Part two: A new way forward for toddlers, teens, educators, parents
Educators and parents often complain about toddlers and teenagers. In the first article of this two-part series, we explained similarities in their physical, social and emotional development. In this second article, we explore the cognitive similarities, share tips on building positive relationships, and provide ways to address their mental health and wellbeing.
What are the similarities?
Both age groups are still learning how to assess risk, yet they think they are invincible. This, combined with the rapid physical development, can lead to high rates of hospital emergency department admissions.
Additionally, teenage hormone surges interrupt concentration, which is frustrating for educators and parents as they sometimes think messages are not going through. Teenagers are often off task and can spend considerable amounts of time day dreaming.
Communication can also be a struggle. While toddlers might struggle to find the right words to say (even if they understand the words), teenagers might find it challenging to express what they really feel. This can lead to grunting, then either tantrums (toddlers), or slammed doors, rolled eyes and sighs (teenagers). There is often a lot of dissatisfied whining and grumbling. Often children just cannot name the emotions they are feeling so they fall back onto the perennial grunt of “nothing” despite clear evidence that they are feeling something. It is useful to use descriptive language, labelling the feelings their behaviour indicates. For younger children, reading books that improve emotional literacy can help. Many of these are available in libraries.
Tips for positive relationships
It is important to maintain a positive relationship with both age groups despite the challenges.
Remembering that it is a frustrating age for children as well as educators and parents. They are not trying to be painful, rather, they are trying to grow up and learn about who they are and how the world works. When they are grumpy, teaching them to be civil is important.
Using humour can make a world of difference when they are sullen, sulky or recalcitrant. Letting them know their efforts are appreciated (whether they succeed or not), and that you understand that life is frustrating at times.
It is important they know they belong, they are important, they are a valued part of the family or learning environment, not a burden and that you appreciate them being here. It can help to identify what you see as their strengths, particularly at times when they are overwhelmed by frustration at what they see as their failures. Using a strengths-based approach and listening to them can make a big difference to the outcomes.
Both age groups will push against and even throw tantrums about any boundaries you put in place. For a toddler, a boundary might be that they can only play with the blocks when they have helped pack up the train set. For a teenager, it might mean they need to finish their work before they can do something fun, or their behaviour needs to be at a certain level before they can be trusted to go on an excursion.
It is their job to push boundaries and tell you the rules are not fair. It is your job to clearly set limits and stick to them, reinforcing consequences and gradually easing the limits as they mature and show their ability to follow them, and self-regulate. Those without boundaries feel lost and uncared for, so they try riskier activities and poorer behaviour to get attention.
It is not an educator or parent’s job to be friends with a child or teenager. They have their own friends. There will be moments of friendship, and these are wonderful, and likely to increase as the child matures. However, it is the adult’s job to be a coach and mentor. Their friends are not coaches, so you need to take on that role.
Teenagers are learning how to express their opinions and they need support to know how to do this appropriately. This means learning how to:
- calmly state their opinion,
- spot the difference between opinion and fact,
- value a range of opinions,
- agree to disagree respectfully, and
- appreciate that you approve of those with different opinions than your own.
Not every child, despite all your best efforts, is going to be able to grow up without help being provided to the family and to those carrying the responsibility for their welfare. There are a range of family support services available upon which families can call. Educators can recommend the mental health resources available at the service, school or community.
Mental health challenges, particularly in the teenage years, are not uncommon and there are a range of supports available (see Teens mental health: services and links and Teenage mental health – treatments and causes. However, understanding the similarities in these age groups and looking after yourself can support educators’ and parents’ efforts and reduce their stress levels.
Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in early childhood education. She researches marginalised voices within families and education especially in regional, rural and remote communities. Marg is a postdoctoral fellow within the Commonwealth Funded Manna Institute.
Margaret Sims is a professor in early childhood education and care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an honorary professor at Macquarie University.
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