Is my 2 year old's behavior normal?
January 20, 2013 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Is my 2 year old's extra tantrum-y behavior normal? And if you've been there with a super difficult kid, what helped?

I feel horrible for saying this, but sometimes I am really just at the end of my rope with my younger son. He has just turned 2, but this behavior started around 15-ish months. I keep hoping it will end, but it's been months and months, and we're all just exhausted.

He is a tantrum king. You cannot tell him "no", about much of anything, without eliciting a major dramatic meltdown. Especially in public or new places, his behavior is awful. He kicks, hits, and takes things from his older brother constantly. He'll take things from other kids, he's bordering on being a tiny bully, even though I am quick to intervene in these situations. He runs away from me in public - yesterday he BOLTED into the kitchen of a restaurant, today he tried to slip my grasp and run down a busy street. Even grocery shopping with him is fraught with screaming, and impossible. If I am with him and go to speak to someone else, do a task, or spend time with my older son and he is in a not-great mood, he will scream bloody murder until reuniting with me, even if a brave sport like his grandmother tells me to leave and deals with him in all his screaming glory. It can go on for 30+ minutes - he will scream for me, even if he's with other people he knows.

In a normal day, he will act happy maybe 2-3 hours total out of the whole day - the rest of the time he's either having a nap, or a grump, or just straight-out miserable.

Somewhat disconcertingly, he will shout "no!" if his brother tries to show him affection. He will coldly shout "no!" if I ask him for a kiss or hug. Maybe 15% of the time I ask, he will oblige and give me or dad a hug. He throws things constantly.

I know a lot of this is normal toddler behavior, but it's just SO CONSTANT, and he's just so miserable so much of the time. It's just really bad, and I don't know if I can use words to describe how miserable he is sometimes. My husband is beginning to believe he will grow into having emotional problems. Our older son had his terrible toddler moments, but he was a saint compared to the little one. We're all just so tired, and the older kid (turning 4 next week) has had many fun times cut short by his little brother, and it just doesn't seem fair to him sometimes.

He's a smart kid with a pretty big vocabulary - he can tell us what's wrong and what he needs. I thought the tantrums would lessen when he was able to communicate his needs, but they haven't. FYI - he's in daycare 4 days a week, 8:30-4. He is pretty well behaved in school, although he did bite another kid a few months ago (he was also bitten once, so I know it's not just him.)

I feel like sometimes we exacerbate the problem because we're at a loss of how to make it better. I try to remain calm as much as possible, and I'll just pick him up off the floor and leave if he's having a tantrum. Time outs are only starting to be an age-appropriate punishment, but he doesn't stay in his corner, and they don't work to calm him down at all. I know he's still just a little guy trying to regulate his tiny emotions.

How can we get through this for however much longer it lasts? How can we make sure our older son is happy as well, since so much of our attention is on ScreamPocalypse? I know I am not the only mom who's had a Most Difficult Two Year Old, so help, MeFi!
posted by kpht to Human Relations (30 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Short answers, because I am fighting to get the 6 year old who used to be this 2 year old to clean her room and am taking MeFi breaks to avoid losing my freaking mind:

1. Yes, it is normal. No, it is not typical. There is nothing wrong with your kid, but this behavior is weighted out on the edge of the normal distribution curve.

2. For my own child, the parenting techniques from the book "The Explosive Child" by Dr. Greene were extraordinarily helpful.

3. My complicated child is also smart, and also has an enormous vocabulary. I am a SAHP, in case you're worried that daycare is somehow contributing to this.

4. The summary answer for how to deal with it is "immediate, emotionally neutral consequences." I put a hook-and-eye lock on the outside of my kid's room so that at least we could get a break from each other when I needed it.

5. It started to settle down for us at about four and a half. She's six now, like I said, and an incredibly emotionally articulate and sensitive child, she's thriving in school and she has a million friends. She does not appear to be growing up to have emotional problems, thank God. But she can still wind me up like nobody's business. I had a moment the other day where I was like "Why on Earth am I locked in a battle of wits and wills with a person who still believes in Santa Claus?"

memail me if you want to talk or vent or whatever.
posted by KathrynT at 3:32 PM on January 20, 2013 [19 favorites]

Is he eating and sleeping enough? Is there a regular bedtime routine with him, and does he like that? Because double-checking on those basics, before the meltdown reaches meltdown stage, and being mindful of structure can help with some toddler madness.

I'd also check if he's teething or otherwise uncomfortable or in pain, and check in with his pediatrician about the behavior.
posted by zippy at 3:32 PM on January 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Steady unwavering discipline is required, you need to break his will. He is throwing things? Stop giving him the thing he threw. Establish clear even draconian boundaries, do not hedge them. Time outs are very effective for his age, but you will need to be willing (and have the time)to literally pick him up and move him multiple times if he refuses to stay put, again you need to convey physical dominance to him.

FYI, 30 minutes of screaming is nothing, some children can go on for hours, again this might sound dark, but it really is just a contest of wills and you need to dominant. Convey to your child that much of his life is a privilege (he gets to enjoy the things he does because you allow him to have them), begin to remove the activities he enjoys until he straightens out. It will be a very difficult 6 months / one year, but now is the time to instill corrective behavior.

Overall the single best thing you can do is establish clear boundaries (of acceptable behavior) and enforce them rigidly.
posted by Shit Parade at 3:46 PM on January 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

FWIW, trying to "establish draconian boundaries" and "break her will" was the worst set of decisions I ever made regarding parenting my daughter, and caused our whole family untold misery and stress for months. I would very strongly advise against going down that road.
posted by KathrynT at 3:50 PM on January 20, 2013 [31 favorites]

None of us here can tell you if this is "normal" behavior, the description is being filtered through your frustration, we probably aren't getting a clear picture.

Few folks here are qualified to suggest techniques to change the behavior, probably NONE of us know your family well enough to safely give advice.

My experience indicates that the most effective change in behavior is facilitated by the parents getting some sound, objective advice from a qualified experienced therapist. NOT sending the child to a therapist, but getting the knowledge of the techniques and the support and affirmation you need to follow through.

Find a good child psychologist/social worker/therapist that can help you evaluate the behavior and suggest techniques....

"The Explosive Child" is a pretty solid recommendation... and somewhere between draconian and hands off is the answer.... extremes probably aren't necessary or advisable.

Hang in there, all will be well.
posted by HuronBob at 4:02 PM on January 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Have a foster son who has very similar behavioral problems. The biggest things that have made a difference so far sticking to a very structured routine and not deviating from it the least bit. Nap at the same time every day. Dinner, bath, pajamas brush teeth, book, song, bed. Getting him enough sleep every night/nap time was something that made the biggest difference and it meant that we were home at 12:00 sharp to feed him and then put him down for a nap no matter what was going on.

Things were getting better and better until we traveled for Christmas. Christmas itself wasn't horrible, enough distraction, attention and lots of presents, but attempting to get back to normal when we got home resulted in two of the worst weeks of my adult life.
posted by Quack at 4:27 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would start with the pediatrician. Food allergies? Not enough sound sleep? Any unknown medical problem? Then I would try to figure out if there were any major (or major to your mite) life changes around the time the extreme behavior started.

Meanwhile, consistency, consistency, consistency. Make as few rules as possible. Make sure the rules you have are enforced consistently. Make sure your little one knows you are reliable to stand behind what you decree. Whether or not this has immediate results, this will pay off in later parenting.

And finally, ((((((hugs))))).
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:27 PM on January 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

When my son was 2, we went through some really rough spots. My pediatrician was a godsend. I spoke with him several times and gave me some great techniques to use. My doctor advised to use a sliding chain lock on the outside of his door. His explanation was so my son could still see me, but not able to join me. Of course the time outs were age appropriate (1 minute for every year).
posted by JujuB at 4:30 PM on January 20, 2013

Oh, and PS just because he is well behaved in preschool doesn't mean he isn't dealing with something there. Ask his teacher if there are any particular stressors going on such as an annoying classmate, etc. or perhaps having trouble with naps. He may be saving all his angst for where he feels totally safe, i.e. with you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:30 PM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm wondering if there may be a dietary angle. Our 3yo has some pretty fucking awful meltdowns (although rarely in public), and he will bite, kick, punch and throw stuff. It was really bad around Christmas because he was eating a lot of sugar or high-calorie foods. Today he had some double chocolate-chip cookies and grapes, and was a little unmanageable on the playground.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:35 PM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Shit Parade"'s advice is dreadful, sorry... Don't fight with your kid; that way lies madness. has loads of good advice.

he doesn't stay in his corner, and they don't work to calm him down at all

I am not in general a believer in punishment and approach this with that bias, but, this sounds like it isn't doing anything at all useful for either of you, so why keep doing it?

What's Wrong with Timeouts?
The Case Against Time-out
The Disadvantages of Time-Out

He sounds particularly enthusiastic about control. One irritating patch in toddlerhood here was greatly assuaged by stepping up the responsibility -- if you see something he could maybe start doing for himself that he's not already doing, see if he'd like to start doing it, even at the expense of some spills [etc].
posted by kmennie at 4:36 PM on January 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Nthing a checkup with his pediatrician. How is your son's sleep quality? Is he a snorer or mouth breather, or is his breathing labored and noisy when he's asleep? Does he toss and turn a lot or sweat heavily when he's asleep? Does he sleep with his neck extended or hanging over a pillow or stuffed animal? Sleep apnea often causes behavioral problems. Kids your son's age don't have the capacity to say, "I'm tired!" or "My stomach hurts!" so they act out.

Not saying it is necessarily a physical problem but you do want to rule that out.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:46 PM on January 20, 2013

My 3 year old was very similar around that age. I'd also argue against draconian boundaries and breaking wills. What helped the most for my kid, I think, was dropping the whole punish/yell/timeout thing, and getting down on his level and trying to respond to him in a loving, gentle, calm way. Which is so hard when they're being total tiny buttheads, I knoooow. But when he would start to freak out and throw a tantrum or whatever, I'd immediately stop everything and give him a hug or hold his hands or make silly faces or something to diffuse the situation a little bit.

There was a lot of swallowing my own emotions and natural responses, so that I could try to see things from his perspective and figure out why he was feeling or acting that way. In our case, I realized a lot of it was coming from the fact that he wasn't getting enough sleep. He HATES HATES HATES sleeping and every naptime and bedtime was a major struggle. I kept pushing bedtime later and later, hoping it would help him sleep and thinking he just didn't need that much sleep. Then I read the book Sleepless in America which I HIGHLY recommend if your kid has any sleep issues or is getting less than the recommended 13 hours of sleep each day. One of the things the book helped me realize--that I can't believe I didn't realize before because DUH--is that I am total grump when I don't get enough sleep, so OF COURSE it makes sense that the same is true of little kids. When I realized the nine hours of sleep just wasn't cutting it for him, it shifted my perspective to a much better place. "Grumpy overly tired sleep deprived toddler" is way more sympathetic than "crankypants butthead who is trying to rob me of sanity." If your kid IS getting enough sleep, then this probably won't help too much, but hey.
posted by logic vs love at 4:49 PM on January 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

We have a "high needs," "spirited" 2.5 year old. She does have very volatile emotions and so far seems to be very sensitive and bright and VERY active. She also hates to sleep or nap, ever, and is probably an extrovert - she loves to be around her parents at pretty much all times.

It has been demanding to adapt to this, as two somewhat introverted parents, but we have been happy to do it.

I want to echo something St. Alia of the Bunnies wrote. MAKE AS FEW RULES AS POSSIBLE. You can be suckered into so many battles with a toddler and they have almost ZERO tools to reason through whatever it is you want to have happen. As an example, I was walking in a park today, moving down a fenced path toward a play area. There was a parent behind me whose child was running in our direction. My child was also running ahead toward the play area. The parent behind me was going through an escalating litany: "Stephen! Stephen! No running! We don't run! Stephen! Stephen! No running! Freeze, Stephen! Stephen, that's a timeout!" Despite what may seem like some peer pressure there to similarly make my child stop running, I didn't say a word. There was no one else on the path beyond us, so all my daughter was going to do was possibly fall and bump her knee. I'd rather she take that risk, than engage in some needless battle.

Here are some rules I TRY to have about making rules :

1) Is the child's activity making a mess, or will it simply get me messy? I probably won't make a rule here or make a conflict. I, being the older, more experienced one, should probably change my clothes.

2) Will the child's activity delay me 5 to 10 minutes? I probably won't make a rule here or make a conflict. When I am dying, I think I will have rather had the 10 minutes with my toddler than gotten to the store or the party on time.

3) Could the child potentially get mildly hurt or cause mild damage to her property (clothing, toys, etc.)? I will warn my daughter here, but again I probably won't make a rule or conflict. When I say get hurt, I mean fall down and bump a knee, mainly. I'd rather my daughter experiment, take chances and generally learn boldness (within reason, obviously).

I will make one simple observation on what Shit Parade wrote - I was raised the way this person describes as the appropriate way. That style of parenting has negative repercussions for years and years. If you really do aim to "break the will" of your child, you will get one of two results : a child who is afraid to try anything in life, or a child who will feel very little love or trust toward you.

Good luck! The very fact that you are seeking out help means that you will get this figured out eventually and will have a positive relationship with your child.
posted by Slothrop at 5:32 PM on January 20, 2013 [25 favorites]

I would say that since he isn't having these troubles at daycare, that it is probably not some sort of emotional/mental problem, but definitely check with your pedi as suggested. One thing that may also be useful is to talk to your daycare, since he doesn't seem to be showing the behavior (or at least to the same degree) there. See what tactics they are using and trying using them at home. However, remember that kids are much more likely to act out around their parents because they feel safer around them. You aren't going to leave and they know it so they test everything with you. My son (who has his periods like this, but not as bad, thankfully) is a delightful angel at school and NEVER throws a fit (which has gotten me in trouble because he'll do it with me there and make me look like I must be the worlds worst parent or something). But they may have some tricks that work.

Also definitely look at how consistent you are being, make sure being out in public doesn't change how you react (even if it does make you feel like everyone is judging you. If it helps, if I saw you with a screaming kid sitting in timeout in a store, I'd commiserate with you and not think you were a bad parent). Similarly, anytime you need someone else to watch him (like grandmom), treat it like taking him to daycare, do drop off the same way (so if you go in and give him a hug and wave from the window, do that. etc). Don't give in to the cries to come back, because it will reinforce them.

As far as the older brother, until you can feel like the younger ones behavior is more in control, plan some special him and one parent time (him and daddy sometimes, him and mommy others) so he can get the attention he wants/needs and so at least one parent can have a break from toddler craziness.

Most of all, take breaks as you need them, even if he sits in his room screaming bloody murder, he's safe in there, so give yourself the space to keep yourself sane.
posted by katers890 at 5:33 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a follow-up, I checked out the book recommended by logic vs love : "Sleepless in America." I noticed that it is by the same author that wrote a book my wife is currently reading and really digging : "Raising Your Spirited Child." Lo and behold, she seems to have a third book called "Kids, Parents and Power Struggles." Again, my wife has really found some insight in "Raising Your Spirited Child." She hasn't finished it yet, but when she does, I will read it, too.
posted by Slothrop at 5:37 PM on January 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

My brother was the same, turned out he was an undiagnosed celiac. You can tell when he's had gluten because his eyes go a shade darker and he turns into Mr. Hyde. And for my cousin it was sleep apnea. She had to have corrective surgery at age 5, made a world of difference.

It might be worth it to start a food journal and see if there is any correlation with his moods. Food additives and food colouring are also common culprits.
posted by Dynex at 6:01 PM on January 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

{{{{Hugs}}}}} Hang in there, it DOES get better.

Yeah, draconian is a definite no, as are lots of rules and an authoritarian approach. I don't think you want to break a child's spirit! You just want him to know the boundaries for what's acceptable and what's not.

But you also have to be careful with logic_vs_love's method, loving as it is, because you have two children, not one. If you give your youngest positive attention and lots of affection every time he throws tantrums, your older child may feel neglected and start acting out in the same way to get that attention, too. And it's already tough to balance when you have two kids, I know.

I'd definitely talk to the daycare to see if he's had any issues with specific other kids and how they handle problems, especially when it comes to sharing and the attention the adults give the kids. If his older brother is almost 4, he's probably in daycare too, right? But they are probably in different sections, so your littlest doesn't have to share toys with his brother or vie for the attention of the adults. May be why he has tantrums only at home.

Also, kids who spend a lot of time in group situations sometimes learn that they have to be loud and assertive to get attention. Your toddler has picked up on that by throwing tantrums, while your oldest found another way to cope. So you have to make sure your little guy knows that tantrums are NOT going to work for him, and direct him to other methods.

For timeouts, the corner is NOT working-- he needs to be somewhere where he doesn't have the ability to just ignore the consequences of throwing a tantrum. So that's the first thing--time out is not in a corner, but in another room. You're trying to teach him that this negative behavior is NOT the best way to get your attention, or anyone else's. Honestly, if this particular child can go on for a half hour at a time, I don't think a minute per year is an appropriate measure for him for time outs, either. It's less about the time span and more about him getting to the place where you can engage with him once more.

Show him an alternate way to cope with his frustration. Yes, this can be tough. Have a punching bag in the timeout room, or a pillow, or a whole stack of pillows, and let him know that when he is frustrated, that's where he can go anytime to punch and scream into them as much as he needs to, but hitting, throwing things or screaming at people is NOT acceptable. Encourage him to use his words when he is frustrated, and don't respond to threats, screaming and hitting at all. Just scoop him up and take him to the time out room.

He stays in time out until he calms down, and then when he comes out, all is forgiven. He doesn't get reprimanded, because he's already had the negative consequence for the tantrum. And whenever he makes progress, praise, hug and kiss him like crazy!

Consistency with timeouts is just part of it, though. Make sure you have a consistent routine for him and his brother and try to let him do as much as he is capable of on his own, so he feels less powerless and more in charge. Little things, like putting a stepstool out for him so that he can get his own spoon, wash his hands, etc on his own, will help him feel less powerless and frustrated, too.

When you are out and about, you don't have the timeout room to fall back on, of course. But taking him out of the situation and just going home is also giving in to the tantrums, and that's tough for you and his older brother. Before you go out, you might want to talk to the kids about where you are going and what behavior you expect from them. Be specific--"Okay, we are going to the park. When we get there, I want you to hold my hand until we get to the swings and make me proud, okay?" Praise them a lot when they do, so that you are not focusing on the negative stuff. If he knows what's expected of him, that might help him feel in control as well, so that he is reaching for your hand instead of you always having to grab and take hold of his.

Moms and Dads get timeouts, too. Sometimes you have to take a moment to breathe and get your inner calm back again. If you need five minutes of peace and quiet to keep your sanity, it's okay to retreat to your own room to gather yourself back together. And it's good for the kids to see you modeling coping mechanisms that work for you.

Look for a common denominator. I think just going to his pediatrician and saying he throws tantrums is not going to be helpful. But if you can say, "After he has foods with red dye in them, he seems to get hyper," or "He always throws his tantrums between 3 and 5 pm," you might get some actual helpful feedback. If he does have a food allergy or possible emotional issues, that's not the end of the world, because you can DO something about that!

Good luck!
posted by misha at 6:51 PM on January 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

My now 21-year-old daughter was like this when she was a baby and toddler. Turned out, she had numerous allergies and just couldn't communicate them until she was around 4. She was just constantly uncomfortable, and boy, did it show. Sleep issues, tantrums, just impossible to be around. I do think you should dress him in very soft clothing, use non-irritating laundry detergent and personal care products, and consider an elimination diet to see if that might be a factor.
posted by raisingsand at 7:19 PM on January 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Definitely talk to the pediatrician, if you haven't already, and specifically check on his sleep habits. Talk to your pediatrician about an early childhood screening, which is typically administered by a group like Easter Seals for ages 0-2, and the local school district for ages 3-5. It is, in most cases, free, regardless of parental ability to pay or insurance status. (The federal government funds it because early intervention saves around $7 in later K-12 spending for every $1 spent.) It's a fun hour or so of playing for your child, who is assessed in several developmental areas by early childhood development experts while they play. You as the parent also do a questionnaire about your concerns. Extreme temper tantrums could be a result of a developmental issue -- even a "normal" developmental unevenness that will even itself out as he grows (kids develop in spurts along many different axes when they're young, and are ahead and behind in different spots), but screening (and maybe intervention) can help you identify areas where he's lagging a bit and areas where he's ahead, and work with his strengths and ameliorate his weaknesses.

We took our 3-year-old for a speech screening when he was doing some weird pronunciation things, and as part of the comprehensive intake screening, found out he was lagging on his "proprioception" (sense of where his body is in space), and that all kinds of apparently unrelated problem behaviors in fact had to do with his trouble getting good "signals" from his body about its positioning and trying, in a 3-year-old way, to remedy that. This will sort itself out by the time he's 10 and kids' development evens out, but just KNOWING this we can do so much to help him with his behavior. It is like night and day.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:32 PM on January 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

Slothrop and St. Alia of the Bunnies have saved me a lot of typing. This was my daughter too, and I feel for you. Talk to your doctor, of course. But the books they've recommended are/were incredibly helpful and I'll also recommend one that seems silly, but helped me - not her: Mommy Mantras

The hardest, hardest thing still is that it turns out that what my daughter needs most during her tantrums is hugs - right when I don't feel like giving them. Back then had to learn to do what seemed like a "reward" for bad behaviour, because the traditional time-outs and ignoring didn't work with her. She needed more connection just as I was needing more space, but her rages escalated so much she couldn't even say it. Who knows - maybe that's your little guy?

And I'm not sure what your day is like, but it turns out my kid needs way, way WAY more fresh air and exercise than the average child got in her daycare/gets in her school - and more than I often felt/feel like in bad weather. I still have to run her like a puppy. Back then, there was a neighbourhood farm where she could wander quite a bit. Now, she lives on the monkey bars and some days we just go to the beach and throw rocks in the lake or I walk along the boardwalk and she runs along, back and forth between me and the water, usually covering three times my distance. She's asked for a chin-up bar in the house, and a punching bag. Days off school and breaks are spent at a rock-climbing drop-off camps, or wandering urban forests and this year she wants to take a "Survival Skills" camp we found out about on March Break. My kid really craves nature and we live in the city, so I have to work really really hard for her to be able to do what's self-soothing - poking sticks in creeks, climbing trees and having lots of free time to imagine and play outside. Does your little guy have what he needs to really, really, really burn off all his energy?
posted by peagood at 7:58 PM on January 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

What does your pediatrician say?

Your child could be in pain (teeth, earache, joint pain from growing, etc.). Your child could have allergies. Or heartburn.

We really can't know!!

What I can tell you is that you need to see a few doctors to rule out physical problems.

I don't think it is normal for a two year old to be grumpy most of the day.

I hate to say this -- but is his daycare a safe place?

After health issues, I'd look there. As in, I'd change to a new one.

Nthing all of the other advice above, too.
posted by jbenben at 8:02 PM on January 20, 2013

I will say this. If you suspect something isn't right, and it's not physical, then you can pursue a battery of tests through a neuordevelopmental psychologist -- you really want this and not just any old therapist out of the phone book. I'm not saying you need to take this step, but if you do meet with your child's care provider and they start mentioning things like ADHD, ODD, etc., then you definitely want to meet with a neurodevelopmentally trained professional through a pediatric or children's neurodeveopmental center, preferably.

If there is a children's hospital near you, there may be a neurodevelopmental center associated with it.

Or, a less extreme but equally valuable option would be to call your area's Early Intervention Services and have them evaluate him.

In either case, these are professionals who are able to determine if your child's behavior is age appropriate or not (and it sounds VERY age appropriate to me), but if something is borderline or extreme or has you up worrying constantly at night, it's probably worth the phone call.

(And because I live in your VERY SPECIFIC AREA AND KNOW YOU I will give you very specific resources privately!)
posted by zizzle at 8:22 PM on January 20, 2013

lots of good advice here. not sure if someone's already mentioned it but there is something called 'early intervention.' looks like in your area it's administered by the state. i'm not sure about your state but where i live such services were subsidised by them. Check out this link and look into getting your kid evaluated.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 8:30 PM on January 20, 2013

If I may add, should you want to get an Early Intervention evaluation, call them now. EI only goes up to age three and after that you're dealing with your local school system and that's a whole 'nother can of worms. (I say call now in case there's a bit of a wait. You really want to start moving on this ASAP, if that's what you want to do.)
posted by Aquifer at 9:02 PM on January 20, 2013

My 3 year old has a rather difficult temperament, although not to the levels you're describing. But the uncontrollable, totally-nuts tantrums? I know.

We turned a corner recently. Here's what I did.

He went full meltdown one afternoon and I took him off to his room and told him that I would not allow him to hurt anyone or to damage any items, while removing any throwable objects from his reach and using a pillow to absorb any blows (this is standard practice).

Then I tried something out of the ordinary that went against what my emotions were saying to do. I did not tell him to calm down, I did not threaten consequences, I did not imply that he was doing anything wrong. Instead, I calmly told him that he must stay in his room, and he must not hurt me, but that he could yell as loud as he wanted, for as long as he wanted. And that I would sit with him the whole time and wait until he was calm. And so he raged his head off for nearly an hour and I just sat there, occasionally saying something blandly reassuring like, 'I'm here, I'm staying.' Amazingly, he did stay in his room and didn't hit or throw, and once when I shifted positions he yelled, 'Don't go!', so it seemed I was onto something by just keeping him quiet company.

While I was sitting there, I discovered that I had a little pearl-shaped bead in my pocket, left over from a craft project. When he started to wind down, I took the pearl out and showed it to my son. I started quietly telling him how oysters make pearls and how rare and special they are. Then I said, 'I probably don't tell you this enough, but I think you are a pretty great kid. I love you so much and I think you are wonderful. I think that you are as special as a pearl.' I handed him the pearl and he took it, wide-eyed, and then flew into my arms.

I held him and validated his feelings, 'You felt X because of Y, didn't you? I see how you'd feel that way.' And I told him that although it's not OK to hit or throw things in our house, it's not bad to feel upset. And that the next time he has a tantrum, I promise to sit with him again until he feels better, as long as he won't hit or throw.

Since I changed to these quiet and gentle (and for me, counterintuitive given the situation) tactics, the tantrums have been steadily decreasing in both length and intensity. I think he's learning that he won't be punished for them and that I'll support him while he's out of control, and I'll still hold him in high regard. And with that security in place he is learning to control himself.

We made the pearl bead into a necklace and he wears it all the time. When I see it on him, it's a good reminder for me to tell him how special he is.

It really is getting better.
posted by (F)utility at 11:00 PM on January 20, 2013 [41 favorites]

This SOOOOOO sounds like a wheat allergy! Please try a no-wheat-at-all diet for a while and see if things don't calm down.
posted by parrot_person at 11:27 PM on January 20, 2013

Nthing so hard the advice to check into diet and also (not sure if it was mentioned) sleep schedules and sleeping in general. My niece sounds much like your son. Well, she USED to sound like your son. With a lot of work my sister has calmed the situation so it can be done.

Also nthing (F)utility. When my niece has a meltdown at my house there is no yelling and no threat of horrible punishment. If she starts to cry and lose it over something totally silly I just assume something else is at play and she's using THIS ONE THING OMG I HATE EVERYONE (SO MANY TEARS AND SO MUCH SCREAMING!!!!!!!) as a scapegoat.

My niece, unlike my son and my other niece, needs to feel validated. And often. It goes against the norm -- you should punish bad behavior like this -- to say that at this time you should get down on his level and chat with him but that's what we do. I walk her to the bathroom and I shut the door. I sit down next to her and I wait. And wait and wait, sometimes, until the tears and yelling slow. And then we talk. "So, Zoe, what's going on here, hon? I know you said you were angry that the other kids weren't including you in the soccer game but why are you SO angry? Do you think it's okay to hit your mother because of that?" And blah blah blah, you get it. I'm careful not to give her the impression that her shit behavior is being rewarded with hugs but instead give her the impression that what's she's done is absolutely wrong and not okay but that I still love her anyway. This approach has worked better than anything (and we all tried EVERYTHING) we've done. We help her talk through her feelings and when she does, it's all over so much faster.

Turns out, my niece seems to associate any punishment or threat of such (even if it's certainly warranted) as a sign that no one loves her. Granted, she's only 6 but still, you yell at her and put her in time out (which had always worked previously) and she genuinely seems to believe that you hate her guts. And then it spirals and gets worse.

Again, check into diet of course and my sister had to work with her daughter's sleep schedule pretty fiercely (it seems she just wasn't sleeping at night or at least not sleeping well and that accounted for a lot of grumpiness during the day) but if that doesn't seem to work maybe try a calm chat. I know that'll be hard given your son is just two and I know it seems all hippy-dippy to hug and talk instead of punish the bad behavior but it's worth a shot.

Good luck :).
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:45 AM on January 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Thanks for all the great advice, guys! He has a pediatrician appointment for his 2 year checkup next week, so going to his pediatrician with more specifics than just "he's kind of a jerk!" is going to be really helpful.

Our older son had EI services for a bit as a baby after having meningitis, so I'm familiar with them, and his old therapist also comes to their Head Start - I actually ran into her in the young one's room while she worked with another child. So in that regard, thank you for reminding me, and that's a great idea.

He does seem to like his preschool, there are some really great teachers and some other little boys his exact age who are excited to play with him when I drop him in the mornings.

I feel way better today about this - and we have tickets today to a Bruins game where we're only taking the older boy and leaving the little with his beloved grandparents, so he'll get a break and some fun as well.
posted by kpht at 5:48 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

My oldest daughter had quite the violent temper tantrums, often hurting herself and others while out of control. She told me, quite young, if felt like she had a tiny monster inside that sometimes gets lose and grows bigger than her whole body. I struggled quite a bit with my daughter, desperately asking the pediatrician for a referral for family therapy (it was the only thing I could think of after taking several classes offered at the University) and being treated like I was just a worrisome young parent. Until she witnessed one of these tantrums and wrote out the referral while the child was still terrifying the staff.

Family therapy VERY MUCH helped us. Yes, it took a while. As a family, we all had a lot to learn about each other and about working together. Now my oldest is a bright, helpful, competent young adult. Not the anti-Christ my extended family still jokes about.

I still remember the turn around day. I'm not sure if there was ever another day that I was more proud of her.

A licensed professional can help you and your family discover the manual the kids didn't get born with.
posted by _paegan_ at 2:03 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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