I'll Cry If I Want To
Recently, Vincent Hammer put 18-month-old Markus in his high chair and was blindsided by his son's monster tantrum. "He didn't want to sit in his high chair," says Hammer, who lives in northern Vermont. "He screamed for 15 minutes. I finally had to give up and take him out again." Most parents dread the "terrible 2s," that foot-stomping age when kids are apt to turn themselves inside out with rage when things don't go their way. But the thorny truth is that babies experience -- and express -- frustration long before their second birthday.
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When Frustration Sets In
Newborns lead mostly contented lives because we rush to meet their needs at the slightest peep of discomfort. As babies grow older, however, they become increasingly aware of what the world has to offer -- and often want what they can't have. Between the ages of 1 and 2, Eileen Kasten, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Boonshoft School of Medicine, in Dayton, Ohio, says "They're learning to do lots of new things, but they're not very good at them yet, so they get frustrated easily."
Taking first steps, for instance, is a major milestone for babies this age. But becoming a biped also has a downside: your child longs to walk, but he falls down a lot so he feels thwarted and ticked off. Just how frustrated your child gets -- and how he shows it -- depends partly on temperament.
Although it's exhausting to parent a child whose frustration level hits the boiling point, remember that the emotion is actually a positive force that can drive your child to succeed at new challenges. At the same time, you can also learn to sidestep frustration-induced tantrums before they start.
Use Sign Language
There are few things more irritating than not being understood, says Kate Cronan, MD, coauthor of I'm a Mom! Now What? There are many helpful videos, books, and classes on baby signing, but you don't have to follow a formal program. "We totally made up our own little signals," says Laura Costello, mother of 9-month-old Conner, who lives in Weymouth, Massachussetts. "Our older son was very verbal, but he would get upset when he couldn't express what he needed. On our own, we started teaching him to sign, like showing him how to point at the floor when he wanted to get down out of his high chair."
Master the Art of Distraction
If your child wants to watch TV and you'd rather she didn't, saying no isn't likely to go well. Instead, show her a book or an interesting game. Or if she wants to climb the stairs but you're not in the mood to play spotter, distract her with a fun toy downstairs. Places like grocery stores are tougher, of course, because of the lure of candy aisles and fun things to pull off the shelves. If you absolutely must take your baby into such a haven of temptation, have something for her to play with in the cart. Or if she's old enough, give her a little job to do, like holding the peanut butter. "Don't linger, buy treats, and don't negotiate," says Eileen Kasten, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Boonshoft School of Medicine, in Dayton, Ohio.
Make Sure Your Behavior Is Worth Imitating
If you want your baby to eat only in her high chair instead of snacking all over the house, then you can't snack in front of the TV, at least when she's awake. Ditto rude behavior: If you don't want your baby to become the kind of toddler who screams when he's angry, you'd better control your temper when a thoughtless driver pulls out in front of you in the parking lot. "Young children do what their parents do, not what they say," says Eileen Kasten, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Boonshoft School of Medicine, in Dayton, Ohio. Do what it takes to weather your own moods more smoothly, take up running -- or count to ten!
Ignore the Bad, Praise the Good
Many times, babies and toddlers act out to see what our reaction will be. From their perspective, even a scolding by Mom or Dad is more interesting than no attention at all. Head off future outbursts and frustration-induced tantrums by ignoring the behavior now, if possible. And the next time your baby doesn't throw his cup when he's upset, reward him by commenting on it in a positive way. "Give him a hug when you praise him," says Kate Cronan, MD, coauthor of I'm a Mom! Now What?
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Give Simple Choices
What all children strive toward, from infancy on, is independence. "Giving your child at least the illusion of choice helps him make transitions more smoothly," says Eileen Kasten, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Boonshoft School of Medicine, in Dayton, Ohio. Offer no more than two choices, and make sure you can live with both options. "Do you want slices of apple or banana with your oatmeal for breakfast?"; "Do you want to watch your video before we go to the store or after?"; "Do you want to wear your blue pants or your red pants to go to Grandma's house?"
Don't Talk Too Much
We've all seen it happen. A baby or toddler throws a shrieking tantrum, and Mom gets down on her knees and pleads with him to calm down: "You really must stop making all of this noise, honey, okay? Please? Screaming like this isn't very respectful. You need to use your polite voice so everyone knows what good manners you have."
That mom might as well be trying to talk to the teeter-totter. Babies can't understand long explanations, especially when they're seeing red. It's far more effective to keep your sentences short and your words clear. If your child hits his brother to get his brother's ball, calmly say, "Hitting means no ball." Of course, then you have to follow through and confiscate the ball so your child will take you seriously.
Offer Help in Small Doses
When your baby is getting frustrated, it's natural to want to jump in and fix whatever is upsetting her. But many children just get madder if you take over. Sometimes it's best to simply offer sympathy or a minimal amount of assistance. For instance, say that your daughter wants to put together a puzzle like her big sister is doing. "With a little help from you, she can put in a few pieces," says Eileen Kasten, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Boonshoft School of Medicine, in Dayton, Ohio. Sometimes it's not even help that kids want, but validation. When Marty Buss Smith, of Quincy, Massachussetts, saw her son Cameron running around recently with older boys from another family, she noticed that he would fall and scream. He screamed even harder when the boys stopped and asked if he was okay. "This was so unlike him," muses Smith, "that I went over to Cam and asked if he was mad because it was so hard to keep up with the big boys." To her surprise, her son stopped crying immediately. "I think he was relieved that I actually understood what was going on in his mind."
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.