Category Archives: Tantrums

Q&A: aggressive behavior in babies and toddlers

HS writes:

"I have a  2 year 8 month old boy who is very active. He
also goes to a daycare in our neighborhood and he had been bitten twice in the
back by some other 2 year old. When I asked about it the daycare director told
me that I should not worry because that’s the way 2yr olds defends
themselves.  I really don’t like seen ugly bite marks on my
son.  Can you suggest a way in which I could tell the director to make
sure that won’t happen again?

She also told me that because my son did not say anything
they were not able to catch the accident on time.  I want to make sure
that these ladies who are watching over my kid do their job."

Huh? "That’s the way 2-year-olds defend themselves?" So that means that they just let the biting go on without attempting to stop it? Interesting logic. So they’d think it was appropriate if you punched the mother of the other kid in the face, because that’s how parents defend their kids? Somehow I don’t think so.

There are two truths about emotions in children: 1) There’s nothing wrong with having angry or frustrated or aggressive or other negative feelings. It’s a part of being human, and we should worry about kids who never feel free to express anything negative. The only problem is expressing them in inappropriate ways. 2) One of the most important jobs adults have with regards to children is helping them learn how to manage their emotions, especially the big and scary ones.

It sounds like those daycare providers are taking too much of point #1 to heart, and thinking the kids are magically going to learn to do point #2 on their own, without adult guidance. But how could they? Kids don’t learn to talk without hearing any other people talking. Doing something as complex as managing their emotions is far more difficult, so it requires even more adult guidance.

There are several components to teaching kids to manage their emotions. The first is setting boundaries so the child knows what’s acceptable and what’s not. That should start as early as a child starts to show negative behavior. Some kids are as young as 6 months when they start scratching or hitting, and right around 9 months to a year is a super-common time for that whacking in the face, stealing of the glasses, pulling hair, etc. that many of us have experienced with our kids.

Setting boundaries (especially for kids that age, but really for anyone of any age you’re setting boundaries with) doesn’t mean being mean or punitive. It just means making it abundantly clear what’s acceptable and what’s not. How you do it depensd on your particular child and what motivates him/her. For example, my older one does not respond well to verbal cues (despite the fact that he talks all the livelong day–go figure) and has always needed me to physically intervene to show him the boundaries. So when he was teeny and bit me while nursing, I’d scream (just because it hurt) and then unlatch him and put him out of reach so he couldn’t nurse anymore right then. When he was older and pulling hair, I’d tell him No but also pick him up and put him across the room so he couldn’t touch me. When he was biting other kids at age 2, I’d watch for it and before he bit I’d put my hand between his shark teeth and the other child and guide his head away and off somewhere else to distract him. My second one responds much more to verbal cues (and he’s not anywhere near as verbal himself as his brother was at this age) so I use more of the "you can do this, you cannot do that" kind of talk with him.

While you’re setting the boundaries, it’s important to talk the kid through those boundaries to help the child get that tape in their head. Have you ever heard a little kid looking at a temptation and saying something like "I not touch that" as they look longingly at that thing? That’s exactly what you want to happen, that the kid develops an internal dialogue about what they should and shouldn’t do. So when you’re working on not hitting you, you should be saying something about not hitting people but hitting a pillow instead. When you’re working on not snatching toys out of a younger sibling’s hand, you should be repeating "Find something to trade him!" to get that tape playing in his head. It’s not going to make a change overnight, but it does get the pattern established of positive self-talk and rehearsing actions before you do them.

The other two components that are very important in helping kids manage negative emotions are distraction and giving them healthy subsititutes. Distraction has to be the single most useful discipline tool ever, because it breaks the immediate pattern and stops the negative behavior. It also gives you enough time to think about what’s happening and act instead of react when you figure out what to do next. Sometimes the bad behaviorwas just a fluke, and you don’t ahve to do anything else, because the distraction took care of it.

But for things that are consistnent or show that a kid really can’t manage some emotions (and I’d definitely put biting, hitting, and pushing in that category), you need to give them a healthy subsititute. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with feeling angry, aggressive, or frustrated. You absolutely want to make sure your child experiences those emotions without feeling like they’re something to be hidden, because in order to be a healthy adult you need to be able to process and accept your own emotions. Be very clear that the problem isn’t feleing angry, it’s biting another person in anger. To that and, you can give the child something productive to do with the negative energy. We gave my older son a braided dog chew toy (a new one I bought just for him) and when he felt like biting, he bit that. Some kids carry around special pillows that they hit when they feel like hitting someone. I’ve seen some parents get their children to run around the room for 10 minutes or hop up and down to release that physical energy.

By giving your kid a substitute to help them expend negative energy, you’re setting up their ability to consciously manage their emotions. The hope is that as teens and adults they’ll be able to think, "I feel really horrible and like I want to punch someone. Let me go out and run 2 miles instead, or scrub out the bathtub, or go down into the basement and hit the punching bag, or go over to the dojo and see if anyone wil spar with me." They’ll know how to channel that energy into something neutral (if not actually helpful) instead of turning to hurting other people or themselves.

OK. HS, if you’re still with me, what I’m getting at is that this is a serious issue, and you are totally right to be concerned about the non-response from your daycare director, both for your own son’s sake and also for the biter’s sake. There are several things here that concern me:

1) Is their ratio of staff to kids so low that they just simply cannot keep on top of what’s going on with the kids?

2) Are they not sensitive enough to the kids to realize that the biter needs a little extra attention and guidance?

3) How can they not realize that allowing your son to get bitten is not acceptable and is a serious liability? You’d think they’d at least be worried about the potential lawsuit, if nothing else.

I think you need to go in and sit down with the director and express to her that this is a huge concern for your son’s safety, and that they need to think seriously about their procedures for ensuring the safety of each child. Emphasize that this is a safety issue, not just a "kids being kids" issue. Then express your concern that the staff doesn’t know how to help the kids manage their emotions and are letting situations get out of hand. You might suggest the idea of having a biting toy for the biter and helping the caregivers manage the flow of the day so things don’t escalate and get the kids so frustrated that they attack each other.

(Oh, and the part about your son not telling them anything happened? You can’t tell me that a 2 1/2-year-old gets bit hard enough to leave a mark and doesn’t yell in pain. Why was there no caregiver there to hear his cry and figure it out? It’s not your son’s responsibility to report incidents in a detailed and calm manner–he’s a toddler.)

It’s entirely possible that the director won’t have any answer for you. If that’s the case, you may have to think seriously about finding another place for your child where he won’t be in physical danger from other kids. Of course that doesn’t help the other kid who’s biting because he doesn’t know how to deal with his frustration, of any of the other kids in the center, but your primary responsiblity is to your own child.

And do NOT let the director try to sell you the idea that the problem is with the kids. The kids are just trying to fumble their way through all the feelings coursing through their little bodies. Adults have the responsibility to help the kids deal with those feelings.

Anyone have an similar experiences with daycare situations that weren’t being handled appropriately? Any words of advice?

Q&A: 2.9-year-old snark and fury

Before we start today’s Q&A, does anyone know how to get black Sharpie permanent marker out of a pair of new jeans? Jamie needs help, and I’ve got nothing.

Now on to the question. Our own regular commenter Charisse writes:

"I’m really enjoying the posts on more serious subjects…I’ve got a couple minor but frustrating issues I’m totally stuck on.  Mouse, now 2.9, has recently started calling me by my first name just about all the time.  Especially in her imperious moods, she says "help me do this puzzle, Cyd" and "hey Cyd, I want a cup of milk please" (yes, I do pause in my annoyance to appreciate the please and recognize it for progress!).  This just bugs me, but after I tried telling her to call me mommy a couple times, she now does it with a smirk.  I also tried telling her that my name is for anyone, but she’s the only person in the world who gets to call me mommy…and she said "oh am I? OK, Cyd" with more smirk.  I don’t know if I should just let it go and she’ll grow out of it…or if she’ll be calling me by my name forever if I don’t nip it in the bud.  If she had just learned that I had a name besides mommy I’d assume the former, but she’s known my real name for, jeez, probably close to a year anyway–she’ll tell it to other people all the time as in "my mommy’s name is Cyd".  I’m not even sure if a child her age is capable of real intentional smirking, but the combination of self and Mr. C would be pretty likely to produce one if it’s possible.

This seems to have coincided with some kind of mental/emotional growth spurt that also included shouting at us in rage (YOU DON’T HELP ME, I DON’T WANT YOU!!!!) if we overstep her now-revised boundaries…and some cool new skills to go along with that, including wanting to wear panties to daycare–which, yay.  But if we see her exhibiting need-to-go-potty signs and suggest it, more shouting.  Mr. C and I are having a bit of an argument about whether the yelling is ever OK–the other day on a playground a bigger kid tried to shove her off a ladder with his foot and she shouted "DON’T YOU KICK ME" which we were happy to see.  I don’t know how to let her know that that’s great assertiveness but yelling at mommy and daddy (if she’s calling us that!) isn’t respectful.  …and we’re not yellers at all (like maybe 5 incidents of raised voices in 11 years together), so I don’t know where it’s coming from in the first place.  And I don’t know how much it’s all related to the potty training, which she definitely seems to have strong emotions around, and which therefore we’ve mostly soft-pedaled so far.

I guess I must sound incoherent–I’m kind of confused.  Is all this the very beginning of "I hate you" and "DUH mother" and way early rebellion, or just a little harmless toddler smartassery and understandable emotional effects of growth?

Any thoughts appreciated!"

Oy. It’s amazing how much earlier they start exhibiting this behavior than you think they will. I remember being stunned to hear "If you slam that door one more time I’m taking it off its hinges and you won’t have a door!" come out of my mouth when my son was barely 4.

It sounds like your daughter is very advanced, and is showing a lot of the typical three-year-old behavior. On an intergenerational email list I belong to, there was just a long thread about three-year-olds getting upset about absolutely everything, including things they’d just asked you to do, and making the rudest, most hurtful comments and demands. Everyone had horror stories to tell, whether their child was 3 or 13 or 40! Apparently the behavior passes, but the scars to the parents don’t ever disappear completely…

I appear to have blanked this phase out, my own self. Either that or I never figured out what to do about it. I think her using your name all the time is probably similar to the potty language (aka "toilet talk" or "bathroom talk") phase, in that she’s really just doing it to get a rise out of you. If you remember the potty language post, consensus was that there are a few different ways to handle it–ignoring it, confining it to certain physical areas, or doing it yourself so much that it becomes uncool–and it’s a crapshoot about which one will work for your kid. I think if it were me, I’d just ignore it when she calls you by your name. It’s up to you whether that means ignoring her request entirely ("Oh, I didn’t know you meant me since my name is Mommy.") or just ignoring the fact that she used your given name instead of Mommy.

I think the yelling at you is awful, and you definitely need to let her know that it’s not acceptable behavior. I think she’s going to continue to yell at kids who try to hurt her anyway, so you probably don’t need to reinforce that (them leaving her alone when she yells will be reinforcement anough, and eventually she’ll be able to get her message across just by saying it instead of yelling it anyway). Instead, you should just repeat that people don’t yell in your house, but if she can say it respectfully you’ll listen to her request. And then don’t respond to what she actually says when she’s yelling. It may take a while (like it does when the problem is whining, not yelling), but if she never gets a response to what she yells she’ll eventually learn just to say it in a normal voice.

I know somebody who’s living this right now has better tips than I do. As I said, I think I blocked this phase out. You have my sympathies, and I hope your own memory is as merciful as mine is and in two years you don’t even remember this phase.

Q&A: separation anxiety and screaming

Steve writes:

"Our little angel,
Sophie, is about to turn 11 months and she can never be left alone in her park
or in another room without starting to scream until my wife or I go to be with
her or to pick her up. I spend the week at the office, so I can get a break, but
my wife is going crazy. Whenever I call her home to see how things are going,
all I can hear is my daughter screaming in the back… I read that it’s what’s
called "separation anxiety" and that we should stop running to pick her up when
she screams… What do you suggest?"

I suggest earplugs.

Seriously, though, this is just the most annoying thing, isn’t it? It makes you want to jump out of your skin and run far away to a land where everyone is mute.

I think it’s counterproductive to ignore her when she screams. Separation anxiety is a normal thing for kids, and is part of the process of figuring out that they are not you and you are not them. The start to separate, then they need to pull back in to make sure you’re not gone once she starts to walk away. So ignoring her is actually going to make this stage last longer.

The best thing would be to strap her to whoever is home in a sling or Ergo or other carrier. She can’t get too freaked out if she’s right there with you, and she might even get bored enough to want to go off on her own. If you can’t stand that, though, and there’s no shame in admitting it, see if you can just bring her from room to room with you. Set up the highchair in whatever room you’re in, and let her play with stuff while you’re working. One fun project for older babies is to take off their shirts and let them color all over themselves and the highchair tray with washable markers. It’s a little messy, but it keeps them entertained because it’s usually forbidden, and it washes right off.

If any neighbors have a preschooler, you might also try to borrow him or her for an hour. Babies love big kids (3-4-year-olds), and just like to watch them play. Babies will accept the presence of a kid, even when they’d be freaked out by another adult. Your neighbor will certainly appreciate it, and it might buy you some quiet time.

I’m sure some of the readers will have other suggestions for activities to keep her close enough to you not to freak out, but not right on top of you smothering you with her desire to jump into your skin. In the meantime, keep your chin up. It only lasts a few weeks, and then she’ll be off and away from you. If you can stay sane until then you’ll be home-free.

Q&A: parents disagreeing on disciplinary techniques

Valerie writes:

"My husband and I have 2 kids, ages 4 years and 6 months.  The 4 year old has followed fairly well along with your suggested timeline for adjusting to his sister, and I am currently seeing his behavior as much better at home and feeling much more connected to him than I did just after the birth.  His behavior at school, though, is up and down.  I work part time and he is at preschool about 8 hours a day.

My husband is a firm believer in spanking and I am not.  We have talked about this quite a lot, and are not having luck coming to a compromise. My husband was spanked, but not much because he witnessed his older brother getting spanked often, and that worked as a deterrent for my husband.  I’m not a believer in spanking and neither was my mother, I was raised (33 years ago) with playful respectful parenting and positive discipline.  My mother never read a book about parenting, she just followed her heart and that’s what happened.  My mother is my parenting model.  I’m an only child, and one of my husband’s arguments is that he thinks I just don’t know anything about parenting boys.  I personally think that gender is irrelevant, we need to find approaches that work for our son, but not based on his being a boy, based on his being an individual.

My husband’s approach to parenting is very authoritative, he thinks we (as parents) should be in charge, and our kids should ‘do as they’re told’ promptly when commanded.  He has a lot of rules, and generally forbids much more behavior than I do.

So, my son’s behavior needs to improve, he’s very high energy and rough, and we have a hard time getting him to calm down and respect the personal space of others, especially me.  He is very rough with his toys.  He also has this problem at school as well as choosing not to follow directions and generally disrupting the classroom.  I think his behavior is fairly age appropriate, but it needs to be toned down.  My husband thinks he needs more spankings.

I suspect the differences in my husbands and my parenting approaches are doing my son no favors, but I don’t know what to change to get us closer to agreement on how to handle my son’s actions.

My son has been at his school for over a year.  He has been in full time daycare for 3 years.  This type of behavior started around the time he turned 3 (a year ago) and has been worse the past 8 months.  Other than the arrival of his sister, 6 months ago, nothing major about his life has changed recently."

This is a tough question for me to answer, because I honestly don’t really know how a couple can bridge two huge differences of conviction (because it does sound like both of you are truly convinced of the correctness of your approaches). And it’s very hard for me to see your husband’s side in all of this, because I’m an anti-spanker (although I have gotten out of control and smacked and felt like the lowliest worm in the world, and hey, it didn’t even work, surprise of surprises) and think that it can be especially damaging for boys to be disciplined with violence. (Not that it’s not damaging to girls, but I think it’s damaging in a different way. That would make an interesting discussion for another day.)

So I really don’t have any advice on how to make a compromise. In your situation I would try to convince my husband that spanking is counter-productive. The article "Ten Reasons Not to Hit Your Kids" is excellent, and there are great links at the bottom of that article.

I’d also talk to the teachers at his school to see if you can enlist them to talk to the two of you together about better strategies for disciplining your son. (If the teachers at school don’t spank the kids there, then that means that they have effective alternative strategies to teach you. I feel like most of us vastly underuse the excellent brains and extensive experience of our kids’ preschool teachers.) To me, your son’s behavior sounds absolutely normal, especially considering that it all escalated right before having your daughter. ("High energy and rough": check.) Older siblings act up for a long, long time when a baby sibling comes into the house, and it’s just not reasonable to expect that they’ll be "used to the baby" in a couple of months and will stop acting out. IME, it really took a full year before my older son got his feet back under him again after our younger one was born. In addition, 3 is a tough age, and kids are just starting to approach the border of being able to control their own actions. It can be extremely hard for them to navigate boundaries and control and language and physicality.

One of the strategies you may end up using is physical guidance. Not violence or pain (hitting, smacking, etc.), but guidance. My older son needed/needs this. He has never been able to stop himself from doing something when he hears a verbal command. If I needed him to put down a toy, I had to walk over to him and put my hand over his and help him release the toy. Back when he was a toddler pulling our cat’s fur, I’d have to walk over and help him release the cat’s fur from his hands. If it was time to leave the playground, I’d have to put my hands on him and help him wave to say goodbye to the park, then help him walk out of the playground. He was also one who needed to be hugged during a tantrum. It’s like he needs the physical help to make the neurokinetic connections. I think there are some kids who are more physical who just don’t respond to other forms of guidance, but parents often don’t think of guiding them physically because they didn’t have that example. (FWIW, at the age of 4.9, my son is doing really well at controlling his own actions, but he still seems to engage in selective listening more than I’d like!)

My suspicion is that I’ve answered your question the way you wanted me to, by giving you resources to help convince your husband that your approach is going to work better in the long run. But it’s possible that you actually do want to be able to reach a compromise, in which case I’m going to have to go to the readers. Have any of you bridged a huge gap in approaches to parenting? How did you do it?

Q&A: 20-month-olds won’t eat

I seem to get more feeding questions about 20-month-olds than about anyother age. You can read some past ones here and here. I have a few in my queue right now, and all of them are similar to the following two questions.

Ammy writes:

"I need help on how to feed my 20 month old daughter.  She will only eat
oatmeal, milk, graham crackers, mashed potatoes, french fries and apple
sauce (and the occasional Oreo).  I am worried that she will starve
herself.  I have always had a problem feeding her..except for when she
nursed or had a bottle, but I just cannot get her to eat.  Everyone
says that she will come around, but I don’t think she will.  She is
very stubborn and strong willed and I don’t think it would bother her
to go hungry, although, she gets very fussy.  I still try and offer her
the things that we eat, but she won’t, unless it is a french fry.  I
have tried small pieces that she can pick up and she just throws it on
the floor.  We have tried forcing it in her mouth but she spits it out,
and if she swallows it, she just ends up throwing it up after 2 bites.
Please help me.  I am worried about her health. Someone asked me if
maybe she had a swallowing problem, but I don’t think she does or she
wouldn’t eat cookies and graham crackers."

And Swati writes:

"I have a daughter who is 20 months old. She learns everything very quickly but one things which is biggest problem is that she doesn’t eat anything on her own.

I have tried all the finger food items, juice items and even cut pieces of fruits. She just plays with it for a few minutes and then she just goes away.

Generally I feed her during the lunch and dinner time. And try if she can eat on her own during the snacks time. While I feed her, I have to involve her in stories or television to put the food in.

Please help."

This is so, so typical of this age, and I don’t think either of these children have actual feeding problems. If they did, they wouldn’t be eating foods with texture. Instead, it’s about control, the same as it is with most things kids this age do.

They’re starting to learn that they are separate from you, and that it would be possible for them to have control over what they do. But since they have very little control, because we make almost every decision for them, they have to exert control whenever they can. It’s exactly what’s supposed to be happening at this point, and indicates healthy and appropriate emotional development.

The most basic way to maintain control over your own body (assuming you’re one-third the height and one-fifth the weight of the person making you do things)  is to refuse to put things in your mouth, or to spit them out if someone else puts them in. This explains why eating becomes the primary battleground for toddler struggles with authority.

We all lived through the ’90s, so I’m sure we’re all familiar with the phrase "Don’t hate the playa, hate the game." While it applies well to love relationships (and the East Coast/West Coast/Dirty South Rap Wars), it also applies perfectly to feeding toddlers. You can get all upset with the struggle and feel frustrated with your kid, or you can acknowledge that your child is acting appropriately for this time in life and just stop playing the game.

If you stick with your job, which is to provide healthy foods for your child, your child can stick with his/her job, which is to decide what and how much to eat from within the foods you provide. Barring any metabolic disorders or illnesses, your child won’t allow him or herself to starve, and will be more likely to eat more if you don’t (seem to) care.

Since part of not showing concern for the amount your child eats is not spoon-feeding your child, switch (if you haven’t already done so) to foods your child can self-feed, either with fingers or a fork (at this age they can stab with a fork far more easily than they can scoop with a spoon). IMO, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of work and anxiety if you stop fixing a bunch of different special foods for your child, and just stick with what the rest of the family is eating, plus maybe a few consistent favorites that don’t take much prep (grapes, baby carrots, Cheerios, string cheese, etc.).

If you’re still worried that there may be something abnormal abotu your child, take comfort in the words of my pediatrician, who told me when his daughter was 22 months that "she hasn’t eaten anything but plain yogurt in two months!" Three years later she’s still doing fine (and has expanded her repertoire). This, too, will pass.

Q&A: 18-month-old tantrums

Cynthia writes:

"My eighteen month old daughter is very affectionate (loves to cuddle), but is also quite clingy.  I know this is age appropriate and so I make an concerted effort to make her feel secure, by giving her lots of physical contact, warning her when I’m leaving the room, etc.  Lately, however, she’s started pitching fits, often when I’m not giving her the attention she wants.  She cries and tries to bury her head between my legs (if I’m standing) or in my lap (if I’m sitting).  My instinct is to hold her until she calms down, which happens quickly.  However, all of the books say to ignore the tantrum rather than cater to the child’s attention-seeking demands.  The few times I’ve tried this, the fit escalates and my daughter is distraught for a long time.  Am I spoiling her by allowing her to have what she wants (attention from me), or am I simply giving her the comfort she needs when she’s frustrated?"

This question is near and dear to my heart, because we’re living through the exact same thing with my 18-month-old right now. Between the constant cuddling, head-burying tantrums, and the holding onto my legs as I try to walk, I’m beginning to get that jump-out-of-my-skin feeling, as I bet Cynthia is.

This age is rough. It’s rough on the kids, because they have all these emotions and desires they don’t know how to manage. Sounds like the back of a romance novel, but you know what I mean. All of a sudden they realize that it would by possible, hypothetically, to express their wills and get what they want. But they just can’t seem to do it to make it work the way they want it to because the facility with language just isn’t there yet (unless you’ve lucked out and have a signing superstar). That makes them little cauldrons of frustration and hurt.

It’s really rough on the parents, because we’re not only trying to figure out what on earth they’re trying to tell us with all that straining and pointing and foot-stomping, but we’re also the targets of all their frustration and anger and misery when they can’t get what they want. No matter how well you know that they save it all up for you because they trust you most and feel comfortable with you, it’s still just a gut-punch to have them smile and laugh with everyone else and cry and scream with you, seemingly all the time.

But back to how to handle the tantrums. I think there are three things you have to look at in any tantrum situation: 1) The kid’s age, 2) the kid’s personality, and 3) what you want to accomplish. IMO (well, duh, because this is my blog) ignoring the tantrums of an 18-month-old is going to be counter-productive. At this age they need so much guidance with everything, especially how to manage their feelings and communication. So ignoring the tantrum doesn’t teach them anything at all, and it’s not going to help them move through this stage on to a more pleasant one. That’s not to say that sometimes kids don’t get into a big loop you can’t get them out of (that’s personality a lot of the time) and the only thing that works to help calm them down is lack of stimulation (ignoring them is part of that), but in general they need guidance at this age to help channel their feelings. (That’s also not to say that you don’t sometimes have to ignore them because you can’t take any more and if you don’t walk out of the room you’ll freak out. But that’s managing your own emotions effectively, not managing your child’s tantrum.)

So basically I don’t think making the blanket policy decision to ignore the tantrums of an 18-month-old every time makes a lot of sense developmentally speaking. I also don’t get why it’s bad to give your child what s/he wants, especially if that’s your attention. You had kids to ignore them? And how does withholding attention teach a child to be a loved, loving, secure person? I have to wonder about authors of books who are telling us to withhold emotion and comfort from our kids.

That’s not to say that ignoring doesn’t make perfect sense in other situations. Ignoring a tantrum can serve two purposes, and can be quite effective for older kids who have more self-awareness and more language. It can give a kid who needs to rage alone (maybe one who cries to release tension) the space s/he needs to do that. It can also work as a form of behavior modification, so it’s stellar for older kids (and adults at holiday dinners) who are trying to control the emotional mood by throwing a fit. But most of that is better for kids over two, who have lots of language and who can make a decision about how they can be helped to feel better.

I always felt better about the tantrum when I could help the kid through it. For a baby (18-month-old) a lot of the time that means comforting. For a 2+-year-old, a lot of the time that meant saying, "It looks like you feel really bad. Do you want a hug or do you want me to leave you alone?" The first time they can tell you what will help them feel better, you feel like you just discovered the Rosetta Stone. Once the tantrum is over you can work on how to fix the problem that caused them to feel so upset. That evolves into "Go cry if you need to, and then come out and we’ll talk about it when you’re ready."

Hang in there. This stage is tough! So far it’s my least favorite of all the stages (both times), and I just keep telling myself that if we can all survive until he’s 21 months it’ll get easier.

Q&A: “the witching hour” with a newborn

Lauren writes:

"I have a 3 week old who just started getting fussy in the evenings. Any tips on how to console him?   Sometimes the pacifier works, he alsoneeds to be held at all times when he is fussy. When he falls asleep
in my arms (probably from exhaustion from complaining and whining) he
wakes up as soon as I move him to his bed. HELP!!!!"

Ah, the classic problem of the Witching Hour. When we took a Newborn Care class before having our first son the instructor spent 20 minutes of the 3-hour class covering this topic. Starting at a few weeks old, many many newborns start to fuss at around 7 pm (although it can start as early as 4 pm) and fuss until around 10 or 11 pm. It goes on for weeks. This is apparently a worldwide phenomenon, so you can console yourself that there are parents all over the world going just as crazy as you are with fussy newborns in the evening.

No one knows for sure why this happens, although there are a million theories. Some people think it’s the babies’ bodies working out some kinks. Some think it’s adjusting to all the stimuli they get out of the womb that they didn’t get in the womb. Some think it’s digestive difficulties. (Some people think the babies have gas and that makes them cry, while others think the babies cry and swallow air and that gives them gas.) My mom thinks the babies just figure out they’re no longer in the womb and get pissed off. I think it’s because they’ve figured out that everyone else can move and they can’t even roll over and they get pissed off. Honestly, it’s probably a mixture of a bunch of things, very few of which we have any control over.

It’s very hard to deal emotionally with this stage, since you’re so new to it and it’s heartbreaking and frustrating to have your baby be so upset. It can be a great first opportunity for you and your baby to become closer, though, if you let it, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for parents to start to come into their own power.

The important concepts to remember are that when you try to comfort your baby, your baby learns that someone cares about his/her distress and is coming to help. That’s the second step (after feeding) in learning to trust the parent and the world in general. It doesn’t actually matter if you can fix the problem for the baby, just that you’re there soothing and being with the baby. For parents, it’s the first of many times you get to discover that there are problems that don’t have solutions, and that walking through the challenge is what turns you into a parent, even if you can’t "solve" it.

Now for actually dealing with the fussiness: There are as many things to try as there are parents and kids. Everyone you know will swear by something different, and that’s because different things help different kids. My feeling about dealing with the Witching Hour is that you should use the same Malcolm X Method you do with sleep in general for the first few months: By Any Means Necessary.

[Updated to add: If you’re nursing, you should always try nursing first. It’s the simplest solution, if it works. Some babies cluster-feed in the evening, which means they nurse on and off for a few hours, but then will often sleep a little longer at night. You can just sit around and nurse and watch TV in the evening and hope to get a few extra hours of sleep at night.]

Here are some things that are commonly recommended:

  • Putting the baby in the infant seat on top of a running clothes dryer. The shimmying and noise of the machine are supposed to soothe the baby.
  • Running the vacuum cleaner near the baby. The loud white noise sometimes helps.
  • Taking the baby into a silent, dark room and walking or rocking slowly, to remove as much external stimulus as possible.
  • Taking the baby into a bright room with lots of background noise, to add as much background stimulus as possible.
  • Putting on loud music. My friends’ daughter would only calm down to "Livin’ La Vida Loca" at top volume. They listened to it for 3 hours a day every day for 4 weeks. They don’t even like Ricky Martin.
  • Driving the baby around in the car.
  • Strolling the baby outside. This seems to be especially effective in cold weather, for some reason.
  • Bouncy seats or swings, although some kids who like them at other times of day hate them in the evening.
  • Walking the baby around in a sling, wrap, bjorn, mei tai, or any other body-carrying device. (We had to put our first son facing out in the Bjorn and bounce slwoly around the apartment for 4 hours every day while the evening mishegas period was in effect. My calf muscles got huge.)
  • Chamomilla or other homeopathic treatments, or Mylecon drops.
  • Figuring out when the crying starts, and trying to put the baby down for a nap (nursing or rocking, if that’s the sure-fire way to get them down) 15-30 minutes before the crying usually starts. If you luck out the baby might sleep though part or all of the cranky time.

I’m sure there are dozens of common suggestions I’ve forgotten. You can Google "colic" to see other things people have come up with. I don’t think normal evening fussiness is actual colic, since colic is technically 4 hours a day of inconsolable crying for at least 4 weeks, but since no one really knows what any of it is, you might as well try anything you can find.

Unfortunately*, laudanum (opium tincture) is not approved for use in infants. So you’ll just have to try a bunch of things and see what works best to help soothe your baby. If you have a partner to trade off some of the crying shift with it will help. You might also be able to sucker a friend or relative into coming and babysitting for an hour or two sometimes during that phase. (If you have a friend with a teenager who comes to babysit, this would be a perfect way to scare said teenager into being assiduous about practicing safe sex. It’s a win-win, really.)

There are four pieces of good news about this situation:
1. It’s not you. You’re doing a great job.
2. It will end. Really, it will. Maybe in 2 weeks, maybe not for 6 weeks, but it will end.
3. This is one time when people’s ridiculous advice might actually help you. As long as it’s not physically dangerous, you might as well try it.
4. Going through this phase with your baby will tell you so much about your baby’s personality and likes and dislikes. Does your baby escalate by crying, or release tension? Does your baby like dark and quiet, or loud and busy? Does your baby like to swing or to bounce**? Does Rage Against the Machine soothe her, or Enya? Adversity helps you know your baby better.

So now, readers, release the hounds! We need your stories of tricks that helped soothe your baby during this phase. We also need stories of how horribly your baby would cry (for us it was 4-9 every afternoon), what you thought was wrong (I thought my older son had an undiagnosed intestinal disorder), and how long the crying phase lasted (memory is merciful, but I think about 4-5 weeks). Even if none of your suggestions help Lauren, at least she’ll know it’s not just her.

* I’m kidding. Opiates should never be used on infants. They should be reserved for cranky, non-sleeping toddlers instead.

** My older son hated the swing and bouncy seat like they were red-hot lasers poking him. When my MIL said "Some kids are bouncers and some are swingers," we realized that he hated them because he didn’t like to swing, but needed to bounce. It was so petty, but a huge key to being able to soothe him (by bouncing him for hours at a time). Some dumb little insight like that may be the beginning of being able to soothe your baby, too.

Q&A: wanting to spank children

An anonymous reader writes:

"I’m not a mom, I’m a nanny, for two twin boys who are almost 21 months old. They’re great kids, but I have a problem that’s been feeling harder to deal with as time goes on.

When I was younger, my parents used corporeal punishment on my brother and me. It’s the only form of punishment that they ever used until we were old enough to hit them back. I never really thought anything of it until I was old enough to start babysitting, and then one time, a small child I was caring for did something wrong that made me angry, and I struck her. Not violently, just a spank. But I’ll never forget it, because I quit babysitting the next day. I didn’t tell anyone I was afraid I’d beat the kids, I just decided I shouldn’t babysit, ever. Everyone thought I didn’t like children because I didn’t tell them I was afraid that I’d hit them.

The twins I’m nannying are children of dear friends of mine, and I do it because they need all the help they can get; their mom still works and dad does too, and I don’t currently have a full time desk job, so I wanted to help out. I’ve been sitting for them since they were 4 months old, and I feel comfortable with them and they like me; we understand each other and they know the limits I set. And let me make it clear – I don’t hit the twins. I’ve smacked a hand or two, but that’s it.

The problem is that as they increasingly try to test boundaries, I feel that same angry feeling that I know leads to hitting, and I don’t don’t don’t want to do it. I’ve read lots of book and information about positive reinforcement, the uselessness of severe punishments like that, and I’ve even worked in a preschool and gotten to see the techniques of teachers who believe any form of punishment is wrong.  When I try to take a minute to calm down, I can’t; I just feel stifled and guilty and out of control. I have to spend several minutes  in the other room taking deep breaths. I feel like a monster. How could I be like this? The twins are wonderful guys, and I know they don’t know any better.

My friends who are their parents think I’m God’s gift to babysitting, and I can’t see raising this issue with them without upsetting them or just getting the old ‘Oh, everyone feels that way." Can you offer any advice or encouragement?"

Welcome to the club?

I think you sound like you’re having hundreds of small victories.

There’s a huge difference between thinking "Shut up, you stupid little asshole!" and actually saying it to your 9-month-old at 2 am. Are you not human? If someone’s been waking you up by crying every night for months on end, of course you’re going to feel some resentment (just to begin with). But it’s your actions that matter, and that’s why you go to get your child and offer a soothing "What’s wrong, sweet baby?" even when that’s not what you feel like saying.

The same goes for toddlers (and preschoolers, and big kids) and spanking. Of course you want to just pummel them sometimes, especially if you yourself were physically punished as a child. I think being a victim of violence (and yes, spanking and hitting is violence, even if your parent only meant it as "correction" and thought they were doing something appropriate) rewires us somehow to make the violent instincts bubble closer to the top. Which is why, even when we know without a doubt that hitting our kids is counter-productive and wrong, it’s still the thing that seems like it’ll be the most effective and satisfying. Having that instinct doesn’t mean we’re bad people or hopeless caregivers. It means we’re having an initial response that we don’t want to have. It means we have work to do.

I’m not going to go into alternative discipline strategies here, because (fortunately) there’s enough information about that out there other places. And I’m still working on it myself. The message I want to get across in this post is that deciding not to hit your child or use other corporeal punishment is a process, not a one-time thing. It isn’t like you determine that it isn’t something you do and then magically you never feel like doing it. When people give up smoking they don’t just lose the desire to smoke. They work through each urge one at a time. Not hitting or spanking is the same. It gets easier the longer you do it, they tell me. I’m hoping that by the time my kids go off to college I’ll have completely lost the urge to smack them on crappy days. Then I can be the calm voice of reason as a grandmother.

The one thing I do know to be absolutely true about not using violent methods of discipline is that it’s a lot easier to stay out of situations that trigger you than it is to struggle with the urge to spank. Plan your day and control the situaion so that the kids can be as well-rested and not too hyped up. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep so you stay on top of them. Limit the things you ask them to do that you know are tough for them. Don’t procrastinate. And be with other people as much as possible. Isolation is the enemy of good parenting.

I also think you should talk to the parents to get on the same page with disipline methods. Maybe they’ve found some things that work for them and could share them with you as more tools in your non-violent toolkit. And I’m sure you have techniques that could help them, too.

Since you were spanked as a child, you could probably use a little
positive reinforcement yourself. Maybe every time you resist the urge to
wallop them you can give yourself a little mental pat on the back for
successfully not hitting; "I’m the positive discipline queen!" "I’m
giving these kids what I should have gotten." "Only three more hours until I get to go home." That sort of thing.

You’ve been doing absolutely the right thing by reading about and surrounding yourself with people who use non-violent discipline methods. You’ve fought your urges and cooled off and not hit the kids. Now keep doing it. It’s all you, or any of the rest of us who struggle with the urge to hit, can do.


Today I have two questions about kids screaming and shrieking.

Brooke writes:

"My son is 14 months old.  When he was
younger (about 9 months old) he use to scream A LOT (all day long)!!  I ignored it, acted like I did not even hear him and he eventually
stopped.  Now he has started back to shrieking again and I am not sure
what to do.  He is older now and I know he understands better.  I know
giving him attention for his screaming is giving him what he wants, but
when we are out and he is screaming it is so bothersome to others, so I
tell him "Tyler No, No screaming!"  And of course he stops for a little
while and then begins to scream at the top of his lungs again.  Should
I continue to tell him "No" or just completely ignore him like I do not
even hear him?  I almost feel like others around me feel like I am a
Mom that is just not doing anything about her screaming child.  What
would you do?"

I’d get some heavy-duty earplugs and a bottle of wine. Seriously, though, all the advice about ignoring it is great if you sit around in a soundproofed room all day, but it’s not so helpful when you’re out in the world and your kid is shrieking like he’s being poked with a sharp stick.

He’s on the young end for talking about it, but you have to start somewhere, so start rehearsing with him before you go out that "We’re going to use our inside voices" when you’re out and about. If he starts to scream, remind him that you’re going to talk quietly. If he still keeps screaming, leave. You don’t want to back yourself into any corners by threatening to leave if he screams (especially since he really can’t always control his impulse to shriek at this age), and sometimes you’re going to have to go back in to get the milk or whatever you were buying from the store. So don’t do any threatening or ultimatums so you don’t end up having to carry them out. Just calmly take him out when he screams, and then go back in if he gets calm again or if you need to complete a transaction.

You’re being responsible by not allowing him to annoy others by taking him out, but you’re also promoting good behavior by telling him exactly what you want him to do (talk quietly) instead of what you don’t want him to do (SHRIEK!).

None of this is going to fix the problem overnight, but it’s all a process at this age anyway. An annoying, mind-numbing, teeth-clenching process. Hang in there.

Jamie writes:

"My son is 8 months old and a few weeks
ago he started screaming.  When I say screaming I don’t mean crying –
it’s a deep guttural scream.  He screams whenever he’s unhappy – when
his diaper is being changed, he wants a bottle, we’ve taken something
away, he’s in his highchair, etc.  Because the scream is connected to
an unhappy moment I understand that he’s not hurt, but it’s slowly
chipping away at my sanity.  I’ve tried distracting him by singing,
tickling, playing peek-a-boo.  I’ve tried ignoring him.  Now I pick him
up and sit with him until he’s done.  Yesterday he screamed until he
fell asleep.  It was not near naptime or bedtime.  He screamed until
his body shut down.  I don’t know what to do.  Suggestions?"

It seems a little early to me for him to be reaching the phase of physical exhaustion and rage from not being able to make himself understood, but maybe he’s just advanced. The inability to control himself when he’s frustrated that turns into a scary physical symptom (the gutteral screaming) sounds exactly like what some older kids (young toddler age) go through when they just can’t get the adults to understand what they want to communicate.

I would see if trying to help him put things into language helps. While you’re doing something he doesn’t like and you see him getting upset, try talking about how you imagine he feels. For example, "You don’t like to have your diaper changed and it’s making you feel very angry. You want to scream and kick until Mama leaves you alone!" See if that helps him feel a little more understood. If he has very good receptive language it might alleviate things a lot. Even the tone you use might make him feel more understood.

And if you haven’t already started it, you might start teaching him some sign language. Some babies that age can do simple signs like "milk," more," "all done," "sleep," and others. There are books and videos you can buy (Kate‘s daughter adores the Signing Time series), but I’m too cheap for that, so I just look up our signs on the Michigan State University American Sign Language Browser site. It’s amazing how much less frustration children have if they can make even a few of their needs known.

I hope you can help him make himself understood. It’s such a rough thing for young children, and your son sounds particularly eager to communicate.

Q&A: 21-month-old acting up on purpose

Kate writes:

"My son is 21 months old.

Up to now he has been extremely responsive to correction from us.  If I told him something was a "no-no" and wagged my pointer finger, he would stop what he was doing, wag his own finger, say "no-no" and then applaud.  And we would applaud too.

In the past week or so, this has stopped working. Yesterday, I told him to stop grabbing the lettuce off of my plate and throwing it on the floor.  But he just got a glinty look in his eye, grabbed as much lettuce as he could and threw it on the floor.  Today, I told him I would not buy him a matchbox car from the man selling them on the street.  So he took his hand and swept it along the table pushing 5 or 6 cars onto the sidewalk.

I would like to handle incidents like this calmly and consistently.  Our old method doesn’t really work, though, because as our son has matured he’s lost interest in doing things like touching fans or outlets that are predictable enough that we are able to put them in the "no-no" category in advance.

He also seems to have started acting badly "on purpose" as opposed to because his overwhelming interest/lack of impulse control got the better of him.  He seems to be doing bad things to see how we will respond.

So my question to you is — how should we respond? First, how should we respond if he does something bad that we’re not 100% sure he knew was bad, like sweeping the cars onto the sidewalk?  Second, how should we respond if he does something he was well aware was bad — like throwing food on the floor?

Although what I am most interested in is your expert opinion, if there’s a book or other resource you think would be helpful, that would be great too."

Well, I’m so not an expert, but I did feel like this was a problem I had half a decent handle on the first time, and may be able to deal with as I head into it again. (In contrast to the myriad problems I have no clue about.)

I think the thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to engage in a battle of wills with your toddler. This shouldn’t be about controlling him, but instead guiding him to better behavior. He’s testing to see what he can get away with, and it won’t serve anyone if he gets away with negative behavior, but if you can guide him without being punitive he’ll have less to push back against.

The way I handled that was to remain matter-of-fact as I said "No" and just picked him up and redirected him. I found that my older son needed to be physically guided away from things he shouldn’t do (whether that was throwing food on the floor or biting other kids or pulling the cat’s fur) and guided toward the new thing I wanted him to do instead. Part of my plan was to have him repair any damage he’d done as much as possible, so if he threw food on the floor, I’d guide his hands while he cleaned it up. We’d talk about how to fix a situation if he’d taken or broken anything. Sometimes things couldn’t be fixed. We talked about that, too.

The idea I returned to again and again with him was "We don’t do that." That made it just a standard of behavior, not something I was setting up that he could fight me on. (The same way we used "It’s time for bed" instead of "I want you to go to bed.") I think if I’d known about Hedra’s "safe, respectful, and kind" idea I would have filtered everything through that. "We don’t do that because it’s not respectful," etc. He knew very clearly what the boundaries were and that he couldn’t go past those boundaries, but there was no nastiness or control struggle about it. (Is anyone else testing out Hedra’s Big 3? We’ve been doing it for about a week in our house. If anyone else is trying it we can all discuss it in a few weeks.)

If I could get to him before he misbehaved to move him away from what he was going to do, things worked out better than if I had to play clean-up after he’d done something he wasn’t supposed to. I really don’t believe in waiting to see what a kid this young will do, and then punishing when they misbehave. It’s a toddler’s job to test limits, so of course they’re going to do what they’re not supposed to. Catching him when he opened his mouth and started to lunge, and putting in his biting toy was part of the process of helping him be able to make better choices. Waiting until he’d bitten and then punishing him pulled the focus away from helping him learn the boundaries and to control his behavior.

You may have a child who responds well to verbal cues and doesn’t need the physical guidance. In that case, you’ll have to stay on top of things by directing him to do what you want him to do before he misbehaves. As an example, if you saw him about to throw the lettuce, you could direct him to put the lettuce on the table. Again, you’re helping him make better behavior choices and at the same time not allowing him to do the negative behavior. If he still does the thing you don’t want him to do, try using the physical guidance and see how he responds. And, of course, he needs to clean up any mess he makes, whether it’s throwing lettuce or brushing cars on the floor.

If you reinforce the boundaries like this, there really isn’t a difference in the way you treat something you know he knew not to do and something you don’t know he knew not to do. You’ll have plenty of time to get angry at him for deliberately disobeying you when he’s 3 1/2 (oh, yes), so at this first misbehaving stage try to keep the focus just on reinforcing boundaries without emotion.

There are going to be tantrums. Only you know what your child needs during a tantrum. And it may vary by the situation. Some kids are just letting off steam and need to be left alone to rage. Others need closeness to be helped through the bad feelings. You could always try asking, "Do you need a hug?" and if the answer is "No" (or "No!!!") you can say "I’m sorry you feel so sad. I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready for a hug." That way your child knows you’re there to comfort them, but the tantrum doesn’t dictate anyone’s actions.

That’s what worked for me. We entered this phase right after I read Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting, and I know that book helped me focus on what message I was trying to get across during this extremely trying phase.

I know some of you will also have great ideas about how to weather this stage gracefully and productively, and some book recommendations. Lay them on us.