We’ve been dealing with a lot of temper tantrums in my house. As my youngest gets older, she gets more skillful at being hurtful.
“You’re the WORST! I hate you! You’re not the best mommy in the history of mommies!”
Followed by a more pitiful, “Why does no one love me? Why do you hate me?”
It all feels really unfair. Obviously, I’ve never said that I hated her. I adore her… most of the time. Occasionally, I don’t like her behavior and I tell her so.
She can’t see the distinction.
And so I remind her that I love her, always, and that I also need her to clean up her mess.
I’m starting work this week with the family of a three-and-a-half year old boy. They successfully sleep trained him as a baby but now he won’t go to sleep unless his father lies down with him. The boy -- let’s call him Oliver -- is clearly exhausted. He tends to throw massive tantrums. His mother said to me, “clearly we can’t do Cry It Out with a three year old.”
Sometimes children need to cry. Sometimes we all need to cry.
Crying is not a problem. Screaming is not a problem. Having a tantrum is not a problem.
Oliver is crying because he’s exhausted and he doesn’t know how to get the sleep he needs. He’s rightfully frustrated. But he’ll tell his parents that he’s mad because Mommy wants to do the bedtime routine, or he’s hungry (after skipping dinner because he was too tired to eat) or he wants to play one more game.
Oliver doesn’t know that sleep is what he needs to feel better.
Maintain the limit -- that it’s time for bed and he can’t have one more game/a cookie/Daddy when it’s Mommy’s turn to do bedtime. Let him get upset.
He also doesn’t know that he needs to empty his emotional backpack. Both he and his parents are a little scared of it. He may be carrying big emotions about quarantine, or about Daddy working from home and not being available to him, or Big Sister taking his toy in the sandbox.
Whatever it is, welcome the tantrum. It’s not dangerous. Embrace the storm. Sit quietly and wait for it to pass. Don’t try to explain to him why his feelings are wrong -- that never feels good. Sit on the floor next to him and make comforting noises if he allows it. He may not. He might not want you to even look at him.
Just wait. When the storm has passed, he will crawl into your arms and feel so much better. He will know that his emotions aren’t a problem for you, that you can handle them, no matter how big. That you are still his fearless leader. No matter what. You are the adult and you’ve got him.
So if I'm being honest, no, I don't love tantrums. They are really unpleasant. But I am practicing embracing them and letting them wash over both of us. I can see that things in our house are getting easier, gradually, as a result.
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Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.