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big emotions

Munchkin had been such a joy the last few months that his newest cranky phase caught us a little off-guard. We have heard of the terrible twos, of course, but the term seemed to imply that we would be in the clear for another eight months or so — at least until he turns two. Not so. This past month, we have run the full gamut of emotions from bemusement to frustration as Munchkin’s little tantrums have increased in both frequency and intensity.

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In typical toddler fashion, Munchkin can go from happy giggles to hysterical tears in a split second. The internet is replete with pictures of toddlers crying for seemingly no reason at all, and we started compiling a list of our own. There are the obvious times when we say no, prevent him from doing something dangerous, or make him stop when he’s engaged in some sort of destructive activity. Change can sometimes be distressing, so we also have gotten used to Munchkin’s meltdowns when we switch rooms, reach the end of a book he enjoys, change his clothes, or take him upstairs for bath time. This last surprised us initially because he generally loves bath time.

And then there are the completely unforeseen causes of hysterics — unpleasant in the heat of the moment and amusing in retrospect. On several occasions, S has precipitated total meltdowns simply by saying “good morning” or taking Munchkin out of his crib following a nap. Another common tantrum trigger is crying out “ouch” when Munchkin embraces us for what looks like a hug and then bites us. D likewise has sent Munchkin into hysterics by anticipating the bite and soberly informing the Munch that biting is unacceptable and unbecoming behavior for a little gentleman.

Of course, tantrums are a perfectly normal stage of early childhood. Child psychologists say that toddlers’ seemingly irrational behaviors are a very understandable reflection of their inner turmoil and frustrations. It is no coincidence that toddlers start having tantrums around the time that parents start setting boundaries. Alicia Lieberman, author of The Emotional Life of the Toddler, explains that because young children rely on their parents for everything, they perceive a parent saying no as a withdrawal of love. She even likens taking away a knife or electrical cord — something that may have given the toddler a great amount of pleasure — to the pain an adult might feel when betrayed by a spouse. It also makes sense that in the absence of language skills with which to express their emotions, young children would resort to tears and screams to vent their frustrations.

D relies primarily on his instincts to guide his parenting and has made up his mind that it’s best to let Munchkin have his tantrum. He speaks calmly to him but without embracing him and only comforting him after he has calmed down. S, on the other hand, feels that we should let Munchkin know that we’re there for him when he’s having big, scary feelings and that leaving him alone when he’s angry or intense sends the message that these feelings are unacceptable or that it is not ok to have strong feelings around other people. As with other parental challenges, S has taken to the internet in search of techniques to help Munchkin better deal with his emotions and, hopefully, to curb some of these outbursts.

The one helpful video we watched pre-baby was pediatrician Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block. His techniques for soothing upset newborns worked miracles on Munchkin, so S turned again to this baby whisperer and recently watched his Happiest Toddler on the Block video. In it, he compares toddlers to little cavemen, arguing that in terms of brain development, a toddler is a primitive, emotion-driven, instinctive creature that has yet to develop the thinking skills that define fully-grown, modern humans. His method to diffuse tantrums is to acknowledge a toddler’s distress by speaking “toddler-ese” (using short words and phrases) and repeating over and over again what the child is upset about while mirroring the child’s dramatic pitch and flailing body language. According to Karp, after several repetitions, the toddler feels that he’s been understood, calms down, and begins to listen and respond to a parent’s directions.

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S has attempted this method on several occasions, but without much success, and has largely abandoned it lest it encourage Munchkin to learn to scream “I want” whenever he does not get his way. With myriad parenting books, conflicting child-rearing philosophies, and all sorts of sure-fire tricks touted in online forums, we have yet to find a method on which we can agree. One thing S’s research did make clear is that the term “terrible twos” actually refers to the second year of a child’s life and that this behavior typically reaches its peak around 18 months. In other words, this too shall pass…

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