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Toddler Starting to Cry Constantly, New Baby Brother & Daycare

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Dr. Markham,

DH and I are at a loss and need some advise. Our coming 3yr old is usually pretty easy going. He has temper tantrums, but with a time out he will usually settle himself down and then let us know he is feeling better and that he is sorry. Over the last few days he has completely lost control. He will scream wildly for hours at a time-no exaggeration here. On time out he will kick and hit the door to his room with anything he can find and progressively get so angry that he is trembling and twitching. We have tried all the things that have worked in the past, but nothing will get through to him. He will just get more upset and then angry. I ask him if he feels sad, sick or hurt and he usually says no, that he just wants to cry. Occasionally he will say that he has an ouch, but is unable to tell be where it is. This will usually lead to him asking for a medicine that he likes the flavor of, so I don't think it is legit.

Is this normal toddler melt down that we haven't experienced before or does it seem more serious? Dh kept our son home with him yesterday for a fun day, and it ended up really awful. He cried all day.

Some additional information that may be helpful: we have a 7 month old. They started a new day care together 4 months ago and the 3 yr old is really thriving there. It is like preschool so he is learning so much. The DCP says he is a real joy to have around and does not do this with her. DH has had to work weekends the last month, so I am alone with both kids on the weekends.I think the fact that he is having to share time with his little brother may have something to do with it, but it has been a month already and we didn't have these issues until this last week. I was home with the 2 of them by myself for the first 3 months and this didn't come up during that time.

What should we do?

****Ok, I suppose I should have read a few of the other posts before I wrote this because some are similar. I tried your approach of holding him and letting him cry out all his stored-up upsets the other night, and he did seem comforted. But after 20minutes he was still crying. Should I continue until he stops crying no matter how long it takes?

Thanks again,

Mrs. A.


Dear Mrs. A,

It's so hard to try everything that has worked in the past and find it no longer works! But that is what happens as kids grow up -- they constantly reach new developmental stages and we are forced to adjust.

That said, we can make the present and all future stages easier on ourselves and our kids by using empathy, limits and respect, as opposed to our power, to help kids cooperate. Sooner or later, with all kids, overpowering them stops working. The later it stops working, the more damage we've done, and the harder it is to undo. For example, I have met a lot of parents who bring their kid to the psychologist once he gets big enough to resist their physical force, because they can no longer control him. Those kids have been shaped psychologically by the discipline used in their family, and "curing" them of their acting out is a challenge.

What you are experiencing is a milder version, of course, and can be "cured," because your son, thank goodness, is giving you the opportunity early on by showing you how much pain he is in. And luckily, he has a mom who is smart enough to figure out that she needs to listen to her boy, rather than punishing him.

It sounds like you have a wonderful little guy who does well at preschool and is a joy to be around. However, you have been using "timeouts" and expecting him to apologize for tantrums, both of which make your son angry and teach him that he is a bad kid. I know that "experts" often recommend timeouts and act as if tantrums are within a child's control, but both of these approaches actually make kids feel worse about themselves and erode the parent-child relationship, which leads to more misbehavior. I won't go into more detail about there here, but please do check out the article on this website on why Timeouts actually cause more misbehavior.

On top of that uneasy discipline foundation, your little guy has some new, big, stressors. Many kids react to a newborn sibling, but go into much worse mourning or rage when the baby is six or seven months old, as they realize the sibling is there to stay -- and is smiling and becoming real competition.

Most older toddlers can't cope well with their complex emotions about the new baby -- usually a combination of protectiveness and the desire to flush the baby down the toilet -- and feel guilty. If they tantrum or act out because of the pressure of their tangled-up feelings, and parents react with timeouts, they are confirmed in their conclusion that they are a bad person for hating the baby, and the situation spirals down into further tantrumming.

If you add to this a new preschool -- no matter how terrific -- where the child must form all new relationships and presumably is still mourning for his old relationships, AND a dad who has been gone every weekend, leaving an overworked mom whom the toddler has to share with that horrible needy new baby -- well, you can see how from your son's point of view he might have a lot to cry about.

Which brings us to the answer to your question: Yes, if you can hold your son until he is done crying, you are giving him a tremendous gift. Just try to stay calm yourself and be his safe haven. It could well take 20 minutes or more, if he has a lot of pent-up frustration. But at the end of that time, you will find him yawning (which is a physical release), calm, relaxed, loving, and grateful. You will also find that his temperament will dramatically improve, his extreme rages will vanish, and his temper tantrums decrease. As he gets older, he will be more cooperative in general, and you will find that you won't really need discipline at all, particularly if you eliminate timeouts now in favor of positive discipline. You will probably also want to check out the Positive Discipline section of this website for discipline approaches that encourage cooperation.

Finally,I have a book to recommend to you. It is the best book I know for parents whose child is showing signs of unhappiness, for whatever reason. It's called "Smartlove" and it's by Pieper and Pieper. They may have it at your library, but it's so good you might want your own copy.

Good luck, and please do let me know how it goes!

Dr. Markham

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