Question: I am a young mother of a 3-year-old and I have been getting extremely frustrated lately. It seems like all she knows how to do is cry or have a fit. It doesn't matter want I do or say she seems to only hear the "no," "later," "not now," and she screams bloody murder. I just stand there and tell her to calm down or go to her room and scream which makes her scream louder! I'm about to hit rock bottom. What can I do to calm her down, make her stop having these fits, and gain my sanity back?
From: Amber Baker, Bremerton
Hi Amber --
When a toddler or preschooler is having a tantrum, there are two things to keep in mind: a) She literally can't hear you, so no matter what words you use to try calm her down, it only enrages her more; b) The level of frustration she feels is perhaps even more intense for her than for an adult in a similarly frustrating situation but with a big difference: she doesn't have the verbal ability to express herself, a repertoire of coping experiences up her sleeve, or past experience to compare to.
In other words: it's pretty darn frustrating. The only outlet she has is a physical one and the more upset she is, the more likely she will resort to such physicality as stopping her feet or throwing things.
The best way to help her stop having these tantrums (I stay away from calling them "fits") and to gain your sanity back is to:
(1) Anticipate her frustration by learning to recognize what is likely to set her off ;
(2) Before things get out of hand, label the feeling for her: "You want to go outside right now, don't you? And mama said you had to put your jacket on because it's cold outside. I can see that you are getting frustrated because you don't want to put your jacket on."
(3) Help her to learn to problem solve: "What can you do so you can go outside right now?!"
(4) Offer coping mechanisms: "You could decide to wear your jacket so you can go out right now; You could ask mama to help you learn to put on your jacket all by yourself; you could decide to play inside so you don't have to wear a jacket at all; you could decide to go outside later, when you might not mind wearing your jacket."
The idea of helping her to see not only that she has choices but also that she has control over these choices is very powerful and can go a long way toward reducing her level of frustration.
I hope it's clear that by anticipating frustration and/or offering choices, that you, as the parent, are the person in charge. Because here's something else that leads children to be screechy, frustrated and out of control: Not feeling safe.
OK, stay with me on this now because this is at the heart of my philosophy of parenting: What tops the list of what makes children feel unsafe is inconsistent limit-setting.
Think of your child as living inside a box; it's a magic box; it grows as they do so it's always just the right size to give them enough room but not too much room. In fact, being able to reach out and feel those sides is critical. It reassures her: "My world is contained. I'm safe."
Every now and then, though, she reaches out and pushes on the sides of the box just to make sure: Is this box still solid? Am I still safe? If there's a teeny sliver of an opening on the side, not a big deal, but if there's a gaping hole? Uh oh! Trouble in River City.
Substitute your parental limit-setting for the sides of the box. Once in a while, being inconsistent in limit setting isn't a big deal as long as the limits slide back into place next time. But when we are more and more erratic -- when the limits are loosey goosey and flimsy, a child feels compelled to push on the walls of the box more and more, as if she is testing it out: Is this wall still standing? Is it still strong enough to keep me safe. Or put another another way: "Is mom paying attention?" And if she isn't, she gets frustrated and frightened. She'll do whatever she has to -- act out more and more -- in an effort to get mom or dad to realize: "Hey! This box is in trouble! Are you paying attention?"
Any chance this describes your parenting? Get the sides of the box firmly back in place!
An article in last Sunday's New York Times, "Becoming the Alpha Dog in Your Own Home" speaks to the same point. You may also find some helpful suggestions in this article of mine, "Mini Magic," which is the most frequently requested column of mine in the 19 years of writing my parenting column.
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