When and When NOT to Pick Your Baby Battles
August 1, 2015
(Disclaimer: not all children are created equal. These suggestions are for general patterns that I’ve observed. Or maybe just mine. But I’m not the Child Whisperer. She exists – she wrote a book. But I’m not her.)
I consider myself pretty lucky. I can’t remember ever having to defuse a huge tantrum in public. I always attributed this to my kid being pretty reasonable and emotionally mature. Then sometimes I think I don’t give myself enough credit, and maybe I’m actually just good at distracting her or talking her down before a huge explosion.
Now I think it’s neither of those things.
I think it’s just her quirky little personality. She’s figured out that crying and screaming makes it hard to notice all of the toys, and all of the potential things to climb on, and all of the sharp objects to touch, and all of the electrical outlets to stick her fingers into. I can stroll right down the toy aisle without a single tear being shed because she’s figured out crying over one toy prevents her from seeing the rest. And because she doesn’t forget anything she ever sees or hears, a tantrum means she can’t remind me a week later that I bribed her with some random toy for behaving the rest of the day.
But at home, that girl’s screams can break windows and she can thrash herself through the wall (no windows or walls have been broken, but you get the picture).
I’ve found that it’s much easier to prevent the bomb from exploding rather than clean up the wreckage and deal with the aftermath, so my husband and I have started trying to notice signs or patterns that precede the off-the-chart tantrums.
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve tried to figure out when and when NOT to pick our battles:
1. Be on guard when she’s tired. This is when she’s the most vulnerable to outbursts and crying over the shirt I’m wearing or what color the couch is. She will argue things she knows are wrong; like that fish say “meow.” This is NOT the time to try to get her to sing a song to grandma on the phone or practice her sign language skills. This is the time to be sweet and mild and gentle to her. She’s winding down and that’s a good thing. Stick with what works – tried and true books, her favorite songs (don’t expect her to join in), and a familiar routine. We’ve learned that no matter how important it may be, anything we need her to do when she’s tired can wait. It’s just not worth it.
2. Her feelings are valid and her emotions are real. When she’s hurt, sometimes I just have to let her be hurt. (I’m talking emotionally, not physically, of course). For example, when her nasty stuffed elephant desperately needs to be washed, then I wash it, but I know it will upset her. She has it night and day so I can’t do it discretely, but I acknowledge her feelings and let her feel them. Of course, to an adult, it can be easy to get frustrated and impatient at her tears and pleas for her elephant to be “all done,” but in her little toddler mind, her feelings are just as real as mine if something beloved is taken from me. I am patient and will explain 100 times if I have to that her elephant is nasty and will get her sick, and probably make her have to go to the doctor. And she will still ask over and over if he’s all done, and will probably cry each time I say “not yet.” I don’t get mad, I don’t get impatient (even though it takes a lot of self-control), and I don’t try to talk her into loving a new toy. She is allowed to feel sad and longing for her elephant. She is not spoiled and I will not stop washing that disgusting elephant just to prevent these upsets, but I’ve learned to have empathy. When she sees a dead flower and cries, it’s because her mind and heart saw the beauty and she loved it, and its loss is worth crying to her. Just because it’s not worth crying over to me doesn’t mean her feelings are invalid. If I try to discredit her feelings and emotions, or control and mold them into what I think they should be, the situation usually only escalates. And I want her to always know that it’s okay to feel and express emotion and that she doesn’t have to please anyone else if they disagree.
3. Challenge instead of threaten. This concept has completely changed how we, and she, deal with tense situations. This usually works best when she’s throwing a fit over not getting her way. Which happens pretty much all day because now she’s a toddler, and she has to live by the toddler property laws:
In the past, it would go down something like this…
She would sneak into my bathroom and get my tweezers or lipstick or something and start wreaking havoc. I would tell her that she better stop or better put those back or else I would take away her toy, or send her to time out, or she couldn’t watch her show, etc. And her response was almost ALWAYS throwing the object she had, and then throwing everything in sight, or scratching me. So basically, the “you better… or else” strategy doesn’t work, for us at least.
We’ve since adopted a new method where we completely forego threats and just challenge her. It works amazingly. Basically, if we’re in the above situation, I seriously but calmly say, “uh oh, those are mommy’s things. I bet you can be a big girl and put them back, and then come have a snack with me!” Or, “I bet you can be a great listener and put them down, and then come play with me!” She almost always responds positively. Including a positive reinforcement after the challenge is crucial for her. She wants to play and wants my attention. And she knows she is praised when she is kind and a good listener. She doesn’t care if we take away her toys or put her in time out, and neither of those things ever motivates her to behave.
4. Role play. I’ve read a lot of parenting articles about protecting your kids from strangers, teaching them how to say “no” to drugs, etc. that suggest role-playing. It makes sense to me, so I’ve tried to implement role-playing strategies with my toddler. Especially once she’s recovered from a huge blow-up, we’ll go through it again and let her try to behave herself. For example, if she’s being bossy and demands that I give her something or do something for her, I say, “No, I won’t do that or give you that unless you ask nicely, so how can you ask nicely?” She usually just adds a “please,” at this point. Then I say “okay, let’s try again. Here’s the toy. Can you say ‘mom, can I have that toy please’?” And then it becomes a game and she’ll ask nicely for it. Then I’ll even take it away a few more times and we’ll practice asking nicely some more. We’ve done this with table manners, playground manners, church nursery behavior, and cleaning up. It doesn’t ALWAYS work, but I’d say it has about a 70% success rate, and that’s a win in my eyes.
5. Love her. Literally, some of her worst screaming, crying, thrashing tantrums are completely relieved when I just pick her up and hold her tight and hold her head against my chest or shoulder. This has been true her entire life. Sometimes she’ll just be kicking, screaming, throwing things and completely disastrous, but will often just melt into tears and hold me tight when I just grab her into a big hug. Then I’ll walk around and rock and sing to her, and she’ll completely turn into her sweet self again. I think sometimes that little tiny body just can’t handle all of the emotions and activity she subjects herself to, and she just works herself up into a frenzy. This really does work at least a few times a week and for some of her worst tantrums. She just needs love and reassurance. She just needs to feel protected and that someone is watching out for her.
We’re still learning and improving, and I know I’ll probably have to completely re-write this list when baby #2 comes along. And to be completely honest, sometimes it takes everything we have not to break out in laughter at some of the things she gets upset over 😉
But we’re trying to help this tiny little human navigate this world and be successful, so hopefully, these battles will become fewer and stop occurring altogether before too long.
How do YOU handle your baby or toddler’s tantrums? Any methods that work best (or don’t work) for your child? Please share them below so other parents can add to their arsenal!
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