My best friend once called me in tears because she was convinced there was something wrong with her daughter. “She’s having a brain malfunction! She can’t decide if she wants to go inside or stay outside so she is running around in circles in the driveway. I think something is seriously wrong with her brain.”
Umm can you relate? Because now that I have my own budding toddler, this toddler brain malfunction of indecision is my life. There is something every day in which Waverley makes a choice and immediately regrets it, then proceeds to go back and forth until a full-scale tantrum breaks out. It is extremely frustrating for both parties. I think when faced with this toddler brain malfunction, it can force even the calmest parent to question their decision to become a parent. It’s soul crushing. I also attribute this phase to the new gray hairs that have recently sprouted.
So, of course, there are two questions to ask when faced with this dilemma: First, why do they act like this? And, secondly, what is the best way to respond?
Understanding why toddlers act like this helps to increase our own understanding of their mindset so we can be more empathetic parents. Toddlers are impulsive little creatures therefore their first answer may not be thought out. Because, how often do toddlers think things out? Their brains are still developing and they simply don’t possess the higher level functioning necessary to contemplate many choices and the consequences of each choice. The consequences of choosing a fruit for snack, for example, means that choosing an orange = they will not receive a banana. Bummer deal.
Related: How to Talk to Toddlers
The good news is this is a totally normal phase of life for toddlers. The toddler years are filled with learning new skills and deciphering right from wrong. There is a reason this phase is called Autonomy vs Shame in Erikson’s Stages of Development, meaning kiddos are learning to practice skills by themselves– especially decision-making.
That’s all well and good, right, but what is the best way to respond when faced with a toddler brain malfunction of indecision? How can you escape the situation with your sanity and not shaming your toddler? Every situation is different, but here are five tips to not only survive but to use the experience as a learning opportunity:
1. Think ahead. When providing your toddler with a choice, try to speak proactively about the consequences of the choices to encourage that thought process. For example, explain that by choosing the orange they will not also get the banana, but they can always choose a banana tomorrow.
2. Remain calm. Some people can tolerate yelling and it becomes a form of communication within their household. I, however, am not one of them! Yelling makes my insides shrivel and my shoulders stiffen, so I try very hard not to embrace the inclination to raise my voice in frustrating situations. Talking softly in conversational tones promotes a rational conclusion.
3. Practice empathy. Rather than grow immediately frustrated with your toddler’s behavior, imagine yourself in their situation. Imagine that you possess few coping strategies for difficult situations, you have minimal verbal skills, and are constantly being told what to do. When I think this way, I immediately talk to Waverley in a more soothing voice and try to help her increase her understanding of the scenario rather than merely get her to stop throwing a fit.
4. Validate their difficulty. Learning to make decisions is legitimately hard work, as is seeing something else you wanted but chose not to have at that moment. It happens to me quite frequently when we’re out to dinner and Nate orders a delicious looking feast and I am stuck with my impulse decision of scallops…yet again. So, acknowledge to your toddler that you understand making choices is hard (“It’s hard to decide sometimes, isn’t it?”) and offer assistance to work through the problem together.
5. Encourage a decision, but know when you ultimately just need to make it. This one is so hard to pinpoint and the caregiver is really the only person who knows when enough is enough. One of the hardest aspects of parenting is letting kids make their own decisions– even when they are toddlers!– when the parents know what the consequences will be. (Oh Waverley, I knoooow you will not eat that banana once it is peeled and will immediately ask for the orange! Or in 15 years, I know that boy is no good and will break your heart!) But, on the other hand, the ability to make decisions independently and with confidence is an amazing skill to have. I am sure we all know an adult who could use a lesson in decision making because their indecisiveness drives us all b-a-n-a-n-a-s! That being said, when a toddler has traveled too far down the rabbit hole of brain malfunction due to indecision a parent must step in for the sake of eating/getting out the door/putting an end to that particular meltdown.
What do you do when faced with a similar dilemma? What are your tips for surviving the toddler brain malfunction of indecision?