We were enjoying dinner in Downtown Disney last week when a high-pitched shriek from an obviously worn-out toddler nearly made us drop our forks. My husband and I grimaced at each other and said in unison, “Sounds like naptime!”
Our son asked if he and his brother ever pitched a fit in public. Hmm… maybe a time or two, but really not much. I added, “It wasn’t that you were perfect babies. It was that we set you up for success.”
For babies and toddlers, that meant honoring their needs above our own. My husband and I like to go out for dinner on Saturday, and having babies didn’t stop us from doing that. It just meant we needed to make it work for the children by
- going to a family-friendly restaurant
- eating at 5:00 in order to avoid long waits for a table
- bringing books/crayons/small toys to distract the kids while we waited for our food
- tag-teaming sometimes, so one of us bounced a kid on a hip while the other one took a few bites, and then we traded
- taking the kids outside if attention spans were running short while the other one waited for the check
When running errands, every child has a different tolerance level. Three was the magic number in our family; for those first years, if we made it to three stores with the boys in good spirits, we knew enough to go home before pressing our luck with a fourth. Reading their body language, keeping snacks handy for those low blood sugar moments, and being willing to say, “I guess I don’t really HAVE to get to the dry cleaners today,” helped us accomplish what we needed to without pushing them past their limits when the only resource they had left for communication was a temper tantrum.
Adults have the ability to self-regulate, to maintain composure when they’re bored or tired. Young children don’t have that ability because the part of their brain that manages self-regulation is the last to develop. We can grow these skills, but it takes time, patience, opportunities to practice at their current capacity and then gradually stretching attention spans without pushing them over the edge.
If children do end up in a tantrum, teach self-calming skills by taking them aside and helping them breathe deeply while you stroke them gently or hug them until they relax. (Remaining calm yourself will help them calm down, as well.) Acknowledge them for using self-control, ask for their help as you complete this one last chore (Can you help me find the butter, and then we’ll go home?), and then finish as quickly as possible. Teaching—and modeling--self-regulation sets kids up for success as they learn to manage tiring or stressful situations appropriately. Eventually, they will sit quietly at the restaurant, they’ll remind you when you’re tired at 10:00 that Disneyland is open until midnight…and you’ll be the one crying for a nap!