Category Archives: Tantrums

Q&A: post-holiday tantrums

Theresa writes:

"Anyone else have a rough week last week now that the holidays are over? My son (6) was back to school, I was back to the miserable commute, the
babysitter (whom he loves) was back – and by Thursday we were in
full-blown tantrum mode (we haven't been there for a while).  From
Thursday through the rest of the weekend, we had multiple tantrums a
day.  I think the major triggers were interruptions on his time with me
(not so much his dad, who is more of the primary caretaker now that
I've got the commute from hell), but they could also start over being
asked to practice piano, being asked to finish dinner, stuff that is
never usually a problem.

So I'm wondering if this is just a temporary "end of holidays/vacation"
reaction or something more serious.  I'm also wondering how people deal
with tantrums generally.  I'm a bit at my wit's end right now (to the
point where yesterday, I just ended up resorting to pure bribery)."

Oh, what's a little bribery between friends?

Seriously, though, there's all sorts of stuff I never thought I'd do as a parent, including bribery, that I do without a second thought as long as it gets the job done and prevents those ridiculous, out-of-the-blue, sucker-punch tantrums that make you want to throw yourself on your sword.

And, yeah, we've been having some crazytime here Chez Moxie. I'd been attributing it both to the return to "normal" from the winter break and also to the kids having spent several days in a row with either one or the other of their dad and me (usually they see both of us on most days).

Now, I do think some of this with my older one is that he's almost 7, so I'd say definitely go read through the assessments of what being 7 is like in the comments from hedra and Sharon Silver especially.

But I really think it's just trying to get back to a regular routine after a few weeks of everything being different and more relaxed. Whether your child did better or worse with a less structured day, it's still stressful to go back to a routine and school. I think the key is just to stay consistent and calm (as calm as possible) and know that your child will adjust back within the next few weeks.

How has everyone else been doing? This is the second week back for most of us, so I'm imagining that things are settling way back down from last week. How did you get through the shift?

Q&A: 20-month-old scratcher

Kathy writes:

"I'm sorry about the long email but my husband and I are losing ourpatience fast. It all began with a recently trip to Jamaica. On our way
there, our 20 month old son refused to nap. By the end of our trip, he
was screaming, squirming and scratching at our faces. He's never been a
scratcher but we just thought he was deliriously tired and acting out.
While we were in Jamaica, he scratched our faces a handful of times but
again it was only when he was tired. Our trip back was an absolute
nightmare. My husband and I look like we got into a fight with a rabid
tiger and lost. Since we've been back 3 days ago, the scratching has
gotten out of control.

We've tried the serious voice and stern
"No scratching. It hurts mommy/daddy." He will either not care or claw
at us again. We moved to the "Ouch. That hurts" with a fake cry. His
response is to scream at the top of his lungs… not the I'm sorry
scream but the don't piss me off scream. We even tried the time out
thing today but he was perfectly content to just sit there. We try to
intercept his hand before it gets to our face but he's like a ninja. We
rarely see it coming.

scratching is sort of random. Sometimes he's tired or angry but other
times we're having fun together and he'll reach out and take a piece of
my face off. Everything that I've read says to be firm, consistent and
wait it out but I'm not sure if we can wait weeks or even months. We
won't have any skin left on our faces.

Any other tactics or advice? "

First off, I'd cut his nails and then file them down as far as you can without hurting him, just to reduce the efficacy of his weapons!

I have to say that it doesn't surprise me at all that your son is 20 months and is doing this. Remember how we've talked about the whole 18-month evil phase? The kids just get so frustrated and have no autonomy so they basically just lash out. And then something seems to ease around 21 months–they get more words, they seem to have more physical fluidity, and they just seem to be more in command and less stressed all the time.

What that means is that 20 months is the end of the build-up of frustration. I get dozens of questions from people about why their 20-month-olds won't eat, and that's all about controlling the one thing they can control. I think this scratching is the same thing–he can't control things and has so much anger and frustration inside of him. It's probably exacerbated by being back from vacation and feeling tired and off-kilter, and missing all the piña coladas and warmth of Jamaica.

I don't think you're going to be able to magically stop it, but I do think you might be able to ease it until he gets older and more able to deal with his conflicting emotions and urges. I think helping him express his feelings and wants might give him a little more space. So definitely start signing, if you haven't been doing any already. (And if you've been doing it but have tapered off, ramp up again.) People loooove the Signing Time DVDs, and you can also use the Michigan State ASL browser online (you need QuickTime on your computer to use it, but you can download it free if you don't already have it).

The other thing you could do is to verbalize his feelings for him. If you can tell he's getting frustrated with something, you can say "You're frustrated. That's making you feel angry and like you want to scratch something!" and then give him a chance to confirm. It's got to be so horrible at this age to have so many complex feelings and not be able to express them so adults can understand! If a grown-up gets what you're feeling and can tell you they understand, that makes things better, even just a little. Everyone just wants to be understood, no matter how old or young we are.

The part about it coming out of the blue is, I think, also just human nature. Think about times when you're carrying around something that's been bugging you, and sometimes you can only be angry about it or mention it when things are back to being calm or happy. And the person who has to hear your anger is blindsided by it. Same thing here, only with physical pain.

Aside from this, I think it's going to help you if you can think of it in terms not of your son acting naughty or trying to hurt you on purpose, but as a problem you need to solve together. Clearly he's feeling awful and angry and frustrated and is just lashing out because he's got nothing else. So whatever you can do to help him reconnect and feel like he's got some power over himself is going to help, and shutting him off (with time-outs or other "discipline" stuff that's really just punishment) is going to make things worse. But you knew that–I just thought it was worth reminding all of us of it again. (And again, and again. Parenting is hard, y'all.)

What else do you guys have for Kathy? Stories? I'm hanging on here by a thread with a chest cough and aching head, so I'm praying my younger one will take a nap (he's in the middle of dropping it) so I can, too.

More unformed thoughts on those rough times (3 1/2-year-olds)

So I've been thinking a lot about this 3 1/2-year-old thing. And how it really seems to me like all the "difficult" stages seem to be at times that double: 4 months, 9 months, 18 months, 3 1/2 years, 7 years, 14 years. I don't know if that means anything, except that if you're 28 maybe you're having a tough time, too. And 56 might also be rough…

Anyway, it seems like the difficulties start out more weighted toward the physical but become progressively more emotional as the people get older. So that first rough stage at 4 months is mostly about being fussy and not being able to sleep. Then at 9 months it's not sleeping but more generalized crankiness. 1 months seems to be a tie between physical and emotional distress, and then by 3 1/2 it really seems to be mostly emotional (even if all of this is caused by some physical process of development in the brain).

It feels to me, from being on the outside of it, that the developmental spurt that's happening somehow seems to remove the protective emotional layers somehow, so that all the person's emotions are right there, waiting to bubble over at any second. The person on the inside can't process or deal with or control them. Which is why they get stuck in a "Pick me up!! Put me down!!" loop. It's like they have an exposed nerve, and any time anything brushes against it they just go off from the overload.

I've noticed that when I'm feeling emotionally fried, my child being in one of these emotional wack-out times just sets me off, too. But when I'm on an even keel, my response just instinctively seems to be more one of "Oh you poor sweet little thing. Let me give you a hug."

Does this resonate with anyone? About any of the stages? About yourself? Or do you think there's something different or more going on?

Hitting, biting, pushing, etc.

A blogger who may not wish to be named writes about her 2-year-old:

"[Kid] is hitting. When disciplined, she laughs. And then hits again. I'veslapped her hand (now for the third time, something I'm not proud of)
instinctively (why does being hit make you want to hit back?), which
she also thinks is very, very funny.

Today, she picked up her toy computer and, full force, smacked the
dog in the head with it and when we
tried a time out (I know you don't like them, but I don't know what
else to do) she laughed. She reacts, a bit, to our anger–meaning she
stops what she's doing for a second and then starts to run away–while
continuing the action.


I'm at wits fucking end here. We do 1-2-3 magic with
most things and that has been working really, really well. But not with
the hitting. Help?"

Man, I hate that reflexive hitting. I've done it, too, and it just seems to happen before I know what I've done. It makes me feel like a big old jerk, although apparently it's acceptable <eyeroll>, at least according to the people who make those V8 commercials in which the wife sees that the husband isn't eating any vegetables and smacks him on the forehead. Srsly, why they wanna play us like that? We don't have enough problems with 1) eating vegetables, 2) relating to our spouses, and 3) expressing anger appropriately already? They need to make that stupid commercial with the tired old gag from the 70s?

I think the not instinctively hitting back is just something else we can work on, and I'm guessing eventually the instinct just goes away. People who never reflexively hit and have never had the urge to: Were you hit as a kid? Because it's my suspicion that the reflexive hitting happens because it happened to us when we were small.

But anyway, on to the problem. It sounds like she's frustrated or angry. It's certainly the right age for it. And it's a problem that a lot of kids that age have. Some manifest it by hitting, or biting, or scratching, or kicking, or whatever.

I've talked about this a couple of times in the past, but the important thing to keep in mind in this phase is that it's totally OK for your kid to feel frustrated and/or angry. It's not OK for your kid to hurt people or animals. You don't want to try to make your kid suppress their rage or act "good" or anything that teaches them that what they're feeling is wrong or doesn't matter. The end result of that is that they go underground and start hiding from you.

But you do want to teach the kids that there are things they just never do. And hurting animals is one of them. One way to do this is to give them a designated alternate thing to hit. Some people have gotten a little pillow that they carry around, and whenever the kid starts to hit they reinforce that they can't hit mommy or the dog or whatever, so they should hit the pillow instead. Help the kid hit the pillow, and while it's happening help the kid verbalize the feelings. ("You're angry!") Here's a post from the wayback machine about how I used this idea to get my older one to stop biting people when he was this age.

Giving them a substitute allows them to feel and express their anger when they're still too young to verbalize it well, while also teaching them that there are always ways you can express anger that don't hurt other people.

Anyone else? Did you do things that you thought worked well when your kid went through a phase like this? And how did you deal with the reflexive hitting if you've felt the urge?

Reader call: Car seat rage

The other day I schlepped my cats and both boys almost a mile in the snow to the vet (uphill both ways), and wondered "Why don’t I live someplace where I can just have a car??" But then I got this email, and felt like a jerk for my car-free self-pity:

"Please help….my child hates being in a car seat and facing backwards. She’s only 7 month old, so turning the seat around is a long wait. She can manage if someone sits in the back with her, but if no one there she throws tantrums. I’ve tried toys, singing, holding her hand while driving, but nothing seems to work. this winter is extremely cold, and its impossible to walk outside for long periods of time, so the idea is to go to the mall. But with this problem its even harder to drive to the mall than slippery roads and cold wind blowing in our faces. Please suggest something that I can do to make her more content with not having someone next to her for 15min drive."

I can remember a 6-hour drive with a 6-week-old screaming almost the whole time. But that seems to have wiped my car seat rage memory. In previous posts on this topic people have suggested that the baby might be carsick facing backwards, and that that may be contributing a lot to her anger. I’m not sure what the solution would be. You could try the Sea Band wristlets. I’d walk into the health food store and ask if they had anything homeopathic (not herbal) to alleviate motion sickness and try that. You could try a remedy like dramamine, but some kids react badly to it.

Readers? Any other suggestions, either of ways to deal with the screaming or to stop motion sickness if that’s contributing to it?

Q&A: 20-month-old afraid of an 8-month-old?

Shelley writes:

"I have a 20 month old son and an 8 month old daughter.
My son runs and hides behind me and screams frantically whenever my daughter
crawls towards him.  What’s up with this?"

Heh. I’m imagining your daughter as a pint-sized Godzilla, storming through Tokyo as your son cowers behind Century Tower.

I think he’s probably scared because she’s crawling, and that just freaks him out. It’s the same reason some adults freak out when we see a mouse running across the floor or a large spider crawling on the wall. Even though we’re way bigger than the mouse or the spider, it’s the crawling aspect and the "otherness" that scares us.

I have no idea what to do about it, really until she starts to walk, at which point I’m pretty sure he’ll stop being afraid of her. Maybe some of the readers have a suggestion about what to do to stop the screaming and cowering? I’ll just tell you to make sure you videotape his reaction at least once, because it’ll be priceless when they’re older.

Q&A: almost 3 years old

Ellen writes:

"I have a 2 year and 10 month old son and he is very independent andwants to do or have whatever he wants. everything ends up in either
crying for 30 minutes or screaming till he gets it. he does not want to
go to bed to sleep at night and he says no we have to stay downstairs
and play. he used to like going out to places and play but now every
time we ask him do you want to go out to even places he likes and he
says no I want to stay home.he does not want to learn to potty and he
says do not put pull ups on me. he does not let me change his pull ups
either. My husband and I are frustrated and need help."

Oh, yeah. That all sounds veeeery familiar (but through the lens of time not as distrubing as it actually was when it was happening). I remember that stage well.

I also remember thinking I was doing something wrong, or that there was something wrong with my son. Then I ended up buying the Ames & Ilg book about 3-year-olds, Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy. The name pretty much says it all, no?

(I’ve talked about the Ames & Ilg books before. They were written in the ’70s by researchers at the Gesell Institute of Human Development, and they go into all sorts of little details of children’s behavior at each age. Lots of what they say is totally anachronistic–the assumption that all mothers are at home with their kids all day, for example–but the descriptions of child behavior is dead on. I definitely recommend them as references to let you know that your kid is normal, but don’t expect to get much current evidence-based advice about what you should do about your kid’s I-though-it-was-strange-but-it-turns-out-to-be-totally-normal behavior.)

The thing that truly freaked me out about that age was that my son suddenly didn’t want to go outside anymore. He really would have stayed inside our small apartment for months at a time if I’d have let him. It made no sense, and I thought somehow he’d gotten agoraphobia until I read that this was a feature of the age (and here I thought it was a bug).

As for the screaming, would you like to guess what Ames & Ilg say to do? Have the child spend as much time with a babysitter as possible. (Because often kids that age cooperate with people they can tell aren’t as invested in getting them to do something.)

Reading that made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Then I laughed again. Partly because it wasn’t practical, partly because it just seemed so Mother’s Little Helper, and partly because it made me realize that it wasn’t me and it wasn’t my kid. Apparently many of them are just unbearable sometimes at this age.

What I ended up doing was sitting down and figuring out what were the exact rules I cared about (bedtime–yes, what he ate for supper–no, etc.) and standing absolutely firm on what I cared about, and allowing everything else from the get-go. That meant I never said "no" and then changed it to a yes. It was either always no, or OK as soon as he asked. After many arduous weeks, he finally started to get that the crying wouldn’t get him what he wanted. And it was either that or just the passage of time that eased the situation for us.

So I’d say to pick your battles (probably you’ll enforce bedtime and insist on changing his diaper, but give in on going outside all the time) and just know that it’s a phase. If you can give him enough choices to feel like he has some control over his life it might be easier, or it might not.

Anyone have any amazing tricks for that age? Please share.

Q&A: Enough crying already!

Blake writes:

"Please help I don’t know what to do.  I am a stay at
home mom (engineer) of a 20 month old and a 3 year old.  My 20 month old seems
to cry all the time instead of using his words to get what he wants.  He does
not have a great vocabulary yet but knows a lot of words (juice, snack, bath, night
night, more, etc).  I am so sick of the crying and I have tried time out for unnecessary
crying and it works for the moment but then he just cries the next time.  I
feel like it is frustration but I don’t know how to make him stop every
time he wants something.  He throws fits, hits and kicks and I ignore him or
put him in time out.  I don’t know how to make this stop.  Can you help
me please?"

Hey! My younger one is turning 2 next week, and this was our house 4 months ago.

I actually think this is pretty common for a younger child (I’m talking birth order, not chronological age). They seem not to be as verbal as early as the older children. Everyone says that it’s because the older child talks for them or gets them whatever they need, but I think that’s only part of it. Another part is that I think lots of us, despite our best intentions, just hand the second child whatever they want just to make things go more smoothly because we’re trapped between the demands of the older child and the demands of the younger child. (I’m raising my hand.) So the child gets rewarded for crying. Which in turn makes us nuts, and we just want the crying to end. It turns into one big crazy-making cycle.

Of course we know that the answer is just to be firm about not responding to crying, encouraging use of words, blah blah freaking blah. Who has the energy or time for that with the second child? The fact of the matter is that in a few months he’ll be able to talk more and will discover the joys of having his requests met cheerfully and more rapidly. The free market will regulate itself and he’ll do a little more talking and a little less crying every day, until one day you’ll suddenly realize that he hasn’t cried, not even a crocodile tear, for a whole 30-minute period.

And then he’ll turn 3, and it’ll all go down the tubes again temporarily.

One thing that helped us a lot here was for me to verbalize for him what his negative feelings were. "You’re so angry! You wanted that truck but it belongs to your brother and he’s playing with it. You want to scream and hit someone! You just feel angry and sad and frustrated all at the same time."  Having his feelings expressed for him seemed to be all he needed, and then he could calm down. (If it works for you, you can thank my therapist, who pointed out that a lot of the recurring anger and tantrums were probably because he wasn’t feeling understood, and suggested the verbalizing technique.)

In other news, I think the time-out is highly ineffective for a
20-month-old, but it is probably extraordinarily effective for you. So
when you just can’t take it, instead of putting him in a time-out, put yourself in one with a magazine and a beverage of your choice for 5 minutes. Then you’ll be able to return to the scene of the donnybrook with a little more strength and calm than when you left.

Courage. This stage won’t last much longer. You’re doing a great job.

Q&A: 6-year-old and clothing battles

Liz writes:

"I’m struggling with my 6 year old daughter and her clothing.  Every morning it’s the same scenario…. we try to get dressed, she flings herself and saysthis or that doesn’t feel right.  When shopping for her clothes – I try
to buy only comfortable items, no wool, no "scratchy" fabric, etc….
We waste a lot of money on her clothing since she will just reject an
item and never try it again.  I’m getting extremely frustrated and want
to stop this early morning craziness!"

All my readers will say to have her pick her outift the night before, including undergarments and shoes, and lay them out so she can get dressed quickly in the morning. And that will be great advice, unless she does that but then refuses to wear them the next morning.

My suggestion is to figure out if there’s something she’ll wear consistently. Any outfit at all, no matter how boring. If
there is, then buy at least 5 of them and have her wear the same thing every
day. This will help if there’s really something bugging her about other clothes. (And you never know. One friend’s daughter wouldn’t wear anything with fasteners. Another would only wear pink things.)

there’s nothing she’ll always wear, then I wonder if it’s a control
thing for her, and would try to look at what else is going on in her
life that makes her need to control her situation so completely. This could be just a different version of the whole "I’m not eating anything you try to give me" thing that is so common in toddlers. If you can figure out ways to give her more control in other areas, and then establish a consistent pattern for choosing clothes (like having her choose the night before and then stick to that choice the next morning), you might be able to stop the battles.

Good luck. It’s not fair–you really shouldn’t have to deal with clothing battles until your daughter turns 12.

Q&A: 3-year-old freakouts

Continuing with the theme of aggressive behavior…

In the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten half a dozen emails from parents concerned about 3-year-olds and truly agressive behavior, from screaming fits to hitting and attacking other kids and adults, to self-mutilation.

Now remember that I’m no expert. I only go by the things I’ve tried and seen work or not with my kids and all the other parents I talk to (including you all in the comments and by email). I do believe that you know your own child best, and that careful observation is a parent’s best friend. So let me break down the things that I’ve observed seem to make 3-year-olds into strange tantruming fiends.

Stuff they’re ingesting. Occasionally I’ll get an email from a parent describing a child who seems to be completley unable to contrl his or her out-of-control behavior. Discipline and even outright punishments don’t work, and the child seems to be held a prisoner of his or her outbursts. It’s as if the kid has no ability to stop.

To me that indicates that there is something physical going on that is making the child act this way. (If you’ve ever been in pain for a prolonged period, you get what I mean. So much of your energy is going into dealing with the pain that you just have no control over the rest of you, adn you can be pretty vicious with other people.) SInce it’s doubtful that your child has suddenly developed some strange illness, I’d take a look at what’s going into your child’s mouth.

By the age of 3, most kids are not under their parents’ control at all times anymore. Any hope you had of controlling everything that goes into your kid’s mouth is completely out the window. Either they’re at daycare or preschool eating who-knows-what, or with a babysitter or adult relative (who may be feeding them candy or other treats) or at playdates with other kids. That means there’s plenty of opportunity for your child to be eating things with artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and MSG. You’re going to ahve to be a real detective to figure out if your kid’s eating this kind of stuff. If s/he is, enlist the help of the other adults you child interacts with to go cold turkey on that stuff for 2-3 weeks to see if it helps. For some kids it seems to be a huge factor in negative behavior, and ocne their systems are clear of the chemicals they gain control of the actions like any other 3-year-old has (which is to say in a limited by improving way).

Transitions. Normally we think of transitions as being a problem for young toddlers ("Say goodbye to the trains"), but it hits 3-year-olds, too. Maybe even more so, because now they’re able to really be absorbed in an activity, and also to know what’s going to happen next. If you have a 3-year-old who’s having problems with transitions, try to build more time into your schedule to cushion the transition time. Maybe get to preschool/daycare pickup a few minutes early so you have time to sit down and play for 5 minutes with your child before it’s time to put on coats and go home. Develop some ritual that the child can look forward to as soon as you leave school, so there’s something positive to go toward. Talk about how hard it is to leave or switch activities. Whatever you end up doing, validate your child’s feelings, because that will help him or her feel more open about talking to you about what’s making him/her so upset. More talking means less acting out.

Loss of control. It’s still such a big issue for this age. Hey, who am I kidding? It’s still an issue for most 50-year-olds I know, so how could it not be for a 3-year-old? They still ahve no control over most aspects of their lives, from when they wake up to where they go to whether they have to share their parents with a younger sibling. It’s enough to really just piss a person off and make her want to throw something or bite someone. Giving kids as much choice as you can (with what they wear, what they eat from two or three options, what music you listen to in the car, who they invite over to play, what games to play after supper, etc.) the easier this will be for them. That might cut down on the tantrums.

Problems dealing with scary emotions. This is just a variation of loss of control, but it’s different because the loss of control is coming from inside themselves. Kids (yeah, adults, too) have problems managing and processing big emotions. It’s good for your child to have big emotions, even negative scary ones. You’ll help your child accept and manage those emotions by giving them the vocabulary to talk through them. Keep on talking your child through the tantrums and feelings, even if your child seems to be verbal enough to do it themselves. "You’re feeling really angry because you couldn’t stay at Jack’s house. It makes you mad!" Helping them give a name to the feelings is going to validate those feelings and also release some of the need to use violence to express them. Eventually you can help your child think of ways to feel better, like making a plan to go back to Jack’s house in a few weeks, or playing with Play-Dough when you get home, or something like that.

Those are the big things I can think of for this age. Anyone else either in this phase or past it who’s noticed something else? Anyone just want to commiserate about how challenging 3 can be for both child and parents?