Grandma has a hard time with toddler's tantrums

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 10, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hello,
My grandson, who is 2.5 years old, suffered from extreme separation anxiety from his mom and dad and would cry for hours until he passed out from exhaustion. He has gradually grown out of this to the point that when I watch him at his home, he fusses for five minutes, and then all is well. I watch him at my home at the most one time each month over the past 5-6 months. He will fuss and cry for about 5-10 minutes, and then he's just fine.

Two days ago when mom left, he had an extreme melt-down reminiscent of when he was younger. He screamed, cried, kicked the front door, grabbed his bag, and flipped when I tried to take it away. This went on for 10 + minutes, and I think it could have gone on much longer. At first I tried to console him and he pushed me away, then I ignored him and he kept screaming and crying. My solution was to put him in his stroller and take him to the playground. He calmed down right away and played until he was ready to go. When we got home he was his usual happy self.

I'm writing because I was so alarmed at the intensity of his melt-down tantrum. 1. Is this normal? 2. How should I react to him should this happen again - console or ignore? What do I do if I can't take him outside?

Thank you,

From: Jen N, Petaluma, CA

Dear Jen N,

Is this normal? Sure, in the sense that children this age and younger typically express their feelings through their body because they don't have language or enough language to express themselves. And sometimes, even when they have some language, they regress to earlier tantruming behavior because the emotion so overwhelms them. (Keep in mind that a typical 2-year-old's feelings are probably as intensely felt as at any age in life!)

That he's having a tantrum around separation could be due to any number of reasons, including: a recent sickness, a change in his schedule, a family move, something that has frightened him, or a change at home including a new baby, or a sick, stressed, or out-of-work parent. Or it could simply be he's entered a new level of cognition where he understands in a new way what mom's absence means to him (loss of sense of security) and he's just protesting her going.

Whenever a child tantrums, he or she feels out of control, so, "The key for the adult is to always remain calm and offer comfort and security," psychologist Gerald Koocher writes in an email, in response to your question. He's co-editor of a terrific new book that's very hands-on for parents. It's called, "The Parents' Guide to Psychological First Aid: Helping children and adolescents cope with predictable life crises."

"By remaining calm, Jen can keep the matter from escalating. She can calmly repeat a standard script that describes what has happened in the past and will happen again today. For example, 'Mommy and Daddy are at work and Billy is staying with Grandma. Grandma will take good care of Billy and we'll have some fun. Mommy will come back and get Billy after work. What would you like to do while we wait for Mommy to come back?' Suppose, Billy shouts, 'I want Mommy now!' Jen could respond by acknowledging his distress, but underscoring the message that he'll be reunited soon and will be taken good care of in the meantime."

Of course, sometimes when a child is throwing a tantrum, he's loud and out of control. Don't try to shout over him, but also don't ignore him. Remain with him. Stay calm. If he isn't thrashing, perhaps you can can get your arms around him to steady him. That may help him feel safer. If not, let the emotion run its course, assuming he is physically not in danger. That you can tolerate the tantrum without getting upset yourself tells him that you are able to take care of him.

You can also take some pro-active steps. Don't wait to see if another tantrum is going to happen. In the absence of giving him coping mechanisms, it may be all he has to fall back on. So:

(1) Talk with him about what happened last time and how you bet he was frightened when he cried so much. Ask what you can do to help him next time, so he won't cry so much. He may not be able to articulate ideas so you can suggest some. Do you want to read a story and cuddle? Do you want to wave goodbye to mommy?

2) Before your grandson comes the next time, tell him a story or make a book that you or his parents read to him, about a little boy whose Mommy had to leave him with Grandma (babysitter, etc.) while she went to work. The little boy felt mad and sad. He didn't want Mommy to go. He felt sad the he could not play with her all day. But he had fun with Grandma -- list all the activities you typically do -- and was very happy to see Mommy again after work.

I love this story Koocher added at the end of his email:

"I still recall an adventure when my daughter was about 3.5 years old. She wanted me to stay home from work and play with her. I sat down with her and reminded her that I worked at a hospital [Children's Hospital Boston at the time] taking care of sick children and explained that by gong to work, I earned money to buy toys and food for our family. I promised to play with her after dinner. Later that day she told our neighbor, 'Daddy works at a hospital and gets money from sick children.'"

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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4 comments so far...
  1. There's a good book that you and your grandson's parents can read to him: "Llama Llama Misses Mama" by Anna Dewdney. It is geared to children being dropped at school or daycare, but has some parallels to other babysitting situations too.

    There are a lot of "going to school" books, but what is nice about this one is that it really covers all the emotions that kids go through. Llama starts out nice and warm in bed, and all of a sudden he has to change gears and get ready to go. Then his mama brings him at school, and everything is strange and new and all he really wants is his mama back. The school part of the book is obviously less applicable to Jen N.'s situation, but the emotions are all there, and the key point is letting the child know that mommy is going to be back.

    When I was a child, I can recall being very distressed by the sudden changes that were totally out of my control -- you're sleeping or playing and suddenly, voom, you have to get dressed RIGHT NOW. Then you're back to playing and you have to get in the car RIGHT NOW. Then you're enjoying the car ride and you have to get out of the car RIGHT NOW. And it was worse in a cold winter, where all of these transitions required time-consuming putting on or pulling off of snow pants, hats, mittens, boots, etc. So, in addition to the things that you do on the receiving end, Jen N., your daughter can be doing things on her end, too, by making the transitions less abrupt.

    Your grandson will survive -- as Barbara said, he is just expressing himself in the best way he knows how. I think you're a fabulous grandmother to be thinking proactively about how to teach him better ways to do that. Best of luck to you!

    Posted by SandyEE February 10, 11 08:36 AM
  1. It's great for Grandma to explain the absence of parents. She has her head on straight about this being too much--and she is lucky that the trip to the park was enough.

    IT IS NECESSARY FOR THE PARENTS TO DO THIS EXPLAINING TO THEIR OWN CHILD TOO.

    Why do I want to make this point? Because some parents don't know that preverbal kids do understand speech. They just can't speak in words themselves. I get sick to my stomach whenever I hear an adult say that babies are "eating and p00ping machines" until they can talk in full sentences.

    Posted by Irene February 10, 11 08:38 AM
  1. My own three year old has begun throwing a lot of tantrums, which he never really did at two. Sometimes it is because I am leaving (I am returning to work after a lengthy maternity leave and bed rest), sometimes it is because of a change of activity (having to leave, eat, take a bath, go to bed, etc.), sometimes I just don't know. The same tactic doesn't work every time, it really depends on him and the situation.

    Sometimes he can be distracted or jollied out of it (as you did when you too him to the park). Other times it helps when I empathize with his feelings. "I know it is really hard to stop playing and eat, but you have to eat." or "I know you don't want mommy to leave, it is really hard. I love you too, but I'll be home tonight and then we will (do some fun activity) and while I am gone you will (do some fun thing) with grandma."

    Sometimes when I know the crying is fake, we joke about it. I'll say, "that isn't how you cry, this is how you cry" and do my best fake crying impression. He tries another and we go back and forth. Soon we are giggling.

    Sometimes the only way to deal with it is to let him cry. I never tell him not to cry, although I will tell him not to whine. I empathize with his feelings, often sing "It's alright to cry" from Free to Be You and Me" and tell him that I am just going to sit and hold him for a while until he is done crying and "getting the sad out." It is amazing how quickly this tactic can work.

    Kids this age have emotions and feel them very intently. I think the most important thing we can do is understand that, let them know that is OK and help them work through appropriate ways to have these emotions.

    Posted by B February 10, 11 11:48 AM
  1. How does his mom leave? Try to involve the child in this process. Maybe have him push mom out or have a special hug and kiss routine and have mom give him something special to hold on to when he misses mom. Maybe if he is given a feeling of control during the separation he will handle it better.

    Posted by Stacey February 10, 11 12:52 PM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. There's a good book that you and your grandson's parents can read to him: "Llama Llama Misses Mama" by Anna Dewdney. It is geared to children being dropped at school or daycare, but has some parallels to other babysitting situations too.

    There are a lot of "going to school" books, but what is nice about this one is that it really covers all the emotions that kids go through. Llama starts out nice and warm in bed, and all of a sudden he has to change gears and get ready to go. Then his mama brings him at school, and everything is strange and new and all he really wants is his mama back. The school part of the book is obviously less applicable to Jen N.'s situation, but the emotions are all there, and the key point is letting the child know that mommy is going to be back.

    When I was a child, I can recall being very distressed by the sudden changes that were totally out of my control -- you're sleeping or playing and suddenly, voom, you have to get dressed RIGHT NOW. Then you're back to playing and you have to get in the car RIGHT NOW. Then you're enjoying the car ride and you have to get out of the car RIGHT NOW. And it was worse in a cold winter, where all of these transitions required time-consuming putting on or pulling off of snow pants, hats, mittens, boots, etc. So, in addition to the things that you do on the receiving end, Jen N., your daughter can be doing things on her end, too, by making the transitions less abrupt.

    Your grandson will survive -- as Barbara said, he is just expressing himself in the best way he knows how. I think you're a fabulous grandmother to be thinking proactively about how to teach him better ways to do that. Best of luck to you!

    Posted by SandyEE February 10, 11 08:36 AM
  1. It's great for Grandma to explain the absence of parents. She has her head on straight about this being too much--and she is lucky that the trip to the park was enough.

    IT IS NECESSARY FOR THE PARENTS TO DO THIS EXPLAINING TO THEIR OWN CHILD TOO.

    Why do I want to make this point? Because some parents don't know that preverbal kids do understand speech. They just can't speak in words themselves. I get sick to my stomach whenever I hear an adult say that babies are "eating and p00ping machines" until they can talk in full sentences.

    Posted by Irene February 10, 11 08:38 AM
  1. My own three year old has begun throwing a lot of tantrums, which he never really did at two. Sometimes it is because I am leaving (I am returning to work after a lengthy maternity leave and bed rest), sometimes it is because of a change of activity (having to leave, eat, take a bath, go to bed, etc.), sometimes I just don't know. The same tactic doesn't work every time, it really depends on him and the situation.

    Sometimes he can be distracted or jollied out of it (as you did when you too him to the park). Other times it helps when I empathize with his feelings. "I know it is really hard to stop playing and eat, but you have to eat." or "I know you don't want mommy to leave, it is really hard. I love you too, but I'll be home tonight and then we will (do some fun activity) and while I am gone you will (do some fun thing) with grandma."

    Sometimes when I know the crying is fake, we joke about it. I'll say, "that isn't how you cry, this is how you cry" and do my best fake crying impression. He tries another and we go back and forth. Soon we are giggling.

    Sometimes the only way to deal with it is to let him cry. I never tell him not to cry, although I will tell him not to whine. I empathize with his feelings, often sing "It's alright to cry" from Free to Be You and Me" and tell him that I am just going to sit and hold him for a while until he is done crying and "getting the sad out." It is amazing how quickly this tactic can work.

    Kids this age have emotions and feel them very intently. I think the most important thing we can do is understand that, let them know that is OK and help them work through appropriate ways to have these emotions.

    Posted by B February 10, 11 11:48 AM
  1. How does his mom leave? Try to involve the child in this process. Maybe have him push mom out or have a special hug and kiss routine and have mom give him something special to hold on to when he misses mom. Maybe if he is given a feeling of control during the separation he will handle it better.

    Posted by Stacey February 10, 11 12:52 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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