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Toddler Crying All The Time

by Kate

Hi Annie,

My little girl is 2 years and 4 months old, and she's going through a difficult time. She just seems to burst into tears at the drop of a hat, anytime anything doesn't go exactly as she wants it.

She's particularly unhappy when her dad leaves for work, this morning she cried for half an hour, she was inconsolable and told me simply "I don't want you mum". But then as soon as he gets home if he wants to sit down or talk to me or go to the bathroom she flips out again, so she doesn't really enjoy her time with him either.

She also cries regularly throughout the day over any number of things, and at bath-time and bedtime. I'm getting so frustrated, I am finding it really hard to feel good while listening to this abrasive sound (it seems like she's angry rather than really sad).

I just wish she could be happy more often, or that I could tune it out somehow.

Thanks for your help

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Preschoolers Learning To Cope
by: Annie Desantis

Hi Kate,
There is nothing more stressful for a parent, when a child won't stop crying. Then of course the more stressed we get, the less patience we have and the more we are likely to snap at our kids in frustration.

Your little girl does sound like she is going through a very emotional phase, and she may well be a child who is extremely sensitive to anything stressful. And life simply is full of challenges when you are 2 years old! Actually - any age!

It takes a while for a little one to get more resilience and to cope with things not always being as she would like, and some kids find that harder than others. Particularly when they are tired, hungry or over stimulated it can seem like the tiniest thing will set them off.

To a large extent, your little girl is simply going through a normal developmental stage and will learn to control her feelings, will start to understand Daddy is coming back, or to be patient and he will play with her.

Our brains have to learn to switch from the reptilian brain, which is pure reaction and survival - to the rational thinking brain. Those neural pathways have to grow, and a two year old has a lot of brain development to happen to be able to shift from "I want it NOW or I will die" to being able to wait, to learn patience, to control strong feelings. Lots of adults have not developed those pathways in the brain, and simply react and lash out!

It just doesn't happen overnight and it is not something that can be forced, in fact as parents we often make it worse by adding our reactions into the mix! Showing our kids how WE get control of our feelings when we are frustrated or annoyed helps them to learn they have a choice to act differently when they are upset or angry.

Nor is it realistic to expect her to be happy all the time. Believe it or not, it is the frustration and challenging times that she can learn the most from. Of course we want our kids to be happy as much as possible, but she also needs to learn to deal with being unhappy or frustrated.

Part Two Follows . . .

Preschoolers Learning To Cope - Part Two
by: Annie Desantis

Firstly you don't have so much control over her feelings and reactions, but you do have control over your own, and finding some creative ways to lift your mood or switch your reaction will go a long way to shifting hers. It is pretty likely that your irritation and frustration is adding fuel to her distress, so we'll look at what you can do to shift it all.

So notice when you are starting to get tense or preparing yourself for the routine "Daddy's Leaving" drama. That is you clue to do something different. Instead of trying to console her - console yourself! Put on some music and start dancing, go take a shower (if you can leave her) - go down the back garden and pick a bunch of flowers or leaves to make an arrangement. If you remove your energy from the equation until you are feeling good, it will go a long way to short cutting her drama.

When you are fussing around her feeling irritated TRYING really hard to make it right for her, you are giving her mixed messages. On one hand you are fueling the drama of Daddy's gone, but she will also be picking up your underlying frustration and that will make her feel more unhappy.

Then the next thing is to come up with some strategies to switch her attention so she doesn't stay stuck in simply reacting.

Distraction usually works well with preschoolers if you do it the right way. The key is be exited, and don't try to convince them to join in. If they see you doing weird or funny things it gets their attention. She may just watch for a while, but if you keep talking to yourself out loud about what you are doing, eventually her curiosity will draw her in. Just every now and then, put out an offer to her to come and play:
"When you are ready, you might like to come and help me catch some bugs . . ."

"If you feel like squirting the garden, come out the back"

or more subtle, "I wonder if there is someone who is good at breaking eggs?"

Here's some ideas of things you can do that will engage her curiosity and are much more exciting than having a drama about Daddy going:

Excitedly start doing something physical - singing and acting out kids songs, doing silly walks, hiding.

Start baking cupcakes, and say things like - "I really need someone to break this egg for me, I wonder who could help?"

Go out in the garden with some flour and start making a hopscotch squares on the grass - or simply a design or shapes - circles, squares triangles.

Part Three Follows . . .

Preschoolers Learning To Cope - Part Three
by: Annie Desantis

You can also play a Grumpy Catching Game! Get a bucket or a big bag and catch all the Grumpies, gather them up and run outside and chuck them all up into the sky to turn into rainbows. Make it fun and exciting and see if she will help catch them . . . "Oh look! There goes another grumpy, quick help me catch it and put it in the bucket"

This is a great game to play when YOU are grumpy - and at the same time you are teaching her how to shift her feelings when she is cross. So when you are grumpy, make it obvious, do the Grumpy Dance stomping around the house, and then remind yourself you need to catch all these Grumpies in the bucket. She can run and get it for you and then help you catch them and then "Quick quick run run as fast as you can, we have to let these Grumpies go outside so they can be rainbows!".

We are not making our cross feelings wrong or bad, our feelings are just how we know we need to attend to something, or to switch attention. So teaching our kids how to recognize feelings and then getting control of them, instead of being at the mercy of an overwhelming frustration or anger. Games, fun and play are a great way for kids to learn control and patience and to shift their feelings when they are frustrated.

Another idea is to change your routine - so instead of Daddy leaving in the morning - chuck your daughter in her stroller and head off to the park and you are the ones to say Bye-Bye to Daddy. When an issue has become a pattern, interrupting what she is expecting to happen will shift the habit.

Notice the times she is more likely to loose it, and see if there is a trigger - clearly Daddy leaving or not being available is one - but she may also be hungry or tired and simply does not have the resources left to cope when things don't go her way.

Sometimes it can be just something simple like having more high energy protein snacks available (definitely no sugar!), or changing the routine so when she is tired, that is not the time to require her to co-operate with lots of things. Having bath time mid afternoon - or morning as a play activity with food colouring instead of trying to fit it in before bed when she is already tired and on a short fuse. The more you try to force her to fit in with your routine, the more she is likely to feel overwhelmed and pressured and not cope. The more you make things fun, silly, happy, the more she is engaged and stimulated to co-operate.

Part Four Follows . . . .

Preschoolers Learning To Cope - Part Four
by: Annie Desantis

Changing Daddy's home routine might work too. Have him meet you at the park, so you and he can chat while he pushes her on the swing. Or set her up with a play activity so you can have some time to talk.

It is hard for a preschooler to let adults have time together when they are dying for attention. Then the more we try to make the wait their turn or be quiet or play on their own, then the more they get frustrated and anxious. So fill her needs first. Have Daddy playtime first, and Mom & Dad time later - it
is hard to juggle everything, but in the long run, if you have a 2 year old chucking a tantrum you are not going to get any quality conversation happening anyway.

Yes she needs to learn to take turns - but it is early days yet. She is much more likely to sit quietly watching a video if she has had a fun time with Daddy first. You can use a timer - so she has 15 minutes play time with Daddy, then Mummy gets 15 minutes talk time with Daddy. Actually at her age, 15 for her and 5 for you might be more realistic! But giving her the JOB of interrupting when the timer goes off, includes her and makes her job important, and also shows her you keep to your agreement and she doesn't need to stress out that you or Dad are not available. She can even time Daddy going to the bathroom! Giving her something to do that puts her in control of the situation for a short time helps her to learn to control her feelings and activates the rational parts of her brain.

Part Five Follows . . .

Preschoolers Learning To Cope - Part Five
by: Annie Desantis

We often expect a lot from our kids, and when they have a meltdown it is hard to be patient and not have our own meltdown!

But remember even adults have trouble coping under pressure, or don't always react well when stressed or tired. Our kids have to learn all of that too, and their brain has to develop so they are able to cope when things don't go their way.

Give it time, be creative about having fun and interrupting or distracting the routine triggers, and most of all, find ways that you keep yourself feeling good when she has succumbed to a meltdown. Even if it means sticking earplugs in your ears and singing out loud to your iPod!

Let me know how you go!

Annie D:)

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