Severe child sensitivity
April 28, 2010 8:56 AM   Subscribe

I have no idea how to discipline my 3 year old's particular sensitivity.

She's a well-behaved little girl, no aggression, no unusual introversion or other behavior problems. But if you tell her "no" or "stop" in even the gentlest of tones, she reacts like you've hit her. She crumples and then runs sobbing down the hall. EVERY TIME. She puts herself in the corner, or sobs in her bedroom.

She doesn't do it if a toy breaks, or if she loses something, or if she's not given a treat at the store. She doesn't do it with other children. Just when we express disappointment or chastise her.

I've tried ignoring the behavior, compartmentalizing it ("if you're gonna cry you have to go to the cry-corner") and teaching her to "breathe it out" (deal with her bad feelings). And I'm afraid I've certainly tried being angry at it. Nothing works, nothing stops these over-reactions.

Any experience on dealing with a massively sensitive pre schooler?
posted by esereth to Human Relations (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Most definitely: ignore the reaction. I say this as a parent as as someone who went through this phase as a child. What is happening is she is turning her punishment (or feeling bad/guilty about doing something wrong, since a corrective verbal word isn't really a punishment- but you know what I mean) into positive attention. So instead of the negative of your disapproval and having to stop what she's doing, she's instead getting reassurance "it's alright, don't cry..." and has changed the focus of the situation. Even if it is an angry reaction on your part, she has still changed the focus of the situation from what she was doing wrong to you reacting to her crying.

Ignore, ignore, ignore. It will take a bit since she has become accustomed to you trying different tactics. But after you ignore the crying reaction often enough, it will work. She may try to switch to a new reaction to try to get your attention, but just continue to ignore outbursts. And focus on reinforcing good behavior so she gets used to getting your attention for good things.
posted by Eicats at 9:03 AM on April 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

oops: as a parent AND as someone who went through this phase as a child
posted by Eicats at 9:04 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

IANAParent, but I do watch a lot of Supernanny.

What's your method for ignoring the behavior? My instinct would be to say that these outbursts are probably more upsetting for you than they are to her (even if they are upsetting to her), and you're probably reacting somehow, perhaps even subtly. When it comes down to it, although I know your instinct is probably to comfort her and shield her from this pain, she's not harming herself by putting herself in the corner or her room and sobbing. She eventually will wear herself out, even if it takes an hour or two. Have you tried ignoring it for this long? If I were in your position, I would--and then once she's stopped, even if it takes quite awhile, I'd go to her and talk to her about it (Something like, "You know mommy & daddy always love you, right? Good. Here's a hug.") That way, you'd be reacting to--and rewarding--the eventual self-comforting behavior, not the initial outburst.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:09 AM on April 28, 2010

Oh, and I should add that when I went through this phase, I remember just feeling heartbroken at any reprimand. But it was just a phase! I'm no expert, but it's my guess that this reaction is a part of the phase a child goes through when figuring out that being admonished doesn't mean that the parent doesn't love them anymore. Once they make the connection, the sensitivity subsides. It's not uncommon and it doesn't mean that your child will permanently be emotionally fragile.
posted by Eicats at 9:09 AM on April 28, 2010

Ignore her crying. She is doing it more to get you to not scold her then for any other reason.
posted by majortom1981 at 9:13 AM on April 28, 2010

"I'm sorry you're upset" in a neutral tone of voice and then ignore. Try to see the humor in it if you can.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:19 AM on April 28, 2010

I have a child who's sensitive to that kind of thing as well -- which, in his case is surprising since he's not the "sensitive" one (that would be his older sister). But we've been in a phase for a while where it's hard for him to tolerate even small levels of frustration or disappointment, from us or from himself, and he's been turning that inwards in a big way. He is older than your child, and quite verbal, so we can discuss the behavior after the fact (or even during) and talk coping skills, and he's gotten better at handling things. But one thing I realized is that, for him, every time he heard me say, "I love you, but [fill in the blank: it's your turn to do X/you need to clean up your mess/whatever]," he would get stuck at the "but" -- like he would be hearing "I love you...under these strict and disappointing conditions." So I started shifting my own response to him, and saying, "I love you AND [fill in the blank: you need to pick up after yourself/stop doing whatever you're doing/etc.]" It may seem like a small thing, but for us it was a good shift in working through this together.
posted by mothershock at 9:27 AM on April 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

I agree with the advice to not react strongly to these outbursts.

One thing a friend told me long ago, that I try to do, is instead of saying "no" or "stop", which are pretty generic concepts - stop what? breathing? no what? moving? - give concrete direction. "Hands off the tv, please", "use your inside voice, please", for example.

When I remember to do this, it comes across less as reprimand, and more as a request for different behavior. You're not being critical, you're just asking her to change what she's doing. That might help reduce the feeling that she's being reprimanded or punished.

I try to save no and stop for moments when I need attention right now - when it's a matter of safety, for example. That seems to maintain their power - saying "no" 873,923 times a day means it just gets tuned out and it won't work when it really matters.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2010 [16 favorites]

...being admonished doesn't mean that the parent doesn't love them anymore.

Exactly. Our daughter also does this. It's surely a sign that your good opinion means the world to her.

Our tactic (and I'm not saying it's the best one), is to say, "You know I love you, but X behavior isn't acceptable. You need to stay in time-out until you can apologize." Then we ignore. And she just sobs as if her universe is falling apart. She does the same thing if we've run out of a favorite food, and I have to say, "I'm sorry, we don't have any bananas. We ate them all yesterday." It's as though I've taken them away on purpose.

I agree with the above posters that there's an element of comfort-seeking in the sobbing. I don't think she is being manipulative, it's just a normal reaction to seek the comfort if you can get it.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

What everyone else has said is great. Other thoughts:
-Talk to her about this behavior at a time when it has not happened recently. Talk about what she feels like when you tell her 'no,' and what other options she has for reacting. Try play acting a couple of scenarios when neither of you are upset, so she can get some practice with a new response.
-Is it possible that she suppresses frustration at other things and then explodes when she hear 'no?' If so, help her check up on her feelings about other frustrations and express them in smaller doses.

Good luck!
posted by SLC Mom at 9:36 AM on April 28, 2010

I was that child. I don't think she is being manipulative, I think she is hurt that she dissapointed you, its a good sign. Sometime when she is not having a crying fit, explain to her that as her mom its your job to guide her and you expect her to make some mistakes and becaue you love her, you have to let her know when she has made a mistake and that you are not mad at her and she is still a good girl.
posted by stormygrey at 9:51 AM on April 28, 2010 [10 favorites]

I recommend Adele Farber's How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk.

I don't have kids. I was that kid. Please adapt your style to her needs and don't make her feel even worse for crying.

She wants so desperately to please you, to have your good opinion. Don't grind that out of her!

Instead of "Don't play with that," you can say "How about you play with this instead" or "That thing is expensive and fragile, it's best not to use it as a toy." Lots more examples in the book.
posted by metaseeker at 9:59 AM on April 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

This is not unusual at all. My little brother was like this and one of my kids went through a brief phases of it. She'll grow out of it eventually. Ignoring it is tough, but it's all you can do. Sending her to her room or a corner until she calms down is good - the phrase I use with mine if they balk at that is "You can cry as much as you need to . . . just not in here.". If you need to discuss anything about the behavior that started the sobbing, wait until she's calm to do it.
When she finishes crying, don't make a big deal about it. If you mention the crying at all, just tell her that everybody needs to cry sometimes and you hope she feels better now, then move on.

As she gets older and gets better control of her emotions (and, somewhat sadly for you, as her parents stop being the center of her universe), she'll start having more reasonable reactions to disappointment. Toddler emotions are often very intense, but can switch completely in an instant. The only reason I would be concerned is if she doesn't cheer back up again after she finishes crying.
posted by Dojie at 10:03 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am a parent. And if my son has grown up to be a great and popular young man, that's his credit far more than mine. But one thing was always clear to Mrs aqsakal and me: parents need to know when it's time to say "no". It's not easy for anybody concerned, but it's vital. It's one of the ways of putting across your values, your take on life, your opinion of what's acceptable and what's not. And that's part of the duty of parents: to pass on their philosophy so that a child can have a firm, comforting and reliable baseline on which to start molding his/her own opinions and lifestyle. When she grows up she will have every right to develop her own opinions. But at this stage, it's up to you to provide the foundation based on what you (and your partner) think is right and what you think is wrong. If you don't, your daughter will (probably - I'm no psychiatrist) grow up confused and uncertain. If you do, she will grow up with the inbred knowledge that "this is what Mom and Dad think is right|wrong" and will base her decisions on that. Sure, there will be times of rebellion, but that's part of growing up, too: testing the water, seeing how the world reacts.

Good luck - you sound like a very loving and concerned parent, and nothing could be better for your child than that. She's very lucky to have you as a Mom. I gently suggest you understand that saying "no" when it's necessary is part of being loving and concerned. And there's plenty of good advice upthread about how to say "no" in a way which both you and your daughter will find acceptable.
posted by aqsakal at 10:15 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not a parent but love all of these suggestions. I'm from the "Do you want me to give you something to cry about" upbringing. Didn't do much fo rme.
posted by mokeydraws at 10:24 AM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have to disagree with those who say ignore it. She's crying because she's disappointed you and she thinks you don't love her anymore. To ignore her is to confirm her fears that you don't love her.

Explain why you're telling her no. Explain that you still love her, you're just trying to keep her safe. Eventually, she'll get the message and grow out of it.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:42 AM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

You do not need to give a 3 year old excessive reasons for anything. It's possible that she's upset that she's offended your sensibilities, it's also possible that it's a way for her to recuse herself from the scolding and (ideally) get you to stop it. She's not dumb, she knows tears hurt mommy/daddy. (It's also possible there's something else going on, some food sensitivity that's causing her to flip out, but even if there is it can usually be treated behaviorally.)

I would abjectly disregard the behavior. I would also, probably, when I speak to her about her behavior (thus causing the reaction), explain to her that I expect her to stand and listen to me until I am finished, and then tell her when she's excused---so that I'm identifying the end of the session and not her.

And then, later, (more than 20 minutes, less than an hour) I'd speak with her about the reaction. I'd ask her why she's crying, I'd ask her if she thinks that's the best decision she can make at the time, and if she knows that I can be upset with her without disliking her. That's a stretch for a 3 year old, but it's do-able.

But then, ignore the behavior. I dislike the "I love you and I want you to behave blah blah blah" crap because it comes off like a cop-out. Kid learns that 1) when I'm in trouble it'll always start with "I Love you" and that 2) You can use your emotions to manipulate others.

The "I love you" prefix is best used sarcastically (when not used, well, normally): "I love you but you're really very smelly today" or "I love you but you ate all the graham crackers!"
posted by TomMelee at 10:46 AM on April 28, 2010

Could it just be temperamental? All the responses here seem to assume it's a deliberate, manipulative behavior, but my friends have a son, now 10, who has just always been really sensitive to tone of voice and to conflict and disagreement. For him, it also applies to friends (he'll go along with things because he doesn't want to disappoint his friends, for instance). He has to work on being more assertive, of course, but it's just the way he is--he's not "trying to get something" by it. What I mean to suggest is that it's possible she's having a genuine emotional reaction, not trying to get something or be manipulative. With my kids, I've always reacted with sympathy when they're upset, even if I'm the one upsetting them by saying No. You call your daughter's expression of feelings "over-reactions" but as someone who feels things deeply and has strong emotional reactions, I can tell you that being treated like I was "over-reacting" when I was just having my feelings (which usually pass and get more balanced pretty quickly) was one of the shittiest parts of my childhood and undermined my affection and respect for my parents.

I hate the "I'm sorry you're upset" in what someone upthread called a "neutral" voice. Imagine if you were upset about something and your lover did that to you. It just seems mean to me. I do say things like, "I'm sorry to disappoint you," but I try to say it in a way that suggests I really am sorry to disappoint them (because I am). If you think your kid is manipulating you, you start behaving in manipulative ways in response, giving inauthentic reactions in order to get a preferred behavior. Kids pick up on that. They lose trust. Your child is upset. Give her some love, attention, and sympathy (if she'll take it; I have one kid who won't, who would rather be alone until the feelings pass). Let her know you're there for her, reliably, and respect her and her feelings.
posted by not that girl at 11:16 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I hate the "I'm sorry you're upset" in what someone upthread called a "neutral" voice. Imagine if you were upset about something and your lover did that to you. It just seems mean to me.

I have to agree. I hate this as an adult - I can't imagine how upsetting it would have been to me as a child. And yes, I was one of those children who cried at the slightest reprimand, and no, it had nothing to do with being manipulative. I remember in my early 20's when I started to figure out that I might not be wired like most people (although it took me another 15 years to actually do something about it) - I was talking to my mom on the phone about the latest emotional upset in my life, and I said, "Mom, I just don't know - it's like I feel things more than other people," to which she replied, "Yes, I know. You've been that way ever since you were a little girl."
posted by Evangeline at 11:28 AM on April 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

I happen to be a nonviolent parenting educator and proponent. My advice is rooted in child psychology, brain development science and the observation of the efficiency of nonviolent parenting practices.

A three year old has strong uncontrollable (by her) emotions. That's just where she is in her development stage.

How you react to her strong emotions can potentially determine a whole lot of her future life experience.

Most of the things you've tried are unfortunately quite stressful to a child and don't seem to address her needs, but rather your need to control her behavior.

Now I am not making you wrong, that's the way most adults parent as it is how we were parented. And, there are better ways.

I suggest you investigate what's going on for her, what needs of her are not being met in these stressful situations. I am speaking about fundamental human needs like acceptance, appreciation, affection, safety, autonomy, understanding etc. and not whims like "need" for icecream-right-now.

And I suggest you stay with her and give her some love (a hug, or just be present with her, no talking, commenting or questions until she's done crying BY HERSELF) when she is having a hard time. This will show her that she is loved by her parent even when she's sad, and will lay the foundation of self-acceptance and confidence.

I very highly suggest Naomi Aldort's book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves to any parent who wants to transform their parenting experience for life.

Good luck!
posted by andreinla at 12:03 PM on April 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

Could it just be temperamental? All the responses here seem to assume it's a deliberate, manipulative behavior

I certainly don't think it's deliberate or manipulative, and I don't think the majority of posters do either. Three year olds don't have much control over their emotions. While they're certainly capable of trying to manipulate their parents at that age, crumpling and running sobbing down the hall is not a conscious decision - it's just being overwhelmed.

I certainly don't think OP should treat her daughter as if she's being manipulative or tell her she's over-reacting, but I don't think giving her extra attention and comfort while she's upset about being told no is a good idea either. Comforting her after "no" is likely to confuse her (mom said she's sorry - that must mean I'm not in trouble after all) and may actually teach her that she can manipulate her parents with emotion. The fact is that she is not harmed by being told no and doesn't need comfort or sympathy for it. "No" is about something she can not do or have - her hurt feelings and sadness are not the point - the off-limits behavior/item/whatever is the point. Save the extra hugs and cuddles and comfort for times when she actually is harmed and her hurt feelings and sadness are the point.

She might be a super-sensitive kid who always has strong emotional reactions, or she might just be going through a super-sensitive phase. But either way, she needs to figure out how to control her responses on her own. Her parents aren't going to be able to do that for her.
posted by Dojie at 12:20 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe try give her a choice when she does that "You can sit there a while, or you can say Sorry and we can carry on doing X or go do Y." Maybe she just doesn't know a good alternative.
posted by meepmeow at 12:38 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have to disagree VERY strongly on the ignore approach. I am mother to a toddler also. Your child is THREE years, she is not supposed toget control of her emotions at this age. All you are teaching her by ignoring her is that when she experiences un controllable grief, you withdraw and isolate her until she stops. When my daughter cries uncontrollably, REGARDLESS of reason, I hold her and hug her and tell her I love her. Sometimes she cries because I tell her 'no'. My behavior doesn't change: its still no, but if she is upset I comfort because I don't withhold affection because she crying, I give it when she needs it and often just because :)
posted by zia at 12:54 PM on April 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

I recommend Adele Farber's How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk.

I came to recommend the same book! It's great, and one of the things they show you is how to correct without chastising (i.e., without saying "no" and "stop" all the time in that irritated-parent voice). One good example: your child is supposed to eat at the table, and only at the table. Instead of saying, "No! Go to the table! You know you're not supposed to take food in the living room" blah blah blah, you just say "Table." Then they have to pause a minute to fill in the blanks on their own, which turns it into more self-correction than external control. And you're not saying the same damn thing ("no" and "stop") 20x a day, which, as others have noted, is completely useless.

If she feels she's being reminded, rather than chastised, you may not get the overreaction.
posted by palliser at 12:59 PM on April 28, 2010

When she does this, let her be; she needs to learn how to manage her own emotions. Sure, she might be manipulating willfully, but she might also be truly that sensitive, and there's no need to worry about which.

Instead, just avoid feeding the behavior while helping her with the underlying feelings. She runs away? Let her. In a few minutes, walk by and say "Do you want a hug, or should I leave you alone?" She may want you to go, she may want you to stay, but you're addressing her feelings at this moment, not her reaction to being scolded a few minutes ago.

If she does go for the hug (and she may be angry when she does it, or she may seem cheerful, or still sad) remind her: "I know you don't feel good right now. I love you and you can always get a hug from me if you need it, even when you're angry (or whatever.)" Again, you're not talking about the bad behavior. After the hug has gone on a bit, let her know she can come back in or stay in her room if she wants to.

The few minutes between reaction and your arrival is to let her understand that these reactions aren't going to get her the attention she desires, and let her get over having been chastised -- and your arrival and offer of in-the-moment hug is to let her understand that you still love her and you are always willing to be there for her even when she's not sure how to handle her feelings.
posted by davejay at 1:15 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

You might try avoiding NO and STOP etc, but not because she is so sensitive. Try replacing NO and STOP with declarative statements, at least some of the time. For example, instead of: "stop jumping on the couch", try: "you're jumping on the couch". Then this requires her to take responsibility for her own actions, and part of that has to do with her interaction with you as a parent. This is assuming for example that she does know and understand that she's not supposed to jump on the couch, or whatever it is. She may well be engaging in the tantrumming or crying about this as a means to take control and independence- big preschool issues. By using declarative statements, you give her the opportunity to rise to the occasion and be a competent human being, instead of resorting to negative attention seeking behaviour. I've seen this switch turn around kids in no time flat. Oh, and yes, I am a parent, and a consultant to families with children with autism.
posted by kch at 1:25 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

My daughter (now 5) used to do this around that age. Here's what I did that worked for me:

She'd run crying to her room after I said no to her, let's say playing in the kitchen when she wasn't supposed to. I'd follow her in there, sit on the bed and say "It sounds like you are feeling really sad/frustrated/angry at Daddy because I said no to you." She nods her head. "Is that because you were having a lot of fun playing in the kitchen?" She nods again. "It's really hard when you are having fun doing something and then Daddy tells you to stop, isn't it?" At this point she's probably wailing. "Do you want me to help you find something else to do?" Usually she's not ready, but knows she can come and find me later, so I give her some space. I don't think I did this more than half a dozen times at most before she because less sensitive.

The key is to emphatically reflect her emotions, through tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and obviously, you have to reflect her actual emotions, but I have a hard time believing a 3-year old has the cognitive capacity to know that their parents are disappointed in them. It's a fairly complicated thing to hear what someone says, and infer their inner beliefs and attitudes based on that. A 3-year old is way too young to think "Wow, Mom said no to me, what does that say about what she feels about me? Maybe it means she doesn't like me? That makes me feel really bad!" More likely, she's thinking "I wanted that, but I can't have it!"

For some reason, lots of parents think that enforcing a rule means shutting yourself off to your child's emotional reaction to you enforcing the rule. I guess the logic of that is that allowing yourself to feel sympathy creates a strong temptation for you to bend the rules or make exceptions, leading to inconsistency, but should the child pay the price for that? Seems like that's something the parent needs to learn how to do.

TomMelee: She's not dumb, she knows tears hurt mommy/daddy.

Really? There's good evidence that a child as young as 3 doesn't have a very strong grasp on what goes on inside the head of someone else, certainly not enough to be able to manipulate and control a parent.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:46 PM on April 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

As a parent of one very sensitive and emotional child (as well as a happy-go-lucky one), I can't recommend John Gottman's Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child enough.

To me, it was eye-opening, and different from the nowadays ubiquitous supernanny guidelines I'd been following before. Gottman doesn't regard children's emotional outbursts as manipulation for the currency that is the parents' attention (which is the basic idea of the behaviour modification school - no offence to anyone having success with those methods; I discarded them because in our case, the results were simply disappointing).

Rather, this approach regards the kids' feelings as something valid to treat with respect. It helped me make the switch from trying to snuff out "unacceptable behaviour" and to start teaching my children how to deal with the emotional turmoil that is an unavoidable part of life (dubbed emotion coaching in the book).

It is simple, really: it starts with recognizing that moments of sadness and anger are valuable opportunities for teaching and intimacy rather than problems to be immediately controlled and erased. Listening with empathy, validating feelings, helping the child label the emotions verbally and finally, setting limits while helping them problem-solve.

In our family, the result was an immediate drop in the amount of outbursts or any kind of conflict, and when problems arise, they're now much easier to deal with. My kids are also now incredibly accurate and sometimes really pretty nuanced when describing their feelings - jealousy, sadness, disappointment, frustration - and I definitely think this is a very useful life skill they're learning. And I can have respect for those feelings and help the kids express and cope with them in a healthy way, in stead of regarding them as nuisances to control.
posted by sively at 3:21 PM on April 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

Therapists talk a lot about "containment" of another's emotions. Show her you can "handle" her three year old feelings by not letting her push you out of the room so to speak, but don't let her drag you into trying to comfort her either. I'd try sitting in the room with her and not saying or doing much. Read or something and just wait it out if you can without going all "Mommy/Daddy loves you (s)he's so sorry (s)he said no." Wait until she's done and when she approaches you for a hug or X comfort thing then affirm her with that. This hopefully demonstrates you're not ignoring but you're also not capitulating.
posted by ShadePlant at 3:22 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

We limit our "nos" and instead work for autonomy, redirection and self-correction, according to the situation. Simple example of autonomy and self-correction: our daughter throws a piece of trash on the floor and begins to run off to play elsewhere. We stop her with, "Where does the napkin go?" She gets to chirrup the correct answer and put it in the trash, feeling very little-girl-empowered, and we get to happily confirm/smile/praise the action. Down the line, she begins to remind herself, with no prompting from us.

She has been sensitive to reprimands from us, and yes, she cries. We know that she cries because she is feeling a strong emotion, and we're okay with her feeling that emotion. When she wants - and she always does - she can come to us for comfort in the form of a hug. When her little Neanderthal brain calms down a little, we enter into a dialogue.

She knows that when we say no, we mean it. She knows that when we say no, we still love her.

I strongly recommend reading John Gottman's "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child." I think your highly sensitive little girl, and your family, would benefit greatly from it.
posted by moira at 3:27 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Just when we express disappointment or chastise her."
Sounds like your child has trouble when you withdraw your love from her. In other words, her need for acceptance and safety are not being met and this may be very scary and upsetting for a toddler.

Can you give an example of a situation where that happened? Is it possible that you are using disappointment and chastising to manipulate her behavior?


She's not dumb, she knows tears hurt mommy/daddy.

A 3-year old is not her parents' emotional caregiver. She is not responsible for how other people feel when she's emotional. Implying that a three year old's expression of emotions is hurting her most loved ones is very stressful to the child (and very manipulative).

engaging in the tantrumming...

The brain chemistry of overwhelming emotions cause toddlers' brains to shut down logical function. In this state, your child is often overwhelmed to the point of not understanding language and not being aware of their surroundings. Saying tantrumming is like saying seizuring for someone having epilepsy and holding the experience against them. To get a dilluted taste of the experience, remember a time in your life when you were hurtful to another, or acted in rage, despite knowing better, and multiply the intensity tenfold.
posted by andreinla at 3:47 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is just your child testing limits, with a newfound (for her) tool: emotional manipulation. As all others have said, she is trying to transform the reality of her behavior into you feeling sorry for her. That's not a bad thing, it's completely natural for kids to explore limits and to try new things. As long as you lovingly guide her through this time and make it clear that tears are for important things, not hurt feelings because she doesn't want to hear "no".

When she is done crying, talk to her and ask her what she was feeling and why she started crying.

A 3-year old is not her parents' emotional caregiver. She is not responsible for how other people feel when she's emotional. Implying that a three year old's expression of emotions is hurting her most loved ones is very stressful to the child (and very manipulative).

I disagree completely. Part of growing up (and thus parenting) is teaching children how to deal with their emotions. Not wanting to turn the TV off or get ready for bed is not an appropriate time to get all teary and screamy. You do the child a great disservice by *not* teaching her that her actions and words and expressions of emotion have real effects on the others around her.

Emotional outbursts and tantrums almost always don't just "happen". There is almost always a time where the child is not feeling right and isn't feeling like they are getting their way. Teaching them to express that then, and not sitting on it (or ignoring it) until they go nutzo is not going to end well. It's like toilet training- teaching the child to be in touch with their bodies and emotions and addressing issues as they begin to build is the point. Tantrums are, in almost all cases, kind of like emotional pants-shitting.
posted by gjc at 5:11 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

"It sounds like you are feeling really sad/frustrated/angry at Daddy because I said no to you." She nods her head. "Is that because you were having a lot of fun playing in the kitchen?" She nods again. "It's really hard when you are having fun doing something and then Daddy tells you to stop, isn't it?"

I wish I had known this technique when my children were little because I have used it with my grandchildren and it works like magic most of the time.

Don't ignore her, acknowledge her emotion. "You are mad because you wanted another cookie and nana wouldn't give you one ." "Yes, I am." "It's frustrating when you want something and you can't have it."

Don't apologize for not giving the cookie, sending her to bed, etc. Just acknowledge the emotion. It's almost amazing how well this works. 99% of the time, the child will just get up and walk away drying their tears or give you a hug and go about their business.
posted by tamitang at 6:20 PM on April 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

Wow, I can't believe so many people think that 3-year-olds are emotionally manipulative and the way to deal with sensitivity to perceived rejection is to ignore it-- ie, reject the child further!!!

Yes, part of growing up is learning to deal with emotions but part of parenting is recognizing developmental limitations and the way to help children learn to deal with emotions is not by rejecting them when they need comfort.

You aren't going to "reward" the child for feeling upset while reprimanded by giving attention-- and you aren't going to "reward" misbehavior as long as you don't undo the "no" and just go ahead and give the child whatever you said no to.

If you reject a sensitive child who feels bad for disappointing you (a good sign of empathy, btw), all you encourage is self-hate and lack of emotional control. You can't teach emotional control by ignoring a kid who has lost control. Control is learned in comfort and safety-- not when overwhelmed.

Yes, you want your child to learn the precursors to a meltdown-- but they aren't going to learn this when they've already started crying because they've been reprimanded and now you ignore them. The way you get them to learn these precursors is to talk about feelings and about how they felt before they did whatever you didn't want them to do and then they will have language to express it. This has to be done in calm reflection.
posted by Maias at 6:33 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Have you read "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus?" Perhaps it would help to make it clear that there's a good reason to say no sometimes, and it would also give her a chance to be that person: the person who says "no" for a good reason.
posted by redsparkler at 10:55 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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