The Crying Toddler

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Posted in: Infants & Toddlers, Parenting Concerns

Topics: Child + Adolescent Development, Q+A

There are lots of hard things about being a toddler.

It’s hard being tiny.  It’s hard falling down all the time.  And, it’s hard when you’re a 3-year-old who knows what you want, but somehow no one else does.

In fact, even if the adults in your life do figure out why you’re upset, they won’t always comply.  Sometimes you just have to take that bath, or use that bathroom, or resist, however difficult, the urge to flush the hamster down the toilet.

If you think about it, that’s quite a change from your more simple days as an infant.  The options then were less in number, but a whole lot less complicated.  Cry = hunger.  Cry = wet diaper.  Cry = tired.  And so on.

This is why many parents, upon breathing a big sigh of relief after they’ve successfully navigated the infant years, find themselves stymied and frustrated as they plunge head-long into the complex world of a toddler.

Here’s a typical example.  Sammy, a 3-year-old tow-head, just won’t let go of his mother’s leg.  He cries, he tugs, he throws impressive tantrums on the kitchen floor, and yet, his parents haven’t the foggiest idea what he wants.

At first they think, “I’ve got this.  This is the 3-year-old version of Sammy when he was a baby and was hungry.”

So they offer him food.

Sammy throws the sweet potatoes across the room.  More crying.

They offer him the bathroom.  Sammy screams even louder.

His father anxiously feels his son’s forehead.  No fever…

So, perhaps mirroring Sammy’s own seeming frustration, his parents get angry.

“Stop it,” his mother says quietly.

Sammy continues.

“STOP IT!” she shouts.  “It’s ANNOYING!”

And there you are, the parents, saying to your sweet tow-headed son all of the things you swore you’d never say.  What now?

Step 1? Don’t beat yourself up.  It might go without saying, but parenting is hard.  And in fact, things that go without saying are often left unsaid and therefore unrecognized.  So take a deep breath and remind yourself that parenting is hard.  If you beat yourself up, you’ll feel bad, Sammy won’t feel any better, and the course forward will still remain unclear.

That allows you to move to Step 2.  Because Sammy now has agency—that is, he can say to some extent what he wants, and he can show to some extent through his behavior what he desires—you now have the luxury of getting more cues from Sammy then you ever could when we was a baby.

So, Step 2 is to apologize. 

“Sammy, I’m sorry, kiddo.  I just don’t know what you want.  Can you show me?”

Is it OK for him to throw the sweet potatoes?  If it becomes a regular thing, then no.  Otherwise, it is likely that discerning Sammy’s wishes will prevent the aerial assault of edible items in the future.

Think of Sammy now like the famous lion with the thorn in his paw.  He just wants someone to notice what he wants, but everyone is freaking out because he’s a freaking lion.

Slow it down.  Sammy’s most primitive brain is screaming.  It’ll only listen to a calm voice, and that voice will usually have to begin with the apology we noted above.

Now you can run the list.  This is Step 3.

Toddlers are gobs more sophisticated than infants, but they’re not rocket scientists.  There’s a fairly limited list of things that could be wrong.  Like the lion with the thorn, Sammy can only be bothered by a finite number of troubles.

Is Sammy constipated? Toddlers get that way as they master independent bathroom habits.

Is Sammy just plain tired? He was up late last night, and a tired toddler brain almost always shorts out the next day.

Maybe he’s sick.  We’ve established that there’s no fever, but what about his stomach?  Toddlers and tummy aches are like Oreos and milk.  Just ask him: “Sammy, does your tummy hurt?”

As we move into the psychological realm, remember that toddlers are just starting to appreciate that the world can be scary.  An angry dog will make quite an impression on a 3-year-old, whereas an infant won’t make much of this otherwise scary encounter.  This doesn’t mean that Sammy at this moment has seen a riled up Collie.  It does mean, however, that he may be frightened of something that previously didn’t bug him at all.  I still recall my daughter, when she was 3, “suddenly” becoming terrified of bumps in the road.  We didn’t know why she was crying in her car seat until we keenly deduced that she would tend to settle down once the car went for a spell without potholes.

“Is it the bumpy road, sweetie?”

And it was like magic.  She kept crying, but the music of her tears changed.  She felt heard, understood.  Isn’t that what we all want? A week of simply stroking her hair as we drove around in the car on the wintertime streets, and she was fine.

The moral?  Being a parent is hard. Being a toddler is hard. But, and here’s the important piece: being part of these difficulties together will move you forward as a family.  Believe it or not, these little crises are incorporated into your child’s psyche.  Dad got mad at me, your kid will realize, but then he apologized.  And then Dad did what I needed most.

He helped me to let him know what I needed.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, please take a look at Dr. Beresin’s ABC News Q+A, which previously published on 12/22/2008.

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Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), course director of the psychopathology class for the MIT-HMS Program in Health, Sciences and Technology, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Youn...

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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.