I Feel You

Sam turns three on May 13, about a month and a half from now. I have a lot of emotions about that and a lot of things to write about that, but mostly right now, I’m thinking about him being a threenager and how we’ve been responding to that.

A lot of his daycare report cards (he gets one a day) have been coming back lately talking about how he’s being very contrary throughout the day, more so than the other kids. This is typical for kids his age, I think; that’s why they call them threenagers. He’s learning to assert himself and his independence, and this often comes across as him absolutely refusing something that he’d otherwise love (see: the other day when he didn’t want a cookie).

(basically the opposite of this)

And when he doesn’t get his way in that regard, or in any regard, he Reacts. On good days, he Reacts with a heavy sigh and a “fiiiiine,” as if he’s thirteen and not three. This is absolutely adorable and I wish he’d do it more often, because the second reaction involves a lot of screaming and crying. Fortunately, that’s the extent of his tantrums, but it’s still frustrating, and that boy can hit eardrum-shattering pitches, let me tell you. 


Every parenting culture has its school of thought on how to handle tantrums. The most popular one I’ve found has been the suggestion that you just ignore the tantrum and let it play itself out. Sometimes, particularly if Sam is overtired or overhungry, that’s all we can do, especially if we can’t really solve the tired or hungry right in that moment. In those instances, which usually happen while we’re out in public because of course they do, we rush through stuff to get him home, distract him with a video, and then once he’s calm enough, either put him to bed or feed him.

Those are the rare ones, though. More commonly, he’s throwing a tantrum because he’s not getting his way, and it upsets him. He’s only almost three; he doesn’t really know how to express how upset he is over the little things without crying and screaming. Not only that, but something that we’d consider trivial (say, not getting to watch The Force Awakens because it’s almost bedtime), he considers monumental because he doesn’t really have a standard for that. Without the life experience to say, “hey, this is no big deal,” all he can do is assume it is a big deal and react accordingly. And to top that off, he’s still learning problem solving; that’s not something we’re born knowing how to do. If he has a problem, it takes him longer to figure out a solution than it would an adult, and then we get more screaming and crying.

And, well. He’s a little young to really grasp the solutions to a lot of his problems. If I tell him, “We can’t watch The Force Awakens now, but we can watch it tomorrow,” that won’t really make him feel better because he only has the barest understanding of what tomorrow is. For an adult, the thought of, “Well, I don’t really have time to do this thing I like tonight, so I’ll do it tomorrow,” is an easy solution. For a three-year-old? Not so much.

So I end up taking a two-pronged approach to dealing with tantrums. The first step I take is to acknowledge his feelings and give them some sort of definition. It’s not even anything complex, just a simple statement, “I know you’re sad because you want to watch The Force Awakens right now. It’s sad when you really want to do something but you can’t.” This accomplishes three things: it gives what he’s experiencing a name (“sad”), it lets him know that I hear that he’s sad, and it lets him know that it’s okay to feel sad if you don’t get what you want.

Because even adults get that way sometimes. I know I do.

(shown: me not getting an everlasting weekend, a.k.a., what I want)

Once I’ve done this, I work with him to find a solution. At this stage in his development, that’s mostly throwing out suggestions for things he can do that will serve as a distraction (“We can’t watch The Force Awakens, but let’s watch a Miss Ro video instead!”) OR letting him know that we can do things after finishing a necessary task (“We’ll play Play Doh when you get up from your nap!”). What I hope that’s doing–but I can’t really know because he’s not-quite-three–is teaching him how to make himself feel better. Distract yourself, plan to do the thing you want to do later, etc. That sort of stuff.

And well. I hope it’s working. I want him to know that it’s okay to feel anything he feels; so often, it seems like our culture tells little boys that it’s not okay for them to be sad or scared. I want him to know that it’s absolutely okay, and that it makes him a stronger person. And I want him to learn how to cope with disappointment in a healthy way rather than a destructive way.

(or like this, because that’s just hilarious)

Check back with me in fifteen years, and I’ll let you know how that all turned out.

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