The moms behind Big Little Feelings share their toddler tricks — and why they 'don't believe that timeouts are the most effective'

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

If you have a toddler and an Instagram account, you're probably already one of the 2.6 million people following Big Little Feelings, whose fans include celebrity moms like Eva Mendes, Blake Lively, Maren Morris, Sophie Turner, Amy Schumer and more.

Deena Margolin, a child therapist specializing in interpersonal neurobiology, and Kristin Gallant, a parent coach with a background in maternal and child education, are the moms behind the parenting platform, which includes quick digestible tips shared with their Instagram community as well as paid online courses covering potty training and the myriad other challenges that come with toddler life. The duo, now based in Denver, first met playing softball in high school, and describe themselves as complete opposites who "perfectly complement each other," Gallant says. Despite their different personalities, they're on the same page when it comes to raising kids, so it made sense to team up when Gallant, whose two daughters are 3 and 5, noticed a gap in the parenting space for children who had aged out of infancy.

"Even though [we are] total opposites in motherhood, we are completely aligned," Gallant, who is pregnant with her third child, tells Yahoo Life of their approach to parenting. "It is the most at-ease type of thing when we are talking about any kind of tip or advice or game plan; it is seamless. And I think that's what makes it all work. When we started spitballing we were like, 'This is just incredible.'

"We always joke that we wish we could marry each other because we're just the same," she adds. "Like, I can leave my kids with her and it would be as if they're with me. It's so the same, even though we are total opposites on everything else. "Dina had an at-home, non-medicated birth with her doula and some candles, and I am like, charging into the hospital, wrap me up in a sheet, gimme the epidural, wake me up when it's over. We are so opposite and support each other in our personal lives. But when it comes to the real foundation of what we do, we are just always completely aligned."

Meet Deena Margolin and Kristin Gallant, the moms behind Big Little Feelings. (Photo: Courtesy of Big Little Feelings/Alex Morgan Design)
Meet Deena Margolin and Kristin Gallant, the moms behind Big Little Feelings. (Photo: Courtesy of Big Little Feelings/Alex Morgan Design)

That foundation, Margolin notes, is research-driven and "rooted in interpersonal neurobiology."

"Research shows that relationships and early life experiences between a kid and a caregiver shapes the way that your brain becomes wired," she says, "and basically builds a child's inner narrative of who they are, how the world works and how relationships work and builds the coping skills that they're going to bring with them throughout life."

"How does the brain get shaped from childhood on?" Gallant adds. "How can we foster it? How can we hold boundaries? We are not letting our kids walk all over us, but we are talking to them in a healthier way than maybe past generations might have."

Gallant and Margolin are hesitant to label the Big Little Feelings philosophy as any one particular parenting style, something they see as confusing and loaded with judgment for modern-day parents. While their guides cover discipline extensively, one thing they don't recommend is giving kids timeouts, something they acknowledge can be a "hot-button topic." (They also note that research does support timeouts in cases where the parent stays with the child and maintains a calm presence; either way, they're careful to avoid passing judgment on what other families do.)

"If you are doing timeouts or you believe in timeouts, great, OK," Gallant says. "People can get really fired up over timeouts. Do what works for your family. We at Big Little Feelings don't believe that timeouts are the most effective in the short term, nor the long term.

"In the short term, what we see happening is there's unwanted behavior," she explains. "Your child hits his sister or something like that. A timeout is rooted in punishment and punishments are rooted in fear. And so when we send a child away from us in that moment, what we're doing is we're ... teaching a lesson based in fear."

A toddler, she notes, will struggle to make sense of how being sent to his room, where he's now alone and distressed, is related to whatever incident he's being punished for. A better strategy is for parents to act as a "safe modeling space" and gently but firmly defuse the situation. Gallant recommends saying something that acknowledges the emotions at play but makes it clear that the misbehavior can't continue. Once things have cooled off, a parent can reflect on the moment with their child, who is by then calmer and more receptive to learning from it.

"'You're hitting your sister. You're feeling mad. I won't let you,'" she suggests as a sample script. "You can still hold that boundary. Don't let them hit; do whatever you have to do. And later during a calm moment, that's when the brain is ready to learn. That's when we can teach them better behavior."

Margolin adds that by sending a distressed or child to timeout, parents are sending the message that "we only want to be around you as your family when you are well-behaved or you are well-regulated. When you are having a tough time, we will isolate you and you will have to go by yourself. And in the long term, in terms of a healthy relationship and learning how to sit with and handle your own feelings in healthy ways, it just doesn't sit right, and it's not effective."

Talking through a toddler's emotions ("you're sad because we're leaving the playground") while holding a boundary is a mainstay of the Big Little Feelings philosophy. There's also the "10-Minute Miracle," which Margolin calls "one of our most popular toddler tricks." The premise is simple: Simply hang out with your child for 10 minutes of uninterrupted one-on-one time that is free from phones, TVs, siblings or other distractions.

"Anytime you are seeing an uptick in unwanted behavior or just not great behavior — screaming, hitting, whining, more tantrums than usual — use the '10-Minute Miracle' to deescalate those behaviors," she advises. "Basically toddlers want your attention so badly that they will use negative behaviors like hitting whining, screaming and kicking to get your attention. And the '10-Minute Miracle' is about proactively filling up their attention tank so that they don't have to rely on negative behaviors."

"Play It Cool," meanwhile, is their strategy for exposing picky eaters to new foods, the idea being that hovering over a child's plate and insisting that they take a bite of, say, a broccoli tot before digging into their cookie will only backfire because it creates too much pressure. Using dessert as some sort of leverage, Gallant adds, will only make it more enticing. Based on their research, she and Margolin recommend a more hands-off approach that includes serving meals — including dessert — without comments like "just one more bite" or "good job eating those peas." A child is more likely to experiment when they're given the space to do so.

Toddlers aren't the only ones with Big Little Feelings. Gallant and Margolin are quick to point out in their posts that if adults struggle to self-regulate their moods, it's hard to expect a 2-year-old to do so. At the end of the day, parents are imperfect humans, though they can give themselves grace, find healthy ways to express those emotions and apologize if tempers flare.

"Honestly, half of the work is ourselves," Gallant says. "As much as we want to have perfectly behaved little human beings. I think that realistically, our kids melt down and we melt down. ... Half of the work is just normalizing that a child is going to struggle and we are going to struggle at certain moments."

She and Margolin haven't shied away from sharing their own struggles, getting candid about marriage, miscarriage, mental health and the challenges of nursing. Gallant, who recently documented in detail her emotional IVF journey, admits that being so open can occasionally result in mom-shaming.

"When I see one bad thing, it does just derail me," she says, explaining that negative comments can hit hard because she feels so deeply connected to their followers and what's happening in their own lives.

"It definitely doesn't feel good, and that's been something that we had to learn how to handle and get through," Margolin agrees. "But at the same time, every time I see comments like that that are judgmental or just critical, it kind of fuels me to make that my mission: to not judge parents, not judge moms. Like, parenting is already the hardest job in the world. The last thing we need is judgment. We need support."

— Video produced by Stacy Jackman.

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