Handling Hurricane Three-Year-Old

Thoughts on terrible twos and threes, emotional maturity, and why silencing a fit-throwing kid is not necessarily a parental success

My 3-year-old skipped out on terrible twos entirely and doubled up for terrible threes.  At first it was like, Oh, cool, here all this time I thought I’d given birth to a human but turns out it’s actually a monster. Neat.

Sometimes, initially, it seemed like he was sure, had a conviction in his bones, that he needed to be as unpleasant as possible for literally no reason. Maybe we’d be at the store or maybe we’d be at home playing with toy trucks or maybe we’d be on a playdate, and apparently out of nowhere, he was just done having fun and ready for something horrible. Commence epic fit-throwing.

His favorite go-to was throwing things. And that wasn’t even just a fit thing, he just liked throwing stuff in general. But when he was angry, there was a little more force behind it, and that, of course, is an issue. The day we were at Pomona lake sitting on the beach with my sister and mother and he threw a good-sized rock at my sister’s head is when I decided that I needed to reevaluate how I was handling his fits, starting with understanding the thought process (or maybe lack thereof) behind them.

So it looked like we’d be hanging out, and sometimes I’d have to decline his requests and he’d be pretty okay with it, and then suddenly it was just one “No” too many. It seemed like there was no reason for this switch-flip.

But there is a reason. There is always a reason. It’s hard to remember what that thought process is like, but those feelings don’t spontaneously manifest, not for kids or adults. Emotions are effects, not causes. A thought or event or statement or whatever stimulus is the cause. For kids and adults. Repeat: for kids and adults.

Because kids and adults are the same. We’re the same. We’re the same. We’re the same.

Understand? We’re the same.

You could look at it either way, that kids are just tiny adults or that adults are just huge kids, whatever, it doesn’t matter, we’re the same. Kids have nothing in life to prepare them for first experiences, and adults have all this prior experience and baggage to help sway their reactions one way or the other, but at our most fundamental level, we’re the same. Our psychology has to be handled differently for obvious reasons, but when it comes right down to it, we experience the same pool of emotions in reaction to a variety of circumstances, all of these things human emotions, because, again, we are the same. We are literally the same thing–we’re all differently sized humans.

I can’t stress that enough. This is crucial to understanding fits–and eventually making them easier on everyone, fit-throwing kid included. Your child is a human, just like you. Okay?

Okay. So, what are fits for, anyway? I can draw from only my very limited experience with kids. I’m the youngest of four, was never really around kids younger than me growing up, and have always avoided babysitting if possible. My only real experience with kids is my own. So, my answer is based on observing and talking to only one child.

Disclaimer out of the way, here’s what I can gather about why fits happen, based on my own son’s timeline. At some point in his very young life, kiddo started to recognize that he had emotions at all. Obviously he’d always had them, but he wasn’t necessarily aware of them until a certain point. Much like that moment when an infant is just a few weeks or months old and you get to watch that baby’s hand catch its eye for the first time, get to watch that kid’s face read like, “Oh. Wait, what? I control that thing?” Much that like moment, at some point that kid will notice that his anger feels different from pleasure, sadness different from happiness, and so on. But that kid does not have any prior experience with the world in general letting him know what’s a proper way to express his feelings, and besides which, depending on the kid, he may very simply not have the vocabulary necessary to explain what he feels. So we tell the kid not to stomp his feet or throw himself on the ground or launch his food across the room or slam doors or scream. Why do we tell him these things–why is he not allowed to do these things? Because none of those things are very effective or respectful ways to convey a feeling. Note that many adults still regularly and comfortably exhibit this behavior in angry moments (and see above comments regarding adults being huge children).

At the same time as the kid is developing his emotional awareness, he’s also becoming more aware of his environment. He watches people talk to each other, observes interactions–thereby witnessing firsthand people getting what they want via expressing their feelings. It could be as simple as two people in a room, one of them saying, “That’s too loud, could you turn it down?” and the other, therefore, turning down the TV a little bit. Whatever the case may be, all those other people have wants and needs and appear to get them met by saying what they want or need.

Beyond that, the kid also sees that those other, larger humans often get what they want or need without having to ask for it. How unjust! The kiddo in question usually cannot fulfill his own needs. Frustration may ensue.

And so, the child is now aware when he is angry, frustrated, annoyed, irritated, whatever. The kid may not have the words to express that he is feeling that way. He knows that other people find a way to express such emotions, and yield agreeable results by doing so–they are able to influence their environment, in some way, by saying what they feel. And he’s also pissed that he can’t just get what he wants by himself. Boom. Fit time. And I don’t know about you, but during my kiddo’s first big-time whale of a fit, which lasted nearly three hours, I had to reach this happy place, this totally detached-from-self, “floating about 30 feet above myself watching me and the kid from a distance” kind of state in order to even be able to think about what to do with the newly discovered monster-that-I-thought-was-child. At first I tried compromising as a means to just end it quickly and figure it out later, like, “Can we do [thing we need to do] now, and then [thing you want to do] later? Please?” Made it worse. I used a stern voice after that. Fit doubled then trebled. Tried putting him in timeout. Nuclear explosion. Well, fuck me, right?

Eventually he just stopped. He wore himself right the hell out and put himself in bed for a nap. I think that day I sort of just sat in a daze for the majority of his nap, realizing for the umpteenth time in his life just how woefully underprepared for parenthood I was.

But I saw it, and still see it, as a positive thing. I realize I may have just lost you there–bear with me, please.

Here’s the deal. I think the idea of emotional responsibility is disappearing in favor of either total stoicism or every-feeling-is-the-right-feeling-ism. I subscribe to neither of those things. Every person is entitled to feel anything–and in fact should allow himself to feel whatever’s there. Stifling or running away from an emotion only guarantees its later return times ten. (And, believe you me, I am a poster child for ignoring feelings until they’re monster-beasts ripping through my brain; this is something I’m working out for myself, too.) But that doesn’t mean that every emotion is valid. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should let your emotions determine your every move.

No one can one hundred percent decide what feeling he or she is going to feel. However, it is every person’s responsibility to decide what he or she will do with an emotion. That is no one else’s responsibility. And that’s partially why any variation of the phrase “I’m offended” goes in one ear and out the other for me. It’s like saying, “My reaction is entirely your responsibility.” No. It’s not.

So, a child throwing a fit tells me he’s up for feeling things. Good on ya, kiddo. A child throwing a fit also tells me he, of course, has no idea what to do with his feelings.

And when a child is in the midst of a real 10-on-the-Richter-scale frenzy, what you want to do is: anything that will make it stop. But does making a fit stop at any cost–whether that’s intimidation or compromise or giving in to the kid’s demands or letting him wear himself out–mean success?

Not really. I mean, not necessarily.

The idea is NOT getting the kid to stop expressing himself. The idea is to teach the kid to express himself effectively and respectfully. This is huge. If you scare the kid into silence, that teaches him that he is not allowed to feel. If you Authority the shit out of him, it may throw a kink in the whole moral compass thing (via teaching him that bad behavior is wrong only in the presence of authority–that wrong things are wrong only if you get caught. Again, more on that topic in a later post). If you give the kid what he wants, that teaches him to abuse his right to express what he feels–basically, to be an emotional bully. If you figure out how to teach him to recognize and then express what he’s feeling and talk it out, then he gets a pretty good foundation for how to handle his emotions maturely as he grows.

So what I did and do with my kiddo is certainly not a one-for-all solution. Every kid is different, because every human is different (remember: we’re all the same), and humans learn in different ways. But here’s what I figured out works for Eli.

Basically, when I saw a fit coming (or when the fit just came on, if I didn’t catch warning signs), I would not humor bad behavior with any attention at all. I wouldn’t leave him alone entirely, mind you–I’d still be in the room. But I wouldn’t give him any negative or positive attention, show him in any way that I noticed his screaming/throwing/crying/etc. at all. That cut the big loud part short. It’s just no fun without an audience. Then once he’d cut the shenanigans, I’d sit him on my lap, cheek-to-cheek, facing the same direction (as in, “We’re seeing the world the same way, not having a confrontation.” I don’t know if that makes any difference, but I did it that way anyway), and we’d talk. And in order to help him learn to put words to his feelings, a Q&A would ensue, my asking him, “Are you mad? frustrated? upset? irritated? annoyed?” and so on until he’d staunchly nod his head yes to one of those. And most of the time, that was it. I mean, he just needed to have his emotion acknowledged in some way, just needed to hear me say, “Okay, you’re upset, I hear you,” and then he’d be fine. Same as how we call our friends to vent sometimes, not really wanting a solution. Just to have someone else hear and acknowledge that there’s some shit. And in cases when acknowledgement wasn’t enough (and even in most cases anyway), he just wanted an explanation. Why did I want him to take a nap? Why does he have to brush his teeth? Why do I make him wear socks with shoes (for some reason he hated socks for like six months)? And again, that’s a totally fair, human expectation for someone who doesn’t get to have a say in what happens in his life, has almost no control over his day-to-day, to get an explanation as to why someone else gets to decide everything for him. Same as adults do. We need reasons.

It took a loooooong-ass time, but now the interrogation almost never has to happen. He just says what he feels. “Sigh. I’m frustrated.” Or whatever. Nuclear explosion fits: almost nonexistent. I mean, to be clear, he’s still the son of Crankenstein when he’s tired or hungry, but we haven’t had a major meltdown for quite a while now. He still gets to express himself, and I don’t miss the huff-and-puff-and-blow-the-house-down fits. And I am aware that figuring out how to end or reduce fits via teaching him about emotions and expression is just step one to teaching him about emotional maturity, but, being an apparent emotional 5-year-old myself, I don’t know about any of that yet. I guess I’ll write another post about that much later once we get there.

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2 Responses to Handling Hurricane Three-Year-Old

  1. finneyfer says:

    My Eli (2 1/2 y/o) hasn’t had a full-blown meltdown like you describe yet, but he’s becoming very aggressive lately. At pre-school, at home, it’s like he doesn’t know how to handle his frustration or anger or even playing. I haven’t thought about it like this. I’ll have to start working on helping him identify why he’s acting the way he is. Not just punishing his bad behavior. Thanks for the insight.

    • rkimbrou says:

      Boy oh boy, it’s tricky business, but it’s definitely possible to find a way to help him handle frustration (and maintain some level of sanity in the meantime🙂 ). Best of luck, and thanks for reading!

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