Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary developmental science can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thoughts on a Toddler's Declaration of "Mine"

As a child makes moves to assert his independence, he begins to test the limits of what he can and cannot do. Limit setting is not only about controlling your child’s behavior. It is about teaching the essential life skills of frustration tolerance, impulse control and emotional regulation. Setting limits helps children learn to manage healthy aggression.

“Mine” is favorite word of most toddlers. This word represents not greed, but rather joy in a newly emerging sense of self. Toddlers delight in their expanding language and motor skills and the power these skills give them in the world. Recently I was visiting a friend whose 20 month old son described everything he touched as "mine." Then he proclaimed happily, "Run!" as he toddled back and forth across the kitchen floor.

But imagine that your toddler sets his sight on your glasses and declares proudly, “mine.” In an appropriate way, you might calmly say, “No, those are Mommy’s. I need them to see.” Suddenly he is confronted with the fact of his relative smallness and powerlessness. If your child happens to be in a particularly vulnerable state, such as before lunch or naptime, he might become enraged that you, his beloved mother, have burst the bubble of his omnipotence. Unable to contain his intense feelings, he might lash out and hit you.

Feeling angry at such an assault is a natural reaction. Yet it is important to contain your own response and to recognize the two year old meaning of his behavior. What he needs from you at that moment is the assurance that you accept his feelings but that you will help him to contain and manage his rage. This might be in the form of a firm statement of “no hitting” or even a brief time out.

A toddler on a Youtube video who declares to his mother, “I love you but I don’t like you,” offers an example of the fact that intense but opposite feelings are a healthy part of any passionate relationship. John Bowlby has written extensively on this subject. His ideas are well summarized by Miriam Steele when she writes: ‘What distinguishes healthy individuals from unhealthy individuals is the extent to which the inevitable conflict between feelings of love and hate, often directed towards the same person, are controlled, regulated and so resolved. For children, Bowlby tells us this will develop naturally if young children have the loving company of their parents who put up with outbursts of hostility by showing that they are not afraid of hatred and conveying a belief that it can be contained and controlled.”

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