that simple. Research has shown that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid to late twenties.
That means that all of these big skills we want our children to embrace and embody now takes time and cultivating. These skills, unlike the reactive behaviors of the brainstem, are learned … just like math, science, and reading. Developmentally, our children cannot reason the way we do. Not yet.
Daniel Siegel, psychiatrist and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, offers an effective tool in teaching your child about their brain in his book The Whole-Brain Child. When both you and your child understand the brain, why big emotions arise and why certain behaviors occur, it becomes easier to get underneath the behavior, connect and teach skills for naming and taming big emotions.
What can I do when my toddler is seemingly crying for no reason?
Well, let’s go back to the banana situation.
What you are likely tempted to say is, “Stop crying” or “Don’t cry.” I mean every cell in your body wants to yell “ALRIGHT ALREADY HERE’S YOUR DANG BANANA. SHEESH, WILL YOU STOP CRYING??!?! IT’S NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL!”
But before you give into those chatty cells, I invite you to pause. This is an opportunity to communicate safety (a nod to the red brain) and to hear and validate your child’s big emotions (a nod to the yellow brain). This is an opportunity to co-regulate and work through the peeled banana debacle together (to teach the skills of the green brain).
So where do we start? With a breath. Pause and take a deep breath.
From there, get down low (eye level or below) to communicate safety.
“You seem upset. You didn’t want the banana peeled, did you?”
By stating “what is,” you are validating your child’s emotions without judgment because let's face it, observation is non-judgment.
As you offer your child the peeled banana, you can say something like “I see you’re sad/disappointed. It’s okay to cry. I am here…”
Statements like this help give words to our child’s emotions. This is important because it offers skills for our kiddos to understand their internal experience and communicate their own emotional story.
As you say these words, really mean them. Really be in the moment with your little one who is just beginning to learn about this thing called “feelings” … including anger, disappointment and yes, even rage. When we can be with our child in this way, it lets them know that we are a safe place to feel and that all emotions are sacred.
How can I create loving limits when my child is crying?
After validating your child, you can hold a loving limit.
Loving limits are clear, firm and respectful. They hold sacred your child’s big emotions while setting boundaries for redirection.
In the instance above, you could say something like, “This is your banana today. If you want to peel your banana tomorrow you can. This is your banana today. It’s right here if you’d like it.”
Rather than being angry and reactive, these words are responsive, like training wheels, helping your child learn to be with their emotions, to express them and to shift.
What is my emotional climate inside when my child is crying?
As you sit with your child in the middle of their upset, look to yourself.
What is happening in your body? Are you holding your breath? Are your shoulders tense and way up by your ears instead of relaxed and sitting on your rib cage? Does your face look all scrunched up, irritated and/or scary?
Take a deep breath. Soften the lines on your face and keep breathing (this is the first thing that goes when we’re upset).
Imagine a moment with your child where you were at peace and FULL of love. Snuggling. Staring into their big, dark eyes when they were a newborn. Breathe, holding this memory in your mind as you allow for this less than peaceful child that is before you to be seen as well.
What does the emotional shift look like?
As you sit there together, accepting your child and all their many feelings, she will likely still cry. But the shift has already started. A slow climb from her brainstem to her prefrontal cortex.
As she works through her emotions, she may reach over and grab the peeled banana, eating it and happily going on her way.
But she may not. She may choose to never reach over and eat the peeled banana. And that is okay too!
No matter the banana’s fate, your child will feel HEARD. And even though she was dealing with some downright big/scary/ugly feelings, the two of you will leave the experience feeling closer to one another instead of mad/angry/frustrated and further apart.
How can I turn a meltdown into a learning opportunity?
Every moment and experience is an opportunity to stretch ourselves and grow. Even in the case of the banana.
By connecting with your child, validating their emotions and helping them name and tame them, you are sending two important messages:
1) You can be trusted with your child’s big emotions.
2) You can be loving even as you are setting limits.
The outcome of the banana is far less important than these big truths. When we can lean into our child’s big emotions, growth happens. The red and yellow brains feel safe and heard. And those big life skills of the green brain begin to increase as your child’s brain makes new neural connections. Every time the same pattern is repeated- Safety, Validation, Regulation- the deeper that connection runs and the more likely it is to become a new, learned skill.
Let your child know in ways great and small that you are a safe place for them to feel their emotions no matter what. Because you two? You are on the SAME SIDE OF THE COURT. You are connected. You are a team.
(And a damn good one at that.)