Toddler Conflict Resolution Tool: Remember It’s Just Spilled Milk

The late Toddler Milestones, starting around 2 years, 10 months and lasting until 3 years, can be especially difficult. A child becomes bossy, is upset over the smallest things, clumsy, and just very, very difficult. Add to this a child who stays up late or maybe whacks you over the head with something hard, and it’s an explosive mix. This Toddler Conflict Resolution Tool is mostly a reminder that it’s growth and how you handle these moments really matters: “Remember It’s Just Spilled Milk.” It is best told in story format from one of my own personal trying days.

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My daughter, 2 1/2, dropped a smoothie in a tall glass cup, which shattered on our rug. It was all I could do to remember the Dr. Ginott advice of, “The milk spilled, let’s get a rag.” I admit my initial, blind reaction was an exasperated, “Emily!” I immediately moved to start calming myself down, but I admit thinking, “Ok, the smoothie is all over the rug as well as splinters of glass, let’s get a rag” was a bit overwhelming. I admit further I had a salacious desire to yell, “What’s wrong with you?” I did not do this. I write about this kind of thing to let other parents know that others have this reaction too, to give some tools to deal with it, and to maybe prepare your heart for the next time you deal with it.

The advice that helps me the most is that of Dr. Tsabary to keep conscious tab of your emotions. I did that. I was fully aware and present with my negative emotion. It’s hard. I remember almost this exact situation with my first child, when he was almost this exact age, when he spilled coffee on my laptop, then kept hitting his sister. Incidents like this caused me to look for tools for better emotional regulation. At the time, I tried using a timer to tell myself I wasn’t allowed to respond until the timer was done. The timer kept getting lost. A real deep breath and being present with my emotions have been the most powerful tools I’ve found to date.

I did go to clean up the mess. I was thinking, “Oh my! And we are not getting another smoothie after this! No way!” That was my thought; it was not what I said. I even wanted to yell, “There is glass everywhere! Stay away!” I did not say this either. The truth is most glass was picked up and saying that was less concern for the child and more my exasperation.

I got a paper towel and a bag to clean it up. As I cleaned it up, and moved towards the solution, I calmed down greatly. My daughter came over and said, “I’ll help you fix it!” I realized in this moment what a learning experience this was. This really is not just a matter of one incident; this stuff shapes the character of children and how they will handle these sticky moments in the future. Like Dr. Siegel writes in The Whole-Brain Child, moments like this allow you to thrive instead of just survive, if handled right. I did point out to her that a mess was made and that we were cleaning it up. I didn’t do this to show her she was “wrong,” but that her actions did cause a mess, and, accident or not, we move to repair any damage we cause.

I kept calming down and calming down. I remembered the advice in one of the Positive Discipline books about how “Try Again” is a magical phrase for a child. Maybe I could make another smoothie.

I did make another smoothie. I thought about saying, “And be careful!” I know better. This is not a good thing to say. Instead, as I went to make the smoothie, I said, “We’ll try the smoothie again.” This is a much better thing to say. It doesn’t assume the child is a screw up like “Be careful” does and instead infuses confidence into the child. When I handed the second smoothie to my daughter, she said, “I don’t want to spill it!” She already knows it was a problem. It’s already “in” them to want to be respectful. We don’t have to rub their noses in their mistakes.

Afterwards, we talked about the incident. I also learned this from The Whole-Brain Child by Dr. Siegel. He writes to do this for traumatic events. You tell the story over and over, slowly at first, until it is processed and becomes just a past memory. I use it often, whenever anything like this happens. My daughter keeps asking and talking about how the smoothie spilled, and we keep talking about how it was a mistake, but we moved to fix it, and I give her a high five and thank her for helping me.

See my book with more, Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

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