This book is one of Aidan’s favorite, about a Neinhorn (a pun on Einhorn, meaning unicorn) that always says “Nein”.
But I’m not going to talk about the book. I’m going to talk about the Neinhorn in our household. Since he was born, I’ve always felt that Aidan is… difficult, strong-willed, or, the term I came across recently and liked the most, spirited.
I’ve been wanting to write about this since a year ago, here’s a proof from my photo gallery: a picture of our Neinhorn and a screenshot of articles I found on parenting strong-willed toddlers and dealing with difficult toddler behavior.
As you can see, he developed a small ‘horn’ on his forehead because he often had tantrums that resulted in him banging his head on the floor, or even concrete/asphalt (if we’re outside).
Nowadays, he almost never banged his head, but instead he would retreat to his bedroom while crying, “Weg gehen, weg gehen… ((I’m) going away…)“ Sometimes he could calm himself down by wrapping himself with a blanket for some minutes, then coming out of the room all calm and composed. But most of the times, he would run to me when his big emotions are too overwhelming.
The reasons for the tantrums? Sometimes we couldn’t even comprehend, but it was definitely very important to him. I’ll give you an example.
We were strolling in Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, on the way to the playground, when the Bear suddenly asked me, “Let me know if you find grass. Aidan plucked a handful of grass before, gave them to me, but I threw them away. Now he’s telling me what he plans to do with the grass.”
Unfortunately, there was no more grass until we reached the playground. Once we were in the playground, in which we needed to buy tickets to get in (€1 per kid, €3 per adult!), he got distracted for a while, but then remembered his grass.
The Bear told him the grass were blown away by the wind (not fully honest, ups). As expected, he then exploded, ran towards the gate trying to get out, wanting to pick new grass. Unfortunately, we couldn’t let that happen, the grass field was a bit too far to go back to.
We were in an unfamiliar place, there was no safe space for him to go to calm himself. He was trying to bang his head on the stones, and got even angrier when we stopped him from doing so.
Defusing tantrums: rechts vor links (right before left)
I recently read The Whole-Brain Child book, which I will excitedly recommend to all parents. One method that I find super powerful is what I will call rechts vor links, meaning right before left (rechts vor links is the most important traffic rule I learned at the driving school, about who has the right of way).
The idea is simple: in the case of a meltdown, connect to the child’s right brain first, which governs the emotions, before we expect him to use his left brain, the logical side of the brain. In other words, connection first, then redirection.
Coming back to our Paris story, reasoning with him, like, “I’m sorry that your grass is gone, but we cannot go back to get new ones” didn’t work, it even made it worse. So, I crouched down so that we were at the same level, then, I just repeated whatever he was saying, raising my voice a bit so I could get his attention but still with an empathetic tone.
He said, while sobbing, “Ich möchte raus gehen! (I want to go out!)“ I replied, “Achso, Aidan möchte raus gehen (I see, Aidan wants to go out).” After several exchanges like this, he looked at me then sat on my lap. Finally, the connection was established!
The point is, first of all, to make him feel heard and understood, and also, to put labels on his feelings.
“Aidan ist wutend (Aidan is angry),” I started.
He answered, “Ja! Ich bin wutend! (Yes! I am angry!)“
I continued with, “Weil… das Gras weggepustet ist (because the grass is blown away).”
He agreed again, and started telling me what he wanted to do with the grass: he wanted to build a sandcastle, then put grass in front of it as the grass field, just like in front of the Luxembourg Palace we had just been to. I then suggested that we get some leaves from the bushes or the trees, perhaps they could replace the grass. He agreed happily and then continued playing. So, mission redirection: success!
Preventing tantrums: routines and front-loading
Toddlers thrive on having structure and regular routines to their day. Having predictable routines is a powerful preventative approach to tantrums.
For example, we set our Google Home to tell us the time at each full hour. It helps the kids understand the concept of time, and helps us keep track of our time especially in the morning.
It will start at 8 a.m., marking the time for us to start the morning routine, and also, to let us know the weather of the day (“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!” said the Germans). At 9 a.m. on a weekday, Google will say, “It’s time for Kita!” So we should already be in front of the door, putting on shoes, ready to go.
At 8 p.m., Google will say, “It’s 8 p.m., time to go to bed!”
Our Neinhorn used to say, “Nein, nein, ich will nicht schlafen! (I don’t want to sleep!)“ to that.
We then usually allow him to play five more minutes, while cleaning up the toys a bit. Here we actually use Google’s announcement as our front-loading method, giving him time to process the transition from playtime to bedtime.
Nowadays, he doesn’t really reject bedtime anymore, but instead, he will say, “in fünf Minuten (in five minutes)“ or “Zuerst, Ich baue den Bahnhof fertig, dann gehe ich schlafen (First, I’ll finish building the train station, then I’ll go to sleep).” We even use a mechanical timer to show him how much time is ‘five minutes’.
Transitions are tough for all toddlers, but even more so for strong-willed ones. Take as an example going to the daycare after an exciting weekend. With a proper front-loading in the morning during breakfast, or even the night before, we prepare him of what’s coming after we finish breakfast. Again, there is always a room for negotiation regarding the time and activities, before we really get out of the house.
In the case of a huge transition, like welcoming a baby sister, it requires weeks-long front-loading.
Choose your battles
Having a strong-willed toddler, we are prone to power struggle. Just this morning, when we were about to leave the parking lot to go to the daycare, Aidan suddenly remembered that his dinosaur and his cat were left behind.
“Papa, bitte die rote Dinosaurier und die Katze holen, hmm? (Papa, please get the red dinosaurs and the cat, hmm?)“ he asked.
We always leave early enough to account for such unexpected events, so instead of saying no, we simply complied and fetched his friends.
Of course we have rules and boundaries for safety and well-being that are not up for negotiation, like, not stopping in the middle of a zebra cross, walking on the Kinderseite (children’s side) at the sidewalk, eating at the dining table, or taking a bath every Wednesday and Sunday. We just need rigorous consistency in enforcing them, otherwise the kids will think that the rules can be bent.
No-lose method in conflict resolution
Our Neinhorn loves rice and various vegetables, which is great, but we want him to eat protein too. Once at dinner, he asked for more rice, so the Bear offered a deal: he would get rice if he eats two pieces of chicken.
“Nein, nein! Ich will Reis, jetzt! (No no! I want rice, now!)“ he insisted.
We then made a compromise, one scoop of rice if he eats one piece of chicken. “Nein, nein! Reis jetzt!” he started to cry.
The Bear then explained, “Aidan, it seems that we have a conflict. I want you to eat your chicken, but you want to eat rice now.”
“Papa will? (Papa wants?)“ he asked, to confirm. The Bear patiently explained again what each of them wants.
He seemed to be lost in thought for a bit, and then, “Ich habe einen Deal. Weißt du was, Ich esse Reis zuerst, und danach esse ich chicken. (I have a deal. You know what, I’ll first eat rice, and I will eat chicken afterwards.)”
“Deal!” the Bear said, and they were shaking hands. He then kept his words of eating the chicken after he finished the rice. In the end, no one was losing the argument, and everyone was happy.
It’s not easy to come up with solutions that will make everyone happy. For this young Neinhorn to come up with one solution himself… it really made us swell with pride. Because it was the results of us patiently bargaining and offering compromises whenever conflicts arise. And he definitely learned from that.
We never scold our kids. We don’t yell, punish or do time out. But we’re not permissive, there is a huge difference between gentle parenting vs permissive parenting. Later when they’re older, we might need to punish them, but I think the key is to set age-appropriate expectations.
When our toddler cries or throws a tantrum, we never say, “Boys don’t cry”, “Don’t be a crybaby“, or “You look ugly when you cry” (which I think is still very commonly said in certain cultures). Because it will make him think that expressing his feelings is bad, or even punishable. Instead, we embrace him, soothe him, make sure he feels heard, understood, and loved… no matter what.
We don’t expect our kids to always be in a good mood, because it’s unreasonable even for adults. When the Bear and I were upset with each other, we didn’t hide our arguments from our kids (except for the big ones requiring lengthy discussion). Instead, we explained to them why we were arguing, how we solved it, and showed them that we still love each other. It’s actually a learning opportunity on how to cope with negative emotions.
Children see, children do
Modelling expected behavior is the ultimate way to gentle parenting. If we want them to be kind, we need to be kind to them, and also to others. We don’t want them to yell and scream, then never yell or scream. Children are keen observer though, so we need to be extra careful 😉
Once, after resolving a small argument, the Bear spanked me playfully. Aidan saw that and immediately copied the act, while saying, “Puk puk, Mama!” 😀 Ups…
This evening, after dinner, he climbed down his high chair and announced, “Nein, nein! Ich will nicht Hände waschen! (No, No! I don’t want to wash hands!)“, while running to the bathroom.
Then we could hear him muttering to himself in front of the mirror, “Mund ist sauber… Ja, Mund is sauber, sehr gut. (Mouth is clean… Yes, mouth is clean, very good.)“ So, no matter what he said, he would still follow the established routines.
I said to the Bear, “He sounds like a law-abiding anarchist”, to which he replied, “Lenin once said: ‘If Germans wanted to start a revolution, they’d buy train tickets to Berlin first.'” 😀