I spent some time yesterday with the mother of a spirited toddler who pointed out that even though she saw that The Happiest Toddler on the Block technique of patience stretching works, she found it hard to be cheerful and upbeat after hours of her son’s whining and hanging on her legs. At the end of the day, her toddler and her preschooler had worn her down. She needed to fine-tune her approach and hear that her efforts would bear fruit sooner rather than later.
Good news! This isn’t just a technique that works for the moment. It builds a child’s ability to wait. A toddler that is used to waiting may not even start whining, he may just ask/gesture for what he wants. You get a calmer house. Done consistently for even a few days, combined with the Fast Food Rule (see my January 2015 Sympathetic Reframing post), and she should be able to stretch that calm waiting time at the dinner table up from 7 seconds (his current best time) to over a minute. He showed me his potential; after a brief “top-off” reminder that his yogurt was indeed coming, he waited another 7 seconds until she placed it on the table. He needed a combo of patience stretching with fast food rule restatements so that he knew that I got what he was thinking: he wanted to know why there was a bowl of yogurt on the table but it wasn’t in front of him. It was his brother’s bowl, and his brother was washing his hands. Tantrum averted, and this spirited toddler waited 14 seconds more than he did before we tried patience stretching.
Why even try it when you are exhausted? Think about how all that whining is slowly draining the life energy out of you. Some toddlers don’t just whine, they start to get a little aggressive to get your attention. Think about the energy it takes to sweep up the cereal they throw on the floor in protest, and reconsider the benefits of patience stretching. You will be expending your energy with toddlers one way or the other. Might as well be building skills instead of sweeping up a mess made in protest.
Your delivery is key to a little person who hears how you say it more clearly than what it was that you said. This mom admitted that she delivered her patience stretching lines without a lot of warmth, but she was truly tired of all the whining. Time to bring on your academy award-winning performance. Toddlers can’t tell that you are faking it. No one is cheerful all the time, but toddlers are very literal. If you say something good (“Let me go look for your cookies”) with a note of sarcasm or annoyance, guess what they hear? “I am not happy with you”. If you want a smile back from a toddler with a spirited temperament, one that can go full-ninja on you in seconds, you want to tell them that their cookie is coming with a big grin on your face and a lilt in your voice. They will be smiling back at you without knowing what hit them.
Toddlers who have many interactions throughout the day in which they feel listened to, that they were respected and occasionally got what they wanted (eventually) are more likely to be able to hear “no” as well. They have this bank of positive interactions with you, and a sense that you are not a pushover but that you are on their side. Again, their perception of you is as important as what you actually feel about them. An adult that loves them dearly but comes down hard with frustrating tones and annoyance is not going to be perceived as warmly by a toddler.
Strangely enough, if you rush lovingly to provide things for a toddler most of the time, they can still whine. Why? Because there will be about 10% of requests that you cannot or will not grant due to safety or lack of resources. They must get in the car seat since you have to go pick up their sister. You don’t have any more goldfish crackers, etc. At that point, their expectation that you grant every single wish has been shattered, and they do not know what to do. They get very angry at you! By giving them what they want most of the time except in very rare circumstances, their anger when you cannot deliver is much worse than if they had been turned down a few more times in the past. Let that one sink in…your past generosity is not appreciated, it is hugely resented when you absolutely must buckle them in to the carseat, or when you really have to leave right now.
The wish-granter that requires them to wait using the patience stretching model is more likely to get a pass when the crackers run out or time at the playground is over. The child who has experienced calm waiting will be more capable of hearing alternatives and accepting them.
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