Sunday, October 29, 2017

Tots and Teens

Two age groups are notoriously difficult for both parents and kids: 
toddlers, also known as "the terrible two's"; and teenagers.  I believe there are many similarities between these ages and stages of child development.  I've never seen any research on these similarities, but as Freud once said, "As any nursemaid knows...".  Interestingly, I began my career in early childhood education as a toddler teacher. My last job before retirement was teaching high school Spanish.  When asked how I managed the transition from early childhood to high school, I quipped that the two age groups were a lot alike.

Toddlers and teens are both struggling to find their identities as independent beings.  Toddlers are looking for physical independence from their parents, while teens are seeking emotional independence.  Both groups are very sensitive to the demands of authority.  They feel a strong need to to make their own decisions and to do things on their own.  Neither is completely ready for the independence they crave however, and if left unchecked, their experimental trials in going their own way can be dangerous.  Life with a toddler or a teen can be pretty challenging.

Parents often complain that a toddler's favorite word is "no".  "I do myself".  He's outgrown  the stage of dependence on mom or dad for all of his physical needs.  He can now walk, use language, and feed himself.  He's incredibly proud of his growth.  The worst insult for a toddler is to be called a baby.  "I not a baby, I a big boy". Toddlers crave affirmation of their big-boy status, and are eager to prove themselves and take on more grown-up activities.  This is fine in some areas, such as choosing a breakfast cereal or putting on socks.  But there are many things a toddler is not yet equipped to manage, such as handling a knife or picking up his baby brother.  He struggles with conflicting emotions, knowing on one level that he still needs mom, but feeling a strong drive to pull away from her.  It's not uncommon for these emotions to erupt into tantrums when he doesn't get his way.

A teenager's drive for independence will look a bit different.  Suddenly, the parent that was idealized in early childhood is old fashioned and a cause of embarrassment.  She will roll her eyes every time mom speaks.  Her favorite word is "whatever".  She is way more interested in her friends' opinions and eager to fit in with the group.  Her changing body and growing capacity for abstract and critical thinking give her cause to believe that she is ready for grown-up life and decisions.  This may be true in choosing an after-school activity or shopping for clothing.  However, she may not be prepared to separate from her peers if they engage in risky or dangerous behaviors.  I suppose that's one difference between teens and toddlers:  bigger kids, bigger problems.

A good strategy for both toddlers and teens is to look for opportunities that allow them to practice their independence.  For a toddler, that may mean keeping juice in a small pitcher that he can pour himself or teaching him the "slip and flip" trick for putting on his jacket.  For a teen, you might permit her to take public transportation or attend a concert with her friends. For both, we can offer choices.  An either/or choice is best suited for a two year old. (Do you want to eat the fruit now or bring it in the car?) A teen should be able to choose her own style of clothing, as long as each piece fits your bottom-line view of what's appropriate.  In general, parents should be prepared to choose their battles.  That means say "yes" as often as possible, and save "no" for when you have really good reasons. With teens, don't fall for the common complaint about what everyone else is allowed to do.  We are responsible for our own children, not someone else's.

Another important strategy for both tots and teens is to keep close tabs on their whereabouts.  A toddler can never be left unsupervised,  should always have something to do.  Wait times can bring trouble. Be prepared with a toy or snack to keep your little one busy.  With both toddlers and teens, if we don't make sure they are busy with healthy activities, they will get busy with unhealthy ones.  For a teen, it's very important to always know where and with whom she's spending her time and when she's expected home.  Knowing our child's friends prepares us to understand what's happening in her life and to provide guidance as needed.  

A parent's priority is always our children's safety.  We need to be mindful of what they  are exposed to. Toddlers can be hurt and confused by scary news broadcasts or, cursing fighting adults.  They are keenly aware of everything that is said around them, and can suffer emotionally, even if they are not yet able to articulate it.  Even more difficult to control is our children's exposure to harmful elements in technology. Protecting our children from inappropriate language, violence, sexual content and predators is excruciatingly difficult.  Parents need to set ground rules with their teens and put safeguards on their devices. Toddlers should be allowed minimal, if any, screen time.  Toddlers are in a stage of rapid development.  They need real life experiences, and are held back by any type of screen.

The most important role of a parent in raising her children through these challenging years is to be emotionally available.  The emotional ups and downs of our toddlers and teens can be stressful for them.   We need to be watchful of any signs of distress and try to help our children share their feelings.  My natural reaction, when one of my children seemed to be struggling, was to pull her closer.  Spend more time with her.  Speak and behave more positively.  Make it clear that I would always be there, always love her, always take care of her.  Life is not easy at any age, but trials become more bearable when we know that we are not alone.

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