Your Baby is Not Trying to Manipulate You… And Neither is Your Toddler

Twig spent the majority of her newborn photo session screaming.

It always drives me crazy when people try to tag babies with malicious intent. Every week I hear a mom saying that her baby is “being bad” by staying up at night or “manipulating her” by crying. People who propagate these lies are the same ones that think you can spoil a baby by holding and soothing them.

Your baby is not trying to manipulate you. Period. Babies do not cry to “get what they want.” Babies cry because they do not have wants, only needs. Babies lack the articulation necessary to specifically tell us these needs, so they cry. Crying is their form of communication. Crying is not a way they get mom to do what they want.

Really, the same applies to toddlers. I’ve always believed that children have a natural desire to please their parents. When a child does something to get their way, it’s not because of malicious intent. They are learning cause and effect. It’s the same reason why parents are told not to get mad at white lies that children start to tell when they are developing their imagination. They don’t understand that it’s bad to lie, they’re just experimenting to see what happens.

A toddler, even a preschooler or young child (beyond that I’m unsure), is not doing things to make you upset. They love you and want you happy. Children are not bad by nature. Sometimes, yes, they push your buttons. Sometimes they do things to get a reaction. Sometimes they are absolute monsters. It’s not because of their ill will, but rather because they are learning about the world.

In our house, we’re having a classic case of this. Twig started crawling over the last month and now she’s zooming along and even pulling herself to stand and shuffling along furniture. With this spike in development comes the ability to get into things, including Peanut’s things. I knew from reading The Discipline Book that this was a common time for things to get “rough” with my toddler again. I knew it was coming, but it still sucks to be here.

Of course there’s direct sibling rivalry. Peanut is pushing Twig away when she’s getting in her things. Peanut needs to be in the exact spot that Twig is sitting. Peanut has to have the one toy that Twig has even though she has 3 identical toys already. That stuff is easy enough to handle. Twig is still at a very distractible age, so it’s easy enough to direct her towards something new when Peanut wants what she has. It’s not too difficult to have conversations with Peanut on why she needs to wait her turn or she needs to be careful with sister. It’s easy enough to make sure that she is reassured that her life is not being taken over. Frustrating, but doable.

The part that has been difficult for us is the side effects of the new sibling rivalry. Peanut is experiencing the broken cookie phenomenon. In her case, the big trigger is any sort of negative word. Whether it be “no” (regardless of what the no is an answer to or the tone) or a “please don’t,” the reaction is the same. Absolute. Breakdown.

The way I’ve handled tantrums in the past is to just let her get her emotions out. Generally she’d flop on the ground and scream and thrash. I initially tried to comfort her, but quickly realized that, for her, it ended up making things worse and getting myself and/or Peanut hurt. So I’d let her cry to her little heart’s content, generally less than a minute, and then we’d go about our ways. I’d stand right there and watch her. I’d sometimes say “let me know when you’re done and we’ll talk” or something along those lines, since I know that during crying, a child’s brain is not fully functional (really, is your brain fully functional while crying?) so there’s no point in talking about the situation until the crying is over. She’s never been a huge tantrum-er, but I think it’s partially because we’ve always handled “tantrums” matter-of-factly (in quotations because I feel really frustrated that we’ve labeled normal behavior as a “tantrum”). It’s not some evil thing that children do, just a simple release of emotion. It’s the same reason that they can switch from that crying to a happy child who you wouldn’t think was just screaming at the top of their lungs in anger. Do you cool down that fast? Nope, because you have a fully developed prefrontal cortex (not to mention myelination!).

Screaming because she didn’t want to leave the birthday party.

Recently though, her “tantrums” have changed. It follows the general sequence of 1) negative word said to Peanut, 2) break out in tears, 3) run to mommy for comfort. Initially, I would comfort her by holding her and shushing her or things along that line and then we’d talk about it. I read somewhere (I can’t seem to figure out where anymore) that I shouldn’t be comforting her during her “tantrums” because that’s reinforcing that she should cry to get my attention and comfort. For whatever reason I decided to try that, even though it rubbed me the wrong way.

I’m not quite sure how I decided that it was a good idea to ignore my child when she was crying. It initially started with me standing near her and waiting, but not letting her climb up into my lap. As this continued over a couple of weeks, my patience ran out and I started taking her into a separate area and setting her down, sometimes trying to walk away. Often she’d immediately stop crying and tell me she was done. Rather than comforting my child through her emotions, I was teaching her to bottle them up. Rather than helping her deal with the things that were upsetting her, I was teaching her that she shouldn’t come to me. I feel ashamed of my parenting. During a time in my child’s life where things were rough, I abandoned her.

What really got me thinking about it was this post on Natural Parents Network. I came across it while searching the word “tantrums.” I was looking for more positive and attachment-promoting ways to deal with her outbursts. The part that really got me was the “responding with sensitivity,” which was the exact opposite of what I was doing. I continued to read (thank you further reading section) this post from Hobo Mama, which is where I saw the mention of the broken cookie syndrome. She says “if your child is frequently breaking down over “trivial” things (trivial to you as an adult, of course, not to the child), it might be because they’re repressing emotion about something bigger and it’s bleeding through in short bursts as they’re unable to hold it all back.” This was the exact case with Peanut! Her life is suddenly in turmoil again, so she’s filled to the brim with stress. So much so that when any little thing happens, it’s cause to break down.

Continuing on with a link from her post, I got to My World Edenwild (link above) and agreed profusely that if I were crying inconsolably, no matter the reason, and my husband ignored me or just got up and left the room, I would be livid. It is simply not okay to ignore an adult who is crying. Why is it okay to ignore a child who is crying? If anything, it’s even less okay because they’re less able to deal with it. How did I decide that it was okay to ignore my child in the middle of emotional uproar? How is this helping the root cause of her being insecure about her place in this family? How does it help anyone for me to be frustrated and walk away?

So I changed the game plan.

Pouting because she didn’t want to garden anymore.

Over the last week, I’ve consoled my child when she cries. (Once again, how could I ever have not done this?) Guess what? She’s crying less when she breaks down, she’s breaking down less, she’s overall happier and less emotional. Rather than shushing her and telling her that “It’s alright” (Most. Condensenting. Phrase. EVER.), I’ve been just holding her. Sometimes I acknowledge her feelings (such as “It hurt your feelings that daddy said no.”) as she cries, but I don’t try to dismiss them. I let her cry as long as she needs to, which has been decreasing exponentially since I started this technique, and then when she’s done I ask her what she was crying about and we talk about it. I try as much as possible to avoid laying any blame on her.

An example being when we were at lunch today, she asked her uncle if he would run up and down the isles of the restaurant with her. He told her no because we were in a restaurant and she burst out in tears. After she was done crying, I asked her why she cried. She told me that her uncle hurt her feelings when he said they couldn’t run together. I told her that I was sorry it hurt her feelings, but it’s a rule that we can’t run in restaurants. Then I suggested that they run outside together after we left, which she was excited about. In the same meal, my mom and I both told her not to climb on the table at the same time and she burst out crying. After she was done crying, I asked her what was wrong and she said that it was that we both told her not to at the same time. It’s not that she couldn’t climb on the table, but that being corrected by two people simultaneously was too intense. Not only was it not what I expected, but I totally get it! I wouldn’t like that either! So I told her that in the future we’ll try not to talk over each other and she was okay.

It’s amazing how trying to put yourself into your child’s shoes can help a situation. Children are not something that we need to break or make behave, they are small humans. Small humans that, if anything, should be held to lower standards than we hold ourselves, because they’re still developing and learning. We are here to teach them, not belittle them. Even the most well-intentioned mother needs that reminder sometimes.

What do you do when your child has an emotional outburst? How do you help them when they’re going through a rough stage? 

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2 thoughts on “Your Baby is Not Trying to Manipulate You… And Neither is Your Toddler

  1. What a beautiful post. I found that while dealing with younger toddler tantrums was okay for me, when he was a bit older he started suffering from food intolerances which I didn’t know about, and he had so many meltdowns everyday I thought I was going to lose it. I was so stressed that I wasn’t being as attentive before. But when I made myself practice what I really believed, and took the time to be with him through his crises, he did, in fact, have fewer of them. I think that no matter how bad it gets, you want your child to know they can come running into your arms.

  2. I love this post! My 16 month old is having little tantrums when she’s mad – that I won’t let her rip my glasses off my face or things like that. She tries to hit or throw anything she can reach (she emptied my bedside table of books the other night when she was mad at me!) and then sometimes flings herself on the ground, crying. I hold out my hands and she reaches up, then I pick her up and cuddle her and tell her that it’s okay to have feelings and to be sad or mad or both.

    I try to tell her, “I know you’re mad that Mama won’t let you play with my glasses,” so she knows that I understand her and so she will eventually put words to her feelings. When I hold her after a tantrum, she snuggles against me and nurses if she wants and then we do something fun when she’s ready. She tends to have more meltdowns when she’s tired, so I try to keep things positive closer to bedtime. We don’t have things out in our house that she’s not allowed to have but I can’t not wear my glasses! 🙂

    My MIL told me that it’s good we don’t spoil her and that we just let her have her tantrum and ignore it so that she’ll get over it. I said, no, she’s got big feelings in her tiny body and I’d rather she know that she can get comfort from me. I’m not going to ignore her when she’s upset; that’s just mean. I love your analogy about not wanting your husband to ignore you when you’re upset!

    At her 15 month checkup, our pediatrician discussed tantrums. I said that the first few times she had fits, it was so cute, I almost didn’t want to stop her and the ped agreed – her daughter is the same age and the doctor felt the same way. We agreed that comforting the baby and helping her with her feelings is totally the way to go.

    Thank you again for writing this.

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