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Tantrums & Meltdowns

Other urbanMamas have discussed before, could it be that three is more terrible that two?  It very well could be the case.  How has the number 3 fared for you?  Mary emails:

My son turned 3 this past week, and while I know that it is completely normal for kids this age to throw tantrums when they don't get their way (we here 'I want', 'I want' a LOT), my husband and I are having much frustration with the complete crying screaming meltdowns that have been happening lately.  I have been diligent about getting him snacks and meals at the appropriate times to ward off low blood sugar, but the tantrums continue to happen.  We have made the rule that he cannot have his milk until after he eats his meal (whatever time of day, breakfast, lunch, or dinner) because he fills up on milk and then refuses to eat anything.  Today before his normal lunch time, about 11am, he started in on the whining and crying asking for his milk (he had just had a snack of cheese at 10:15) so I fixed him his lunch early and told him that I would be happy to give him his milk after he ate his lunch.  Complete sobbing meltdown.  He wouldn't even sit on my lap and take a bite at all.  Finally he asked for a nap, so I took he and his sippy of water up to bed.  I feel awful about putting him down hungry, but I don't want to back down from our milk-after-eating rule because I know that is a slippery slope with the rules.  He cried for a bit after I put him down but did go to sleep (his usual nap time is 12:30, give or take a bit).  My typical mantra is 'this too shall pass' but I am quite frustrated!!  Any advice??


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Our 2 1/2 yr old does the crying, screaming thing all the time. What has worked for us recently is once he starts to cry, I ask him what the first rule of good behavior is. In our house the first rule is no crying (unless hurt). When I ask him the question he has to think about it which I think redirects what he's thinking about. The crying slowly stops as I give him other options for expressing his anger/frustration. This does not however work for our 4 yr old. With him we have to put him in his bedroom and tell him he can't come back out until he's done crying and ready to have good behavior. And I always have them apologize for throwing a tantrum. Oh, and I find that I have more patience with them if I'm able to go to the gym and workout. Good luck.

Nothing really worked for our horrid 3yo tantrums, but I just wanted to say that it's true: three is worse than two.

My husband and I patted ourselves on the back smugly when people complimented us on our charming 2yo. And he was charming. Terrible Twos? Not *our* kid.

Ha. Ha. Ha. Then came three. And frankly, four wasn't much better. Five, on the other hand, wasn't bad. Good luck.

It sounds like it's becoming a power struggle over the milk. How about meeting somewhere in the middle? Give him a much smaller portion of milk with his meal (half the amount or less) so that he feels like he has some control, and then if he wants more, tell him that he will need to eat some of his food.
Also, talk to him real clearly about the change in plan, don't just suddenly put the smaller milk portion in front of him. Tell him something along the lines of "mommy has changed her mind about milk, and you can have some milk with your food now. But the deal (we're big into making 'deals' at our house) is that you will have to eat some bits of food before I get you more milk", or whatever you want to negotiate. Good luck!

another idea could be to find out why he wants the milk... thirst, comfort, something else.... if he's an especially thirsty guy it would be good to find out why and how to help him with that. if it's comfort maybe water in a sippy cup with some snuggles, or something else that tends to bring him comfort?

Jackson will be 5 in November and I'm hoping that the tantrums of the 3's and 4's will begin to subside. I agree a lot with Kathy and Rachel. What I do really like about this age is that they are able to begin to comprehend reason and logic (on a very basic level).

So, when Jackson and I get into a power struggle, I try to step back and think about why it is that I am saying yes or no to something. Am I just standing on principle; or, is it something that I might be able to be more flexible on. (I really hope that this does not sound as though things always run super smoothly for us...that is far from reality, I find it extremely challenging).

For the milk issue, I might tell him that the reason I don't want him to have the milk is because I want him to have room in his belly for his healthy lunch and that if he drinks all his milk now, his tummy will not have room for the foods that make him grow big and strong. Ask him what he thinks would be the best solution (and it might just be drink all the milk now). Is he just thirsty? Would water work?

I think I tend to pick my battles a bit with Jackson because we do butt heads quite a bit. I'm always willing to listen to his words; but, there are some situations where he just doesn't get to participate in the decision if it has to do with safety, etc. And, I'll let him know if it is one of those situations.

Oh, and something else that I find helpful is to talk about the issue in advance. For example, at 10am maybe talk about the tantrum from the day before and how sad he was and how he wound up going to take his nap without any lunch. Ask him about how he thinks it could work today. As he is just 3, it might be difficult to get ideas out of him; but, he might just surprise you.

Sorry for the long response. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.

I had a very docile, agreeable two year old and then one month before he turned three, things changed dramatically. My first son's third year was full of testing, tantrums and other such fun. By the time he turned four, things calmed down -- hang in there!

Sorry, I think you should respect his wishes and give him the milk. It's not like it's soda. So what if he gets filled up with milk, after a couple of weeks or less he'll move on with this request. Who knows what his reasoning is; either figure out why he wants the milk so much, or trust that he has a reason for it and let him have it. I'd be really ticked too if someone dictated something like that to me.

It's funny that the milk's the thing. When I was a kid we couldn't leave the table until we had drunk our milk, regardless of what else we had eaten. We would even sneak pouring out our milk if our parents let us eat alone on the patio.

I believe boundaries are so important for letting these small people know what is ok and what is not, and it actually sounds like you did a pretty good job in establishing and enforcing your boundaries. It's not a good idea to bend during a tantrum. However, I do agree with what others have said. Maybe it's time to reevaluate the boundary and discuss it with your son. If it is really important to you for many reasons to make sure the food goes in before the milk, then let him know why. If it's something you can bend on a little, have that discussion with him and come up with a new idea. Power struggles stink. I tend to try to avoid them with my 2 year old girl, and sometimes people give me funny looks. Such as her scooping up water at the OMSI water table and then sucking her fingers. If I fought her on that, we would be fighting during the whole outing. When I ignore it, it stops after about 2 minutes. But other parents try to stop her, then look around for her parent. I just look at them, shrug, and say, "I'm picking my battles" and most of the time they nod knowingly. It's still gross, but it's really not hurting her (so far...).

Good luck. It sounds like you are doing a really good job so far!

I definitely think three if more challenging than two. There seems to be a lot more desire to have his own way, more optinions, tons more emotionality. I find myself feeling more and more wishy-washy everyday just to avoid some of it. Argh. With regards to your specific example, one thing I learned long ago, can't remember where, is "if it goes in them or comes out of them, you won't win." Words to live by! I think kids have an amazing ability to regulate their food intake as long as we're offering good stuff. In the world of three year olds, I vote for letting this one go.

A great series of books I've found helpful is Louise Bates Ames' Your One Year Old, Your Two Year Old, etc. She has one for every year. Great information about the age in general and she mentions things I never realized were so common. Like, why all of a sudden did my three year old never want to go out anymore. Apparently this is typical.

Anyway, hang in there. This too shall pass. Only to be replaced by something else, of course, but it shall indeed pass!

Two was a piece of cake...no terrible twos here. But three - look out!

Now that he's five though it really wasn't that bad, and it was short-lived. He was just really torn between being a baby and being a big boy. Its gotta be so hard, can you even imagine?

A lot of the responses so far seem focused on your milk rule, which struck me more as an example than the main question. I think for most kids and situations it's important to not bend the rules because of a tantrum, but to rather stick to your guns as you did. If you want to change the rule later, fine, explain the new rule well; but once you've put your foot down and the tantrum has begun, bending will just lead to more tantrums, in my experience.

Our charming daughter started to be more of a handful around 2.5yrs, and it has certainly not gotten better since she turned 3 a couple of months ago (though not sure if that's all her or partly the fact that I'm 9 mo pregnant!). Luckily, full-blown tantrums are rare for us but when they (or smaller ones) do happen I try to explain the situation clearly (ie, you must eat some lunch before you can have your milk. I'll give you some water now if you're thirsty) a couple of times and then I remove myself from the area and ignore her. I feel badly letting her cry, etc, alone, especially if I think the tantrum is due in part to fatigue, hunger, etc, but I sometimes just can't deal with it and she does seem to calm down relatively quickly w/o an audience. Once the bulk of it is over we sit down for some hugs and a discussion of the problem, and can almost always come up with a solution that works for her and me both.

What I could really use is a way to get my daughter to do what I ask her the first (or even second) time I ask! I'm tired of telling her multiple times with no result and then having to physically lead her into the bathroom to wash her hands, for example.

I've heard that around 2.5-3.5yrs is very difficult and sincerely hope that some of the extreme emotions, fierce independance and blatant ignoring of parental requests/rules subsides a little after that (to recur in the teenage years, perhaps)! Of course it will pass eventually; I wonder what the next challenge will be!

I am a dietitian and mother of a 4 year old. In terms of the food battles and feeding issues, I would recommend the author Ellyn Satter. She is well regarded in the field and has authored several books on feeding infants and children. She also has a website. I believe it is http://www.Ellynsatter.com.
Another good parenting resource is the website http://www.preventiveoz.org. It guides you through a test of your child's temperament and gives suggestions based on the results.
Hang in there - 4 is looking better than 3.

I really enjoyed htpp://www.preventiveoz.org the first time I looked at it. Thanks for suggesting it, Molly. It offers a brief inventory to determine how you view your child and then a more comprehensive questionnaire to give a more objective compilation of your child's temperament. Then it compares the two. Amazing how there were areas in which I viewed my child one way but when it really came down to it I saw that I was off the mark.

As to the comments on the milk issue, I'm certain it was an example as opposed to the whole question. However, sometimes when we start providing specific examples of what we think is a bigger problem, we can shine light on it and work it out. I think it's a great example of the idea of "choosing our battles" and I know the responses here have made me think about my more common tantrums and whether or not if I changed how I approached it maybe the results would be different. I think the common theme in the responses is to examine the limits we set in order to see if they're reasonable or not. If yes, then you just have to ride out the tantrum. If not, reconsider the limit and make a change. I think three brings a whole new level of thinking for the child and thus whole new challenges.

The BEST book I ever read was the Blessing of a Skinned Knee. It changed my life (not for the religious aspect, but for the wisdom it gives). She talks about setting boundaries basically for the fact that your kids should have respect for their parents (that sounds disciplinarian, but it's really not). She also suggests a series of books to see what's "normal" for your two-three- to seven year old. That's called "Your Three Year Old" or "Your Four Year Old" depending on their age. It's not a way to parent your child, but a look into why your child is the way they are, tantrums and all. Good Luck. We're just starting with "Terrible Twos". I'm a bit anxious now of those threes!

I'm a recent convert to Alfie Kohn and his ideas of Unconditional Parenting (he has a book by that name). Basically, stop battling with him. About everything. Stop trying to control, coerce, bribe, force, or bargain with him. As for the milk example, as long as you're putting healthy choices in front of him, let him eat/drink what he wants. As parents, we always lose when we try to control our kids. It helps to try to keep a long-term vs. a short-term perspective. For your son, for a while, he may consistently and only choose milk. But not forever. Next month, even, it will be different. Seriously, what would it hurt to let him drink milk only for a while? It feels good to say, "Ok, yes" to your kids. For my kid, I might have to sneak a prune in, but at least the kid would be happy. By trying to force him to eat his food before he gets milk, the food becomes merely the means to an end, robbing him of any interest or enjoyment of the food itself, and ultimately the plan backfires, though it sounds like it already has.

Maybe try to beat him at his own game, too, like providing him a little pitcher of milk in the fridge that he can pour his own cup. If you give him a "lesson" on how to get the pitcher, get the cup, carefully pour, where the dishcloths are and how to clean up spills, it might be a cool thing. We don't always have to be right with our kids, that's essentially telling them that they're wrong. The best way to teach our kids to have respect for us AND for themselves, is to treat them with respect.

I am sooo not a perfect parent, nor even a good one. But, these ideas have saved the day a few times, and it's helping me try to build the type of kids I hope they'll turn out to be.

Great post Blair! I agree with unconditional parenting. Whenever my daughter has a power struggle, whether at home or preschool, playdate etc. we have had much more positive results with giving her more responsibility and more control over the issue, not less. Trying to control kids is a losing battle. Sure, you want to teach them and help them learn to be "good people" but letting them make their own choices in a safe environment does wonders for mutual respect. She is 4.5 now and tantrums are infrequent. She knows she can ask and we will listen.

Thanks for the perspective on Unconditional Parenting, Blair. I've been meaning to learn more about it lately, as we are dealing with more frequent meltdowns since bringing our 2nd home from the hospital a few weeks ago. We've typically tried to give Anders incentives for good behavior and cooperation, but lately we notice that he expects the reward automatically, regardless of whether or not we've promised it to him and regardless of how well he's completed the task. I want him to cooperate because it's the right thing to do, not because I've bribed him into it! So we're going to change our approach a bit... We're also fighting the milk at mealtime issue and havent been sure what to do about it--last night he had a cup of milk and 2 small bites of food for dinner. We've always had a "choose your battles" approach, but lately it seems even the smallest confrontations are turned into full fledged meltdowns... Sorry, not much advice for you from me, Mary. But I feel for you!

Im also a recent covert to uncondtional parenting/ Alfie Kohn and have finally found something that really resonates with me and the way I want to raise my children. Its not a quick fix and takes more energy (initially) than the punish/reward ways but I think its the best way forward to raise a self motivated, respecful, creative, loving, kind etc etc child.

I recently went to a wonderful lecture on simplifying our childrens' lives and when the speaker was discussing control issues around food and sleep he pointed out that it's pretty much unheard of for a middle(ish) class child to starve in this country. We get so worked up about how much our children eat, it might be okay for them to be a little hungry now and then (if it's their own choice of course). As long as you are providing healthy choices they will eventually eat well. I know that this is much harder in practice than in theory, nourishing those growing bodies is so built in to mothering.

As for tantrums, I had a friend tell me once that if your child isn't throwing tantrums than you're doing something wrong. Our children need us for holding those limits, they count on it and it makes the world more reliable and safe, even if it makes them furious (he feels safe enough to completely melt down with you).

It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job making sure he gets everything he needs and it might be that you just need a little more taking care of through this. Good luck

My 3 1/2 yo is still throwing tantrums, less often but just as intense. You can imagine my horror when child number 2 started throwing herself on the ground kicking, screaming & throwing things at 9 months! Just last week I finally reached my limit with my 3 year old & now I simply ignore the tantrums. (when at home) I walk away, I may offer a few choices of other things to do in a calm voice but otherwise I simply pretend she's not there. So far it has been extremely effective in ending a tantrum very quickly and with me feeling less upset. It really gets to my husband but I stand firm to him as well--he would try to punish her for the tantrums & only make it worse.

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