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?
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.'"
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