More mood swings than Jekyll and Hyde


This past weekend, our toddler kindly reminded us that the terrible-twos have yet to go away. In the blink of an eye he would go from yelling at the top of his lungs to happily singing and talking. For instance, we went to the market, and he wanted more bread to eat (what’s new?). When we said we had to leave, he not only cried so loud but maneuvered his body in any which way so that carrying him to the car required a six foot one daddy to practically contain him in a bear hug. But once we relented and gave him a slice of bread (ugh, talk about suckers), he went from “Waaaaaaahhhhh!!!!” to (one second later) “Bread! Yum!”

This kept happening throughout the weekend. One second he’s crying because he didn’t like that we moved his red chair three feet from where it was, then the next second he’s running to his dad wanting to tickle him. In that moment we did what most exhausted parents caught unexpectedly by a tide of moodiness would do: we got cranky. When he demanded food instead of asking politely, his dad told him, “That’s rude.” When he kept pestering me at the furniture store, I irritably said, “What?!” And when he pissed us off at the market, we ignored him.

Wow, we totally win the parenting award for Most Ineffective.

Self-assessment #1: What caused his little explosions?
Now that he (and we) have calmed down a bit, I noted a few things about the weekend and wanted to review the situation. First, what caused him to act up? We noticed that the actual grumpiness happened when he felt like he had no control. I sometimes forget that he’s still at the age where he can feel a bit helpless and overpowered in this big world of giant adults. He would cry because we did something for him (feeding him with a spoon) instead of letting him do it (taking the spoon and feeding himself). He probably wants to have a say in how we run our day. After all, for 85% of the time, his parents control the agenda: it’s time to leave the store… we have to brush your teeth… leave Mama’s phone alone, please… that was the last of the sweet potatoes… and so on.

I also noticed that he’s testing his boundaries to see how we will react to certain actions. Just today he purposely put the palm of his hand on the TV and looked at me, waiting for a reaction. Or I’ll tell him not to hug the blinds because they can break, then he’ll go right back to hugging them and look at me to see what I’ll do.

Self-assessment #2: What could we have done to make this a teachable moment?
Next, I wanted to see how we could have responded so that our toddler could learn something positive from this madness. Clearly, telling him, “What?!” was not ideal; not only was it disrespectful but I didn’t acknowledge his needs, however petty they may seem to me. In hindsight, we really should have practiced empathy. When he was crying his head off, we should have said, “It looks like you feel mad because you were having fun playing. But now it’s time to take a nap. We can have more fun when you wake up.” This may not calm him down immediately, but in labeling his emotions, we’re helping him put words to his feelings so that as he grows up, he can say, “I’m mad!” rather than go ballistic every time.

We also could have encouraged empathy by modeling it ourselves and letting him know how we feel. When he rudely demanded his food, his dad could have told him, “It makes me feel upset when you say it rudely like that.”

And we have to remember to be consistent, because being wishy washy can confuse him and lead him to think, “Okay, so if I hug the blinds just twice, then that’s not okay, but if I hug it three times then Mama will allow it.”

Getting back on track: Putting it into practice
Today I tried to be practice more empathy. When it was time to pick him up from my aunt’s, he had just woken up and was therefore only able to play briefly with his school bus toy before it was already time to leave. He didn’t want to part with his toy and cried about it. I told him, “Looks like you feel sad because you want keep playing with the school bus. It’s time to leave, but tomorrow you can play with it again.” When expressing empathy, it’s not so much that he gets what he wants because, in the end, he still has to go home no matter what. But at least I was able to use that moment to help him label his emotion and make it easier for him to obey (it’s easier to agree with someone when it feels like they’re on your side).

My husband and I discussed all of this and agreed that we hadn’t been too good with “being the bigger person” when we resorted to snappy replies and irritable eye rolls. Our toddler is likelier to learn how to properly express frustration and respect others if we do the same towards him. Now that I have my parenting cap back on (and sanity in place), I’m hoping I can take a step back and not get sucked into my toddler’s emotional tornadoes and instead help steer him toward calmer waters.

What are your kids’ mood swings like and how do you handle them?

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7 thoughts on “More mood swings than Jekyll and Hyde

  1. Oh my, this is a big issue for me. My 17-month-old, Sidrah, behaves in very similar ways to how you are describing. If I sternly tell her no, she will start to laugh. Then I have to cover up my own laugh, because it’s cute, but bad.

    No, my bigger problem is with my 4-year-old. She knows the boundaries at this point. She knows she has to listen to Mom and Dad. We don’t expect her to be perfect at this or anything. The problem is not when she has a meltdown, because I am 33 and I still have them as well. The problem is that when I try to talk to her about her feelings, she will get really angry and say, “NO! I AM HAPPY!” I say things like (I’ve tried a variety at this point), “Well, it feels to me like when you cry, that is a way of expressing that you are not happy.” Etc., etc., and it all just makes her mad and makes her yell that she IS HAPPY.

    So I tell her, it’s okay to not be happy all the time. Sometimes I’m not happy. “NO, MOMMY! I AM HAPPY RIGHT NOWWWW.”

    Eventually, I have to just walk away and regroup. There should be classes on how to deal with grumpy/happy four-year-olds. :P

  2. I JUST had the same weekend, lol. I think my problem is saying ‘no’ when I really mean ‘maybe’ and then caving in, which does nothing to teach my two year old daughter boundaries or even reliability. I am working on being a better ‘decisive’, calm mom….in between giant deep breaths, of course. For certain, you are not alone!

  3. knowing the right way to react and actually reacting that way, can be a challenge when you’re feeling cranky! and hey – we’re all human, whether we’re two or 32, and sometimes our emotions just take over – it happens. i like how you analyzed after that fact – at least next time you’ll know how you wnat to react and can make an attempt to respond that way.

    the other day our friends were over for dinner. my 2.5 year old had had a great afternoon with them and then suddenly at supper, he sullenly looked up at me and said. “Niko no like them. Niko want them to go home.” Geesh… awkward!!! Luckily it was a great friend, my oldest from grade 1 and her new boyfriend, but still. We scolded him on the spot (saving our laughs for later – mostly our awkward laughts). but in hindsight would have liked him to apologize as well. Ah well…next time!

  4. I like your advice. Right before bedtime is the worst for us because everyone has had a long day and is tired. Since I recognize that that’s when I’m most irritable I try extra hard not to be.

  5. Some really good insights here! You seem to be able to see situations from your child’s perspective, that’s invaluable! Our twins have just turned 2, so next time there’s an upset I’ll try to put some of your insights into practice. Thank you :)

  6. Oh man, I am totally gonna try that empathy thing. Our three-year-old is making the “terrible twos” look like a cake walk these days and my wife and I have been pulling our hair out about how to handle it. Encouraging her to label her feelings is also a very cool idea…my brother and sister-in-law got her a toy last year for her birthday that has helped out a lot in that respect. It’s called a Kimochi and it’s basically a very cute Japanese plush blob with a kangaroo-like pouch in it’s chest where you can place differently-labeled “feeling blobs” (i.e. “Angry”, “Sad”, etc.). Trust me, that Kimochi has put out plenty of fires around here, especially when we just can’t figure out what’s wrong with her!

    Anyway, if you haven’t seen them, they are totally worth checking out: http://www.kimochis.com/main.html

    Oh, and I so felt you pain about trying to leave the store. Our daughter threw herself on the ground near the automatic doors at Target and made such a scene that the manager offered her candy! I was fine to stand there until the meltdown ended, but, I guess he must have really wanted her gone if he resorted to candy! :)

  7. As a very emotional person I find it hard sometimes to get past my own feelings when my son is being challenging (and very tiring!). But when I do the difference is phenomenal. I find what works best for me is to get down to his level, so I’m talking to him as an equal, rather than as the big person, and suddenly my frustration seems nothing compared with his anger/hurt/annoyance etc. I can’t always help him get over it but I can at least let him know that I care and that it’s okay to feel that way.

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