"Bawaaaa," my 16-month-old son, Eli, screamed for the third time, his anger mounting. I looked around frantically, trying to guess what he wanted. No clue. But later, when I grabbed a banana for his snack, he said it again. Aha! I made sure I registered "Bawaaaa" as a part of his rapidly forming (but mostly incomprehensible) vocabulary.
Eli had entered a stage all kids go through starting around age 1 in which they can become frustrated seemingly out of nowhere. By toddlerhood, a baby's brain has evolved from a virtual blank slate to being chock full of information, according to John Medina, Ph.D., author of Brain Rules for Baby. But despite their improved understanding, young kids still lack the language skills to communicate all the things they want -- or the motor skills to fulfill their wishes themselves.
For increasingly independent-minded toddlers, this is a massive source of aggravation. Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to reduce your child's dismay, starting with these fixes.
Parents control almost every aspect of their children's lives, from the foods they eat to the clothing they wear. In toddlerhood, kids start wanting to have more of a say. "When young kids aren't allowed to have the power they crave, it's a major cause of frustration for them," explains Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby Minds. Letting them take charge -- even for just a few minutes -- can make an enormous difference.
Whenever possible, try to give your child two choices, Dr. Acredolo suggests. For example, in the morning, ask her if she'd prefer to wear a red shirt or the yellow one. At lunchtime, let her choose between string beans and peas. These might seem like minor decisions to you, but they'll quench her thirst for power -- and reduce the likelihood she'll tantrum about other things.
It might seem like your toddler erupts into tears over the tiniest things, but the anger young kids feel when they are denied is big. This powerful new emotion can be confusing and scary, Dr. Medina notes. You can help alleviate his frustration -- and remove that element of fear -- by empathizing with your child when he's upset. Articulate how he must be feeling in language that he can easily understand: "You're mad because you want to hold Bunny, but she's not here. I also get so mad when I can't have the things I love." It will make him feel understood -- and make the emotions feel less foreign to him the next time. As he gets older, this can turn into a conversation. "Teach your child how to verbalize his feelings," says Dr. Medina. "Having children describe their emotions, especially intense ones, with words has been shown to greatly help them understand and manage their feelings."
As young toddlers, kids can generally understand language and even form sentences in their brain, but they don't yet possess the motor skills necessary for forming words. "Imagine knowing exactly what you want to say but not being able to say it," says Monta Zelinsky Briant, author of Baby Sign Language Basics. "It would drive you crazy!" Teaching your child sign language can help. Ideally, parents should begin signing words as they say them when their baby is around 6 or 7 months old, but if you haven't already done this, it's worth making the effort now. Just teaching your child a few signs -- such as the ones for the words milk, more, eat, bed, hot, cold, hungry, finished -- can significantly improve your understanding of what's going on in her head. (Visit parents.com/sign for a hands-on vocabulary lesson.)
Distraction is an age-old parenting technique, and for good reason. When your toddler is getting bent out of shape about something he can't have, or you don't understand, redirect him, suggests Dr. Acredolo (Maybe do a silly dance or point out something interesting, like a bird in the sky.) You can also give your kid a job. "Toddlers love to feel helpful," says Michelle Anthony, Ph.D., coauthor of Signing Smart With Babies and Toddlers. "It gives them a sense of importance, which can reduce their frustration." You might say, "I'm sorry I don't understand you. Mommy's really trying, but right now I need your help." Then, immediately give him a task -- pushing a mini shopping cart at the grocery store or bringing something to the other room, like a book. He'll probably be so proud he completed a big-boy task that he'll forget what was making him frustrated in the first place.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Parents magazine.