I’m on a playground with a dozen 2-year-olds. Everyone is busy digging in the sand, pushing trucks along the sidewalk, and climbing on the play equipment. One little boy makes a run for the open exit. A quick teacher standing nearby stops him and explains to him that he needs to stay on the playground with the teachers and the other children. She takes his hand to lead him back to the group. He collapses to the ground, refusing to walk. She carefully picks him up under his arms and moves him away from the gate to a nearby bench. He screams and sobs.
Sound like an ordinary day on a toddler playground? The only difference was I was in Helsinki, Finland, when I observed this interaction. I could have been anywhere: Finland, Italy, The Netherlands, Japan, the United States. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve watched 2-year-olds learn about limits, test their abilities, and work hard on regulating their emotions and behavior.
That little guy on the playground in Finland wanted to walk out of the gate. There were some kids riding bikes that, I think, caught his eye and he wanted to get a closer look. His teacher wanted him to stay on the playground so she could supervise him and the other children, keeping them safe. When she told him he could not leave the gate and that he needed to rejoin the group, he lost power over his decision to leave. In order to get that power back, he gave up on walking, as if to say, “This is the only thing I have control over in this moment—whether or not I use my legs.” (I call this behavior “limp legs”; it was my button-pusher behavior—the challenging behavior that always bothered me the most when I was teaching.) When “limp legs” didn’t give him the control he desired, he expressed his frustration with screams and sobs.
So, what is a parent or teacher to do in this situation? The most powerful child guidance tool we have as teachers and parents is active, empathetic listening. A young child experiencing strong emotions needs our attention and our empathy.
Here’s how to be an active, empathetic listener with toddlers, twos and young three-year-olds:
- Notice when your child experiencing strong emotions e.g., frustration, anger, excitement, sadness, and elation.
- Move close to the child and move your body to his or her level.
- Make eye contact and offer a gentle touch to let the child know you are listening.
- Repeat back what you hear the child telling you through words and actions in language she can understand. Reflect the same tone that she is expressing. This lets a child with limited language know that you understand what she’s feeling. “You want that shovel! You really want that shovel! You don’t want to wait. You really, really want it!” Your tone and facial expressions are so important in this step. It may seem odd or a bit uncomfortable the first time you do it. But as soon as it works for you, you won’t care what you look or sound like. The child is hearing you and knows that you genuinely understand what she’s feeling. If you’re talking to an older child (or adult for that matter), simply repeat back what you hear them telling you, “You really want to play with your friends today. It is really disappointing that we can’t have a playdate.”
- When the child calms a bit and seems ready, name and explain children’s feelings. Use words to describe feelings accurately. “It is really frustrating when you want to use a toy that someone else is using.”
Active listening can help to defuse challenging situations when children are experiencing strong emotions. Sometimes children just need to know that you understand their feelings in order for them to calm themselves.