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Toddlers and Tempers: What’s the Big Deal?

December 21st, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  7 Comments

For years now, we’ve talked on this blog about meltdowns and temper tantrums. One of my very first posts, in fact, was about YouTube videos of kids throwing fits. Since then, Sasha has grown into a generally easy 3-year-old—generally easy, that is, except when she’s not. And lately, she’s not more often than ever.

These days it could be anything: I offer to help her get dressed, but she wants Mommy to do it. Or she doesn’t want to walk to the subway, a trip she’s made countless times. Or we make the mistake of giving her too much milk, or not enough, or we don’t put the dried blueberries in her cereal just the right way. Or, in the middle of the street, she demands that we give her a lollipop or her baby doll or the scarf she refused to put on back at home—that she refused even to let us bring because the very idea that she might be cold offended her, deeply.

And then she’ll scream. And cry. And often fall to the floor and flop around. You know what this looks like.

For a while, I was good enough at dealing with this. I could step back and ask myself, “What’s the big deal if she wants a few more blueberries?” Or “What’s the big deal if she doesn’t want her hat now? We’ll go outside, she’ll be cold, and I’ll put her hat on.” Most of the time, this worked. It wasn’t caving to her whims (and thereby spoiling her), and it resolved things peacefully.

But lately, it works less than ever. Sasha’s demands are so absolute, her reactions so hair-trigger, that the tantrums come with ever greater frequency. Sometimes they’re short, other times long. Usually they’re accompanied by Sasha screaming, “But I want it! I want it!” As if the very ability to articulate her desires requires us to comply with them, even when they’re utterly impossible. This actually makes sense, in a way: For the past three years, the goal of her language development has been to get her to express her wants and needs so that we, her parents, can meet them. But now she’s run up against a wall. Sorry, kid, Daddy can’t change the weather.

And honestly, I’m more tired than ever of dealing with her shit. The old patient Matt has a hard time maintaining his composure. The other day I almost threw a handful of dried fucking blueberries in her face; instead, they went into her cereal bowl, where they remained uneaten. I know this is a phase, I know I need to show more grace, but all I want to do is shut Sasha up in her room until she calms the fuck down. No, actually, what I want to do is ask her, “What’s the big deal?” Why can’t she see that it’s not all that big a deal to wear jeans and warm socks on a cold day, or that if she just finishes that hamburger—that stupid goddamn slider—we’d be happy to get her cake, ice cream, marshmallows, whatever she fucking wants. It’s like negotiating with a Tea Party Republican.

What’s worse is that this is keeping her from doing things she wants to do. Before, tantrums interfered with activities that Jean and I had planned for ourselves. Now, because of Sasha’s tantrums, we’ve had to give up on a tree-trimming party Sasha would’ve loved, and I’m hesitant about doing anything at all that she might like, simply because she’s going to make it so difficult. What’s the big deal, Sasha?

Instead of just shrugging her shoulders and assenting, she’s going to flail and freak out, and we’re going to wind up in an endless battle of No vs. No. (You thought the War on Terror was bad!) All because she can’t yet ask herself what the BFD is anyway.

And then… then we get days like yesterday, the first night of Hanukkah. I arrived at her preschool a little bit early, knowing Sasha might refuse to leave her classroom. But I had a bribe—a surprise—and I promised Sasha she’d get it if only she’d put on her puffy coat and come downstairs with me. To my relief, she bit, and once we were in the school’s lobby and she was ready to go outside, I presented her with the surprise: a bag of Hanukkah gelt. Her eyes lit up as she gazed at the chocolate coins, and then she turned to me and said, “I want to share it with my friends!”

Oh Christ, what do you do when that happens? How do you maintain your cynical, downtrodden composure? Back upstairs we went to distribute candy to her friends and teachers, then back outside, to the train and home and lighting candles and a visit from Uncle Andrew. The worst things kids can do is to please us so much we can’t be mad at them anymore.

Of course, it doesn’t last. This morning, Sasha fought for an extra 30 minutes at being made to leave the house and go to school. I haven’t checked in with her mom yet to see how the actual journey went, but I imagine it was horrible. Or delightful. Who fucking knows anymore?


  1. karen says:

    December 21st, 2011at 11:48 am(#)

    Bwa ha ha ha ha! She’s three. It isn’t JUST a phase, it is fucking three. Now that I’ve passed that year three lucky times (all three survived, but not without scars) all I can do is … *backs away slowly, both hands in the air, and finally turns and RUNS*

  2. Matt says:

    December 21st, 2011at 11:49 am(#)

    Yes, I’ve begun to think of it as the “therrible threes.” FML.

  3. beta dad says:

    December 21st, 2011at 12:30 pm(#)

    I hear you. Times twins.

  4. Matt says:

    December 21st, 2011at 1:53 pm(#)

    An old woman on the bus yesterday saw me with Sasha and said, “It gets worse.”

  5. Jason says:

    December 21st, 2011at 2:17 pm(#)

    This, but with my four-year-old daughter. Sorry, Matt.

  6. Ben says:

    December 22nd, 2011at 8:26 am(#)

    This is a tough road for any parent, but especially, especially for the At-home Dad. I’ve got a three year old boy who lives in the same world as your Sasha. The absolutism, the ridiculous requests, the refusals, and the wailing are all very familiar. Sometimes these are accompanied with swinging fists, kicking, throwing shit, or knocking down baby sister. And then sometimes he’s in a bad mood. :)

    I have one mantra when it comes to dealing with the “intractable” child, as we call him. You gotta make ’em cry. I don’t mean pinch an arm or yell, I mean that the whole process goes more smoothly once the kiddo comes to grips with their powerful desires and the world around them that won’t bend. A little grief, some tears, 5 minutes of tantrum sometime saves hours of toddler wrangling.

    When I sense the toddler attitude coming on, I just back off, give a firm no to some request, and watch the show. It makes me look like a dick, I’m fully aware of this. Instead of the nurturing, loving father, I take on a different role. I don’t really like it, but this is often how it goes down.

    As you said, you can’t change the weather. But they also become savvy that Dad CAN change a lot of things, if he is so compelled. It’s maddening, no doubt.

    I am harboring this secret belief that raising a strong-willed child will bring big results later on. Our kids are obviously not dummies, but they are not pansies, either. All of this powerful struggle will result in something beautiful called STRENGTH OF CHARACTER. I hope. Best of luck to you!

  7. DadCAMP says:

    December 23rd, 2011at 9:51 am(#)

    I went to a seminar at our community centre a couple years ago when our son was 2. You can’t win with the toddler tantrums, it’s their job to have them.

    They’re learning and testing boundaries and figuring out consequences for actions. They are gaining independence and measuring it.

    Here’s more:

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