On a recent family vacation, my toddler son got on a hot cocoa kick, as one does in July. My father decided to help me out one morning and make the hot cocoa for him. From the other room, I heard escalating cries of, “Mama doesn’t do that! Mama does it different!”
From the level of panic in his voice, you would have thought my dad had dumped the hot cocoa on his head. In actuality, he had used water instead of milk, and had tasted the cocoa to see if it was too hot before giving it to my son.
He had changed the recipe and the process, not good. So what happened here? Can you chalk it up to random acts of toddler madness? Well, that would be easy to do, but toddler tantrums are in fact not usually random. They are frequently due to to something upsetting their need for order.
What is the sensitive period for order?
Through her observations of young children, Maria Montessori identified several “sensitive periods,” a time when a child has a particularly strong desire and ability to learn about something.
From birth through toddlerhood, children are in a sensitive period for order where they seek and crave order, repetition and routine. Though it’s stronger in some children than in others, most toddlers need things to be predictable and when they’re not, they lose it.
This means that they may want to always sit in the same chair at the dinner table. They may want their food carefully organized on their plate. They may lose it if you run out of yogurt, and they always have yogurt for breakfast.
What’s the big deal? Why does order matter?
Predictability helps toddlers make sense of the world. They are working so hard to figure things out, and it can be very upsetting to them if something they consider a fact of life is suddenly debunked.
I know this sounds silly—I mean, there are plenty of acceptable breakfasts in the world—but imagine if a basic rule of society were suddenly and arbitrarily changed. Imagine if you woke up today and read in the news that from now on red lights would mean go and green lights would mean stop. It would probably be pretty upsetting, and maybe even a little scary.
Toddlers are absorbing so much new information about the world all of the time and they are trying to organize that information into a framework that makes sense. They rely on routine and predictability to form the framework of their daily lives.
Does this mean that you should give in to every whim and demand of your 2-year-old? Of course not, but it does help to understand where they’re coming from.
They’re not crying about you taking a different route on their daily stroller walk to ruin your day, they’re crying because their world feels shaken with these small changes.
Here’s how to navigate your toddler through the sensitive period:
1. Be predictable when possible
It might sound boring, but try to make your daily life as predictable as possible when your child is at the height of their sensitive period for order. This stage doesn’t last long, and it will be a lot more pleasant for everyone if your child has a predictable routine.
Does this mean every day has to look the same?
No. It’s important for both you and your child to get out in the world, but having little routines throughout the day provides the scaffolding your child needs to feel like their world is stable and solid.
You may do something totally different between breakfast and nap every day, but keeping these little routines very predictable gives your child the sense of security they need to be adaptable in the in-between times.
2. Provide an organized environment
While small children are known for being messy, they can actually be quite tidy under the right conditions. Toddlers like a place for everything. They cannot understand a complicated organizational system for toys and if they’re overwhelmed, they will likely not try to put things away.
If you have simple toy shelves with just a few toys, each in its own spot, many toddlers will start to put their toys away on their own.
3. Recognize their need
If you see your toddler starting to melt down, or if you sense the panic in their voice, pause and try to identify if a change in routine is what’s upsetting them.
Does their dad always give them a bath, but he’s traveling today? Do they always use their green water cup for dinner, but it’s in the dishwasher? You won’t always be able to satisfy their need for routine in the moment, but you can recognize it and empathize.
This doesn’t mean they will necessarily stop crying or calm down, but it will be easier for you to stay calm during the tantrum if you understand what’s happening.
4. Offer choices
They may feel helpless when their predictable routine changes, but you can sometimes preempt a meltdown by giving them back a sense of control. If there will be a change in routine, try offering choices to give your child a sense of control.
You might say, “Your green cup is dirty today. Would you like a red cup or a blue cup for your water?”This only works if you can preempt the tantrum. If your toddler has already lost it, they won’t be able to hear you or have a logical discussion.
5. Talk about changes together
If you know there will be a major disruption to your child’s routine, talk about it ahead of time. The stronger your child’s sense of order is, the more important this will be.
If your child usually goes to school in the morning but has a doctor’s appointment tomorrow, talk to them about exactly how the morning will look.
If you always eat lunch at home during the week and then go straight to nap, but have lunch plans with a friend instead, talk to them about how that routine will look.
My own toddler threw one of his most memorable tantrums ever after a lunch date. He wanted to sit down for lunch when we got home instead of getting ready for a nap. He wasn’t hungry, he just relied on this daily routine. If I had explained the change ahead of time, the day might have gone differently.
If you understand your child’s need for order, there is actually a big upside. Children with a strong sense of order also often have a reverence for rules that comes in quite handy. Young children can be wonderful helpers and will often put things away without being asked if they understand where everything goes.
A strong sense of order comes with some challenges, but it can also be quite helpful if you understand what is happening. It’s certainly reassuring to know that your toddler is not simply an OCD tyrant with seemingly absurd demands.
A child’s sense of order may make no sense to us at times, but it is simply their way of trying to make sense of an unpredictable world.