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Toddler tantrums: Getting to the base issue

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

As a typical three year old, Sunshine has tantrums on occasion. "On occasion" meaning most every day. Usually it means she's tired or hungry or something like that. Sometimes I cannot account for a root cause at all. I just don't understand why an afternoon can be going along fine, then all of a sudden, she's on the floor wailing because Woody dared glance in her direction. Then again, I'm not three. Of course I don't understand.

Toddler tantrums: Getting to the base issueOne evening recently, Sunshine melted down as soon as we arrived home, and continued to melt down again and again throughout the evening. Clearly she was tired from a fabulous day with her little girlfriends at school, but it had been a long while since I had seen her quite like this. I was careful not to play into the first part of the meltdown, but when it became clear it was something more than your typical tantrum, I made every effort to help her. I made sure she had a snack while I made dinner, and still she whimpered. After dinner I sat down with her, read to her, held her. Nothing worked. "Mommy, I'm sad," she cried."I hear that, Sunshine," I said, "What are you so sad about?""I'm sad because I can't have what I want," she continued, tears streaming."What is it you want, my love?" I asked.She continued to cry, not answering me. She seemed unsure how to convey her feelings. Then said, "I'm sad, Mommy."I kept trying to figure it out. "I know, love. I hear that you are sad." Sunshine tried again, "Mommy, I'm sad because I can't have what I want."I said, "Are you sad because you can't have everything your way?"Sunshine looked hugely relieved that I understood her, even though she was still crying, "Yeah!"I held her close, and smiled to myself. I made sure not to laugh. "I know, love, I know."I thought about how to proceed. Of course she's sad she can't have her way all the time. I get sad I can't have my way all the time, too! This is a pretty big life lesson. Even though we may be able to identify the issue at three years of age, it likely will take most of a lifetime to learn how to handle that issue if her mom's progress is any indication. It's such a basic human issue.After a few moments, I realized there was no great way to proceed here. She's too young for a deep conversation about it, so I just held her and said, "Yes, Sunshine, I know. I feel sad that way, too, sometimes. I'll keep helping you try to figure it out."

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