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?