Friday, September 19, 2014

Mailbag: Please Stop the Screaming!

I got this mailbag question a week or so ago, and responded to it. Since then, my Cryin' Babies Go To Bed post was shared on a parenting forum, to GREAT misunderstanding, confusion, concern, and general unpleasantness. Sometimes I kind of forget that my blog is available to, ya know, the whole wide world. I write for you guys who know me and have read a fair number of posts and "get" me and "get" the tone of my blog. But I can see how someone who was reading it in a vacuum would be left wondering at my advice (or, I should say Frankie's?).

Anyway, I stand behind what I wrote in that post, and I use the techniques I mention in it every single day. I think my kids are happier and more well-adjusted and nicer to be around because of it. But I want to clarify that I do not encourage or practice the stifling of emotions. I do not deny their existence or their importance. Nor do I deny the reality of physical pain.

However.

I have noticed that almost all grownups can stub their toe or get a paper cut and NOT dissolve into a writhing puddle of shrieks on the floor. I have noticed that the same cannot be said of many children. So, at some point between two and thirty, we learn how to process physical pain in a less dramatic way. I just figure, why not do it closer to two? Isn't it nicer to have that under control?

Similarly, I want my children to be able to experience and acknowledge strong emotions without making themselves and the people around them miserable.

this is Betty, in case you're wondering how Lulu suddenly got to be 18 months old

There are legitimate reasons for kids to be sad, or mad, or frustrated. Absolutely there are. But in MY experience with MY kids, most of the reasons that they are having strong emotions are not particularly legitimate. I think it's okay to help them realize that. It works for grownups too. Just last week, a lady at the grocery store took the last box of Magnum Mini Gold Bars, right before my very eyes. And I managed, by carefully implementing the strategies outlined in the Cryin' Babies post to NEITHER punch her, NOR burst into tears, NOR go running to the store manager to tattle on her. Victory! And you know what, I didn't feel stifled, I felt empowered. That's what I want for my kids.

And now back to our regularly scheduled MAILBAG, which just happens to be on the same subject!

Hi Kendra,

I was hoping you could help me with a bit of a situation with my 18 month old little boy.  He is my second child, first boy, and he's going through a terrible phase right now.  He cries almost incessantly, sometimes to be picked up, sometimes to be given something, sometimes for no discernible reason.  I have read your posts on discipline for young babies and have tried using "not for babies" (which only seems to make him cry) and "crying babies go to bed" (which makes him scream bloody murder).  I'm just wondering what to do with him. He has such a strong will, much stronger than his older sister and I feel I'm in over my head. He has now taken to hitting everything and everyone, but mostly me, whenever he feels thwarted and occasionally leaning in to bite. He hasn't bitten down on anyone yet, just leaned in to do it, but it's not a habit that I would like him to develop. I feel like everything I've tried has made him (and me) more angry, frustrated and upset and I'm getting twitchy from all the endless screaming.

This kid is capable of screaming without break for a full hour (he probably could do more but I've never had the heart to find out). That's why it's hard to do a time out in the crib because there's no discernible time when he calms down enough for me to go in and take him back out. I'm not really sure where to go from here because sometimes I feel like I should crack down and put him in time out every time he hits and sometimes I feel like I'm just making life hard on us and should just ignore the whole thing until it blows over. I want to be consistent but I just don't know whether to consistently correct or consistently ignore.


Thanks,
M



Dear M,

Ugh. That is hard. I'm so sorry. My oldest was really hard for me to handle at that age, so I've been there, for sure. I felt like my whole life, our whole family's life, was lived at the whims of a toddler. I got a do over with Frankie, my number six. He was also a very willful toddler. I handled him in a less emotional way, and for me, it was much more successful.

Mostly, it really does just comes down to what you WANT to do. I think that consistently correcting OR consistently ignoring will both work eventually. It's what you can live with and what you can't. If letting him flip out is less disruptive to your life than trying to outlast him, then I agree with you . . . it probably WILL blow over eventually. I don't know for sure, because I CAN'T handle it. So I always fix 'em.

Now, his level of maturity is going to matter a lot here. I don't have an 18 month old right now, I have a ten month old and an almost three year old. If my ten month old was fussy and clingy and cried a lot, I would put her down as often as I had to for my own sanity and bare minimum productivity, and so she could get some sleep, but mostly, if she needed to be held, I would hold her. I would interpret her fussing as coming from a place of need and I would do my best to meet her need without going crazy myself.

If, however, my two and a half year old was clinging and shrieking and biting and hitting. I would view that not as a need, but as being a menace, and I would do everything in my power to correct the behavior and make him a person who was pleasant to be around. I'd do it for my own good, and his own good, and the good of our family. So if he was to scream his head off in a time out, I'd wait him out. I'd calmly go in every half hour or so to tell him that we miss him and hope that he'll be able to calm down soon. But, he wouldn't get out until he stopped. I'd be more stubborn than he was. I'd figure that, eventually, he would decide he'd rather knock it off and be a part of our family.

As long as he thinks it's going to get him what he wants, he's going to keep screaming. But as soon as he's convinced that it won't do any good, he's probably going to knock it off.

You're in between those two ages, so you've got to decide if he has a legitimate need that's not being met, or if he is just being a stinker. Then you have to decide what course of action is going to be most liveable for you and your family.

I think what changed everything for me with my oldest son was realizing that HIS being upset didn't have to upset ME. I don't know how to write this down without coming across as callous and getting my attachment parenting card revoked, but me allowing myself to get emotionally caught up in all his drama didn't help either of us.

These days . . . I love my kids, I meet their needs, I take care of them, I spend time with them, I LOVE THEM, LOVE THEM, LOVE THEM but if the toddler is having an off day or week or month, I don't let him drag me and the rest of the family down with him.


I have reasonable, age-appropriate expectations for behavior. I clearly communicate those expectations to the toddler. "No screaming. If you scream again, you're going to go sit in your crib." Then, I follow through in a calm but firm way. Attached to the child, but detached from the drama.

If he screamed again, I'd say, "Uh oh, you screamed again. No, no screaming. You're going to go sit in your crib until you can calm down." Then I'd scoop him up, and put him calmly in his crib, no matter how much fuss he made. I'd say, "I'll come back to get you once you've settled down."

Then I'd leave and not fret about it. He's going to be okay. If he was throwing a long tantrum, I'd check in, calmly and sympathetically, every so often, to remind him that once he's settled down, he can come back and join the family. Then once he was calm, I'd get him out and remind him, "No screaming. If you can't remember, you'll end up right back in here."

If it's an established habit, I might give him a couple of warnings, but, really, if you want to change the behavior, it might be easiest to just keep on him about it and get it over with.

As long as he is developmentally capable of the behavior, (at eighteen months I'm pretty sure all my kids have been capable of learning to not throw fits, but you've got to make that judgment) calm, firm, and consistent should work to change the behavior over the course of a few weeks.

I think it's key to really believe that you and the rest of the family are reasonable to expect a level of peace within your home. And to believe that your kids are capable of living up to a high standard of behavior. Sometimes there will be screaming and chaos, there is in any home with children, there is in my home for sure. But we don't have to resign ourselves to it.

I think what made me hesitant to enforce rules like this with my first was the idea that it was wrong somehow to "punish" him for his "feelings." But I know now that that's not what I'm doing. He is allowed to have any feeling there is, but what he's not allowed to do is not know how to control those feelings and lash out at me or his siblings. Me not tolerating constant emotional outbursts has meant my kids have learned to be the boss of their own reactions to situations. They are allowed and even encouraged to have feelings and preferences, and to stand up for themselves, but in a way that isn't destructive to themselves or our family. They are not perfect, but they're pretty good. In a house with nine people living in it, we are at a liveable level of emotions, probably 80% of the time.

The other 20% of the time, we've got one or more of those nine people off having some alone time to compose themselves. Sometimes one of those people is me. It's a good skill to have.

I hope that helps, and both of those posts you mentioned have specific things that have worked for me in dealing with your situation.

Here are links to some of my posts about parenting toddlers:

HOW TO BE THE BOSS OF A ONE YEAR OLD

Trust your mama gut. It will guide you!


Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.

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27 comments:

  1. I have a follow-up question. How do you ensure that, with their crib being used for screamy time-outs, your toddlers don't develop an aversion to being put in the crib for naptime and bedtime?

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    1. This hasn't ever been an issue for us. My kids sometimes sit in corners or chairs for timeouts, and they don't have an issue with using corners or chairs for purposes other than timeouts as well. My toddlers kind of don't love bedtime no matter what, and attempt to resist it. But they do that whether or not they've had timeouts in the crib. My guess is that as long as *I* don't make it an issue, it's not one.

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  2. Thank you for this post Kendra! There are people ALL over the internet trying to bombard us parents with the message that what we are doing is wrong, no matter what our parenting style is. It's very intimidating for a new parent like me! With a strong willed 20 month old myself, I am learning to constantly remind myself that ultimately, *I* am the parent and *I* know what's best for my children and my family.

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    1. Yes, Ashley! It took me MUCH longer than it's taken you to figure that out. :)

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  3. I'm a little over 5 months pregnant with my first (!!!) and just finished reading a sort of parenting memoir that reminded me of your parenting posts. Have you ever heard of the book Bringing Up Bebe? It's written by an American mother who ends up raising her children in Paris with her British husband. I didn't agree with all the French parenting beliefs, but the ones that really resonated with me reminded me of your posts, and I was curious if you had ever read it. :o)

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    1. I've only read an excerpt of it, but I've heard good things about it!

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    2. I really liked that book. I especially liked how they emphasize kids doing things like cooking from an early age, and how French parenting tends to dissuade picky eating.

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  4. Our two-year-old does this thing where she's crying and yelling, "Kiss! Kiss!" If I kiss her the tears immediately stop. My husband says I shouldn't give into demands like that and she has to learn to calm herself, but every time I don't it becomes a full on tantrum. Should I really be refusing a kiss? Seems unnecessicarily mean to me. It works and she's two! This usually happens because she didn't get her way, not for boo-boos and such.

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    1. We have always gotten out toddlers to stop crying/tanruming by cuddling/holding/nursing/kissing/etc them through it. It works for us, and they did stop having tantrums altogether as they got older. Different people have different parenting philosophies but I see nothing wrong with giving a child comfort...whether they need it because they are hurt or because they didn't get their way. And overall, I think it's beneficial for a child to learn to seek comfort from their family (whether parents or older siblings).

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    2. I don't think it's a problem for you to kiss her when she's upset. But I think it would also be okay if your husband wants to handle it differently than you do. I think kids can understand that just fine.

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    3. We do a combination for our three year old - being completely out of control gets a time out (usually bedroom for the worst) and once he's calmed down to a certain point we re engage physically. He'll cry for me to come back, sit on the bed or cuddle when he's upset sometimes, but I tell him I won't until he's stopped crying (which more often than not happens quickly with that ultimatum) once he's stopped crying (though he still might be upset) I'll climb up with him, give him a cuddle and talk through the recent out burst - "Such and such was not okay, this is why you went to your room, are you going to do it again, who do you have to say sorry to, etc." I don't deny all physical comfort, but require that h has to regain a certain amount of emotional control before that comes back.

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  5. I like that phrase, "Attach to the child, detach from the drama." Now, if only I knew how to put it into practice on a consistent basis...
    Also, all of this is so much harder in a small space. We only have two rooms with doors (three if you count the bathroom but I do not want to have it be a time out area for small children, not safe enough), and sometimes that is not enough for all the screamers to have their own space! It's hard not to get dragged down by the screaming when you cannot escape the sound from one end of your 50 ft. house to the other!

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    1. Jenny, I like it too. I could use a framed poster of it in the kitchen.
      The small space situation sounds challenging! Good luck!

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  6. I agree completely with this topic, and I feel strongly about it (but not so much that I, you know, lose control *wink). Our culture is caught between what people say is more important, feelings or reason, and it seems these days that we're told that feelings are more important. I think it's good to RESPECT feelings, but often that seems to get mist-translated into treating every emotion as VALID. That if you're feeling an emotion, it must come from a valid place, and if we stopped to think about that, we'd realize that it's not true. I feel emotions all the time that I have to stop, analyze and realize that it's not coming from a good intention in my heart, and I need to find a way to turn that around. So if adults can have those kinds of emotions, then you better believe that children do too, and I think it's part of our jobs as parents to help them turn that around. Part of how we can do that is instilling the habit of basic self-control at an early age. So that they learn to have that "cap" on the tank which allows them to step back from their emotions just a bit to give them the ability to really look at a situation. Obviously the analyzing part comes later, but instilling the habit sets up this ability quite well.

    You said that adults figure out how to control their emotions, but I would argue that sometimes they don't. Sometimes they too get caught up in this culture that puts emotions on the throne of superiority, and how they express that just becomes an adult-sized tantrum. Just recently I dealt with a coworker who felt that the way she FELT about a situation trumped the fact that she had gone against company policy. So we had to have a meeting that was about her feelings. Much to my disappointment, that was pretty much the only topic of the meeting. It felt like an adult-grade tantrum.

    So yes, I think it's important, because this notion that as long as we "respect" our children's feelings (which can often really mean let's treat every emotion as valid and okay and to express that as much as they want) doesn't set them up to have a successful life. Anyway. I thought this was a fabulous back-up post on the topic. Kudos to you!

    Lauren

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  7. This is a great reminder. I way too often get caught up in my kids tantrums and it makes everyone unpleasant, including me. I like how you separate their having emotions from the appropriate expressions of those emotions. And separate being connected to your child vs. connected to their outbursts. I was also giggling about your avoidance of a grocery store meltdown. :-)

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  8. Hi Kendra,
    I think this advice is great. We've found that consistency, combined with lots of affection when needed, is a workable strategy but we constantly have to tweak our behavior a bit. Our first is really really mellow and generally really likes to do what he's asked to. But every now and then we get into a bad loop where I am disciplining him constantly, he throws fits and constantly tells mommy to "go away." Disciplining harshly seems to make him act worse during these periods. I guess in the end I figured out he was crying in part because he could feel my frustration and felt likeI didn't love him (and in part because he was not feeling well due to colds, ear infections, mild concussion, etc., and also because he's a toddler, so hey, crying). So what I've started doing is a) hand off the worst "bad cop" tasks to my husband for a few days. WE don't relax the rules, just who's administering them. b) I amp up the praise and commenting on positive behaviors, and laughing and snuggling. I usually realize I was ignoring his awesome traits, and start encouraging them, however rarely they come out during these rough patches. c) Once I feel like our relationship is on a better footing, I go back to being the one emphasizing discipline, BUT only once the ratio of positive to negative interactions is better. I think you're spot-on that 80/20 is about a good ratio on positive interactions/discipline. Anyways, that's what's worked for me, but it would be a huge stretch to call our son willful, I'm not sure what will work with our second who is only 6 months. He seems to be more excitable, but also gets worked up more easily, and cries for longer, so we'll see.

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    1. Also wanted to add that sometimes my son's bad behavior seems to be worsened by my own flaws -- being bad-tempered, lazy, or inattentive. When I grow in patience and fortitude and gain more control over my own emotions, I find that my son just naturally seems to have a better handle on his own. Not sure how or why this works, but it does. And it has the bonus of helping me grow in virtue a tiny bit.

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  9. "I didn't feel stifled, I felt empowered" YES! This is what I want, you said it perfectly. I want them to be proud of their ability to control their feelings, not believing they can't feel it.

    I have to out-stubborn my kids too. I can't just wait until they're older, what if everyone is wrong and it doesn't go away?? Plus, I can't live with behavior that just ticks me off. I say "mama's more stubborn than you, just ask Grandma" (quietly, to myself. It's a pep talk) and however long it takes, I stick it out. My first was also far and away my most difficult, so he was good training for me.

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  10. The first thing I learned in AP is that I have to get control over my own emotions before addressing the situation that has me riled up. That's exactly what you are teaching your child, and that is fantastic! Now to backtrack and do that with aaaallll of my kids :) all at the same time. All day long. Every day.....;)

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  11. This is good advice! When our kids are having a crying fit about something we tell them to go to their room until they calmed themselves down and can use words to tell us what is the matter. It is sort of nice to see our 2 year old start crying about something, walk to her room for a few mins then comes out and says...I am done crying, then proceeds to tell us what the problem was. She did that at someone's house once and they just stared at us like "did that really just happen." Kids are capable to control their emotions if we give them the tools.

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    1. Sorry for the grammar errors. I should have read that before hitting publish.

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  12. I may be putting myself in danger of Child Protective Services appearing a my door 36 yrs later but I left Kendra crying in the grocery aisle at about Frankie s age. She had decided that she wanted a certain sugary cereal that I wouldn't buy. I went on to the next aisle until she calmed down. We then picked a different cereal and the scene was never repeated

    However I have experienced toddlers that can hold that crying tantrum for a very long time. One little boy didn't give in on the airplane all the way from Jfk to San - 6 hours. I though the mom was going to need oxygen to calm down. Not easy.

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  13. I don't know about other people, but I use the "crying babies go to bed" now on a regular basis...and it's become quite effective because really, unless they are injured or bleeding, is there really any reason to cry? (I do always ask those questions...) I always find myself asking what God does to complainers as well...just as effective. Thanks for all the advice you provide to this someone with far, far less experience.

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  14. Oh Kendra. I love when you write parenting advice posts. Could you do this more frequently? Every three hours perhaps? Because that's about how long I can go without craving your expert advice.

    I'm not at all surprised that your post was taking poorly by so many moms. It seems like most parents these days just don't discipline young children. And most of their children are really annoying to be around. I love your approach and it is working wonders for our family. The only problem is that we moved into a two story house and my pregnant self just does NOT want to carry that screaming toddler all the way upstairs to his crib. But I must! I just gotta grit my teeth and do it.

    Keep up the great work. Even when people don't understand your voice.

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  15. Kendra, can I just say that you're my favorite EVER? Thanks for the reminder that my toddler's irrationality doesn't have to rule the home. We'll have PEACE around here, doggone it! Peace, I say! ;)

    I'll be sharing this. --Kelsey

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  16. Late to the party, but I love this. I'm a nanny and now I am expecting... but I've personally developed this approach (let's hope it holds with my own). My charges often experience emotion, but they have limited choices in how they express it. I lead the way in explaining (and apologizing) my own emotional behavior

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