Toddlers are the most perfect, blissful, beautiful beings to toddle the face of the planet. They’re also maniacally unhinged for 10 out of 24 hours of the day and can leave you, their loving parent who only wants what’s best for them, retreating to corners of your home to “dust” (hide) and crying yourself to sleep because you fear you have a future criminal on your hands.
My 2-year-old son has recently started hitting everything and everyone in his sight when he becomes too frustrated to deal with his emotions and the seemingly minor hiccups he encounters a hundred times a day. My husband and I don’t believe in hitting as a form of effective discipline. Naturally, we want to do everything within our power to stop him from striking out at his older sister, his toys or us because ouch, it hurts like hell, and more importantly, he needs to learn that we don’t settle our disputes using physical violence.
And so I turn to the experts: the online parenting gurus who are going to gracefully guide me from my family’s present state of hell to a cloud where my little boy can use his words to express his disappointment, hurt and anger.
The first thing I learned is that it’s so incredibly normal for a child ages 2 through 4 to throw a tantrum that scientific research chalks it up an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for language acquisition. That, along with the stress toddlers experience due to the fact that they think “magically” and not “logically,” can contribute to tantrums whenever they feel their little worlds are being shaken. And for those of us who have toddlers, we know that can happen often. Like, several-times-a-day often.
I’m down with science supporting the notion that my child is not a bad seed, no matter what that one mom at Gymboree probably thought after he struck her on the shoulder when it was time to leave (On a side note, do any of us ever forget the nasty looks we get?). I eat up all of the helpful tips about how to help your child calm down during a tantrum (never confront them while they’re going through it and promise a hug and a chat only after they’ve composed themselves). But expert advice about how parents should handle tantrums by preventing them? Dr. Oz, I love you, but you’ve never met a toddler like mine.
I give you a mere taste of times when my toddler recently threw the fit to end all fits. I guarantee he was neither hungry nor tired, just intent on proving his Alpha status (note to my son: you win):
The time I pried my Jane Iredale toner out of hands (after asking nicely, just as experts recommend!), as he was using it to create the ideal shower experience for both Batman and Moo Cow.
The time I wouldn’t let him eat a rock he found in the backyard.
The time I stopped him from taking all of the produce out of the refrigerator, rolling tomatoes down the hallway, using celery as a Little People escape route, and dividing and conquering the carrot sticks, three of which he grew to love more than his family members in the few seconds I left him alone in the kitchen to use the bathroom (bad, Mom!).
The time I told him he couldn’t use his toothbrush to brush the radiator’s “teeth.”
The time he didn’t want this banana, he wanted the other banana. And then he didn’t want that banana, he wanted the first banana. And then all of the bananas had suddenly become corrupt and weren’t to be trusted.
How can a parent be expected to prevent this kind of professional-grade absurdity?
Parents already have a lot on their plates, and moms, in particular, are all too often made to feel like they are sorceresses able to weave spells that will churn out perfect kids. The flip side is, of course, when our children are acting in undesirable ways, we blame ourselves before stopping to think about how they, too, are human and have bad days or are going through stages where they’re learning how to deal with the complexities of their emotions.
Some tantrums can definitely be prevented. If you take your toddler to the supermarket before he has lunch in the hopes that you can get your chores done before noon, well, good luck keeping him from knocking down a row of cereal boxes in aisle six. But other tantrums — like my Big, Baffling Banana Battle — was I expected to predict my banana-loving son would suddenly raise hell because no banana met his expectations that day? The most I could do in a case like that was react with as little reaction as possible, encourage him to calm down (which took forever, but eventually happened) and then redirect him to a bunch of lovely strawberries.
I’m a mother, not a reader of minds — and especially not a reader of toddler minds, which requires some powerful combination of psychic ability and witchcraft.