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  • Dr. Terri Bacow

Threenagers: Sense and Insensibility

How To Deal With Toddler Meltdowns

“We don’t ask for much. Only everything.”

-Bunmi Laditan

Toddlers Are Not Rational

When Rene Descartes laid the foundation for 17th-century continental rationalism, I am fairly certain that he did not have toddlers in mind.  I realized this the other night when I was at my neighbor’s apartment and at one point during the dinner, all three of our three-year-olds were crying, at the same time, for completely different reasons.  I am not sure what was going on with the other two tots, but I assure you, whatever my daughter was upset about, it was because something was not perfect (such as: due to the laws of physics, one block in her tower fell over). Recently, she has gotten fixated on colors; she asks daily for “the purple bowl, the orange plate” and if you dare, say, give her the red plate… cue: INTENSE EMOTIONAL REACTION otherwise observed as extreme displeasure aka a “meltdown.” Last week, as we were attempting to leave for preschool and as we finally made it out the door she changed her mind about the water bottle she wanted that day. I ran back into our apartment to fetch her the “correct” water bottle, at which point she decided she wanted to pour water from one into the other. The scene two minutes later: me in my pajamas, sopping up a huge pile of water in the hallway of our building as our babysitter carried my weeping child into the elevator. The alternative: resisting her insistence to pour the water herself, leading to a probable meltdown.  

All parents of toddlers have stories like these, and these are not even the funniest or the most dramatic. I have accepted that I am raising a(nother) threenager.  A threenager with very specific preferences and BIG FEELINGS. The term “threenager” is apt here; she is technically more mature and more verbal than a toddling two-year old, yet she is really giving me a run for my money and enjoys testing the limits of my very fragile patience. In addition to my three-year-old daughter, I have an eight-year-old son who has gradually grown out of his threenager years (THANK GOODNESS - he was truly a “boss baby” back in his day). Now, take two; I have another toddler (whom we still, by the way, refer to as “the baby”) and I have the pleasure of experiencing her version of this, which happens to be different--and more emotionally charged--than my son’s version. Suffice it to say all toddlers put their unique spin on their threenage year. 

Why are Toddlers Irrational?

Why are toddlers so irrational?  Here is a quick brain science primer.  As lovingly explained by Harvey Karp, MD (you all know him; he’s the author of the Happiest Baby and Toddler books, a total oxymoron), our brains have two halves with different strengths. In contrast to the more logical left brain, the right is distractible, impulsive and emotional. Not surprisingly, in toddlers, the right brain runs the show.  Fun!! Further, this imbalance becomes more pronounced when a toddler is UPSET. Intense emotions dampen the activity of the thoughtful left brain and amplify the activity of the neanderthal right. What’s more, toddlers’ prefrontal lobes are woefully underdeveloped, and according to my good friend, neuropsychologist Dr. Uraina Clark, may not fully mature until early adulthood. This means that toddlers’ executive functions (bye-bye, self-regulation) are not all there. With 50% more nerve connections in the brain compared to an adult, it is no wonder toddlers are often oversensitive, not to mention impulsive. They feel EVERYTHING, and they feel it intensely. There is no filter; they tell you exactly what emotion they are experiencing and they tell you NOW (not always “using their words” because after all, the left brain isn’t 100% developed either). How this manifests in my daughter: Something. Does. Not. Go. Right. Her face scrunches up, her lips quiver and tears fall. This in turn makes ME feel emotional (a wicked blend of mommy empathy and panic! I want her to feel better AND I want to go on with my day, pretty please.)

Toddlers Need to Feel in Control

A few years ago, after my son had a pretty massive meltdown in a very public park (because he could not sit in the stroller with his newborn sister and gasp, had to WALK), a fellow mom friend commented, “we are dealing with small, but very powerful dictators.” She was spot on; in addition to being emotional and illogical, toddlers have a strong need for CONTROL. They want to do it all themselves and yet we have to do everything for them. In her essay, "It Turns Out We Were Never Meant To Tolerate Our Insane Toddlers" the author Chaunie Brusie writes that “the hardest part can be wondering if your toddler is actually completely irrational and off of his or her rocker or if they are just acting like a toddler should act.” She adds, “we drive ourselves crazy trying to control their crazy.” She concludes that we should back off and adjust our expectations. There are some things our toddlers are not capable of doing, and often, that is acting rationally. I have taken this advice to heart and when interacting with my daughter, continuously remind myself that she is not a mini-me. I treat her as if she is very delicate and fragile and possibly in an inpatient ward. I am, quite truthfully, a little bit afraid of her. But when I give her the control she needs everything goes more smoothly.

I’m a Clinical Psychologist. Validation is the Key to Dealing with Toddler Behavior

I find toddler behavior especially fascinating because I am a clinical psychologist in private practice in NYC and a parenting coach. When I work with clients in my practice, I often employ a blend of strategies including some from PCIT, an evidence-based treatment that involves systematically using praise, reflection and other techniques to help parents manage their children’s difficult behavior. The element of this approach that I find most valuable when dealing with toddlers is an essential skill developed by Marsha Linehan known as validation, which involves communicating to another person (of any age) that his/her feelings, thoughts, and actions make sense and are understandable to you in a particular situation. Validation, which is a crucial skill that promotes emotional regulation, is not the same as agreement; it involves stating that you get it. This can be a reflective statement (such as “You are very frustrated right now!”).  Dr. Karp calls this “the fast food rule”: when you hit the drive-through of your favorite fast food place, the server repeats the order back to you through the speaker: “That will be one burger and one double chocolate milkshake,” or, in my daughter’s case, “You want me to put the banana BACK into the skin and then you want to unpeel it yourself.” Yes, you read this right; the idea is to repeat back to your toddler his stated desire or feeling in order to help him calm down. Try it: it’s pretty effective!

As a psychologist, I am usually employing therapy strategies with multiple acronyms (CBT, DBT, PCIT, PMT, I will spare you the details) with my clients, many of whom are moms of children at different ages and stages. Part of why I am constantly tired, I think, is that when I am with my beautiful threenager, I can’t help but think like a therapist. My husband believes I am too sympathetic. His MIT-educated brain does not work the same way as mine (well, at least one of us needs to know how to do math), and he is constantly scolding me: “You NEVER say no to her!”  I consider myself not overly indulgent, however, but SUPER effective. Quite frankly, without me and my brilliant psychology-informed tactics, there would be no one to prevent my daughter from losing her sh*t, 24 hours a day. 

My Three Part Prescription for Dealing with Toddlers

I have developed a three-part prescription for dealing with our very irrational toddlers. Keep in mind, this is my own loving blend of voodoo (well, most of it is research-based) that I have found to work wonders in taming the crazy. When your toddler gets very upset, please follow these three steps:

1) DO WHATEVER HE OR SHE WANTS. SERIOUSLY, JUST DO IT. Get her the yellow straw or the spoon with rainbows on it. The breakfast isn’t correct? Get him another breakfast! And quickly!  If the imperfection can be corrected, do it. It is so much easier, trust me. Be sure to, if she seems very agitated, use the most soothing tone of voice (as if you are trying to calm an outraged monarch). Use the fast food rule and state back to her what she is feeling or what she is upset about (“You don’t want to wear underwear today!”). If your threenager isn’t talking up a storm and can’t express what exactly is the matter, say, “Show Mama (or Dada) what you want.” And watch him calm down, immediately. 

2) COLLABORATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING. Developed by Ross Greene, my version is this: if your toddler can’t have exactly what he wants in that exact moment, see if he will agree to something else. Collaboration, more than power, is the best way for parents to exert influence. Explain why you have to say no. Distract the heck out of him or her, and if reasonable, offer a consolation prize--another choice or solution to the problem. Ask for his or her ideas. The same functions that make your toddler irrational also make them extremely gullible and willing to believe anything you tell them. The pink toothbrush isn’t purple? Put purple stickers on it! (Surprisingly, my daughter went for this and a meltdown was averted. It also often works if I tell her we will do some activity tomorrow, at which point she will have forgotten all about it.) 

3) IF ALL ELSE FAILS, CONTAIN THE SITUATION. There are times that our toddlers just can’t be reasoned with (since after all, they are unreasonable by nature). Sometimes, we have to ride it out and let toddlers have their moment. We have to carry our toddler kicking and screaming out of the establishment or coercively put on her pants. We have all been there. The other day my sitter walked in on me forcibly dressing my hysterical daughter and I can only hope she did not call the police.

Parenting Toddlers is Hard. Take Care of Yourself

In conclusion, parenting a toddler involves correcting the growth pattern of a person not yet ready to live in civilized society. It is NOT easy, especially in this culture of intensive mothering and anguished perfectionism. It requires energy, patience, and frustration tolerance, elements that us sleep-deprived parents do not always have, especially when parenting multiple children. I can personally share that I often lack frustration tolerance for my daughter’s age-appropriate, but dangerously low frustration tolerance. It is intense, and I burn out quickly, often needing breaks. I am completely transparent about this--just ask me about the birthday party we went to earlier this week where my daughter announced to everyone, “the pizza is cold!” After chasing her for two hours at an unstructured gym, trust me, all I wanted to do was lie down.

So, a word on self-care for parents. I could write a lengthy dissertation on this but I implore all of you: let go of the guilt, and get yourself some help. Enlist the co-parent, family member or sitter. Leave the house. Raising children is at least as stressful and demanding as a paying job, and small children in particular send predictability and order out the window (if you haven’t read the books All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, or Small Animals, please do. They are fantastic). In case anyone thinks otherwise, I am obsessed with my daughter (I coo at her all the time; we have a very enmeshed, near-romantic love relationship) AND I very often need a break from her. The good news? Soon she will be four, and according to Dr. Karp, “four-year-olds are more patient, civilized and well on the way to growing up.” I am not sure if that is entirely true, but at least we are getting somewhere!


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