It’s Not All Mary Poppins

My baby is ANGRY with me!

Poppy is happily snuggled in her mother’s arms, on her way home at the end of the day. Mummy settles Poppy’s hat on her head. Poppy instantly rips it off and tosses it to the floor.

“Hey, silly girl!” her mummy laughs as she takes the hat I’ve scooped and handed back. “It’s raining out there. You need that hat!” She pops it back on again.

Poppy’s yowl is loud and outraged. The hat is flung again.

“Poppy!” Her mother’s face is a mixture of displeasure and confusion, her voice dismayed and scolding. “What gets into you?”

More outraged howls. Poppy’s shoves at her mother’s hand with the hat, and howls ever louder. She does NOT want to wear that thing, dammit!

Mum stops trying to put the hat on and peers dubiously at the steady downpour hammering the sidewalk. “Well, okay then. I guess we’ll just have to make a run for it.” She turns to me. “I don’t know what gets into her! She used to be so cheerful! Now she just gets so … mad!”

Parents are often surprised by their child’s first displays of rebellion disobedience independence. Though it’s expressed via rebellion and disobedience, what you’re seeing here is independence. Independence, expressed in the most primitive, unsophisticated manner possible, of course — “NO!!! AH! Shove! Flail! Struggle! Scream!” — but independence all the same. More than surprised, parents are blind-sided by it. Blind-sided and left struggling for an appropriate response.

It took me a while to register the surprise. The struggle for a response was reasonable enough. This is a new behaviour. Your previously charming and biddable 10-month-old or 12-month-old is morphing into a strong-willed, defiant, uncooperative 14- or 16- or 18-month-old. You’ll have to develop new types of responses, a different set of patterns, and that can be difficult. But surprise? I wasn’t expecting parents to be surprised by this. We all know that kids develop that push for independence and autonomy in their second year of life. We know this. Right?

Now I’ve noticed the parental surprise, though, I see it a lot. It’s not that these people didn’t know about ‘terrible twos’. Of course they did. They just naively thought that their sweet, mild-mannered, cheerful, cooperative kid was going to be the exception to that rule. Because there are mild-mannered two-year-olds out there. (No, really. There are. I’ve met a few. They’re just thin on the ground, is all.)

After all, not all babies are sweet and easy. Since their child has always been so sweet and easy, why wouldn’t they continue this way?

Well, because it’s developmentally standard to have a period of negativity, is why. Normal.

But still, a goodly portion of my clients are utterly blind-sided the first time their child shrieks in indignation, the first time their placid little dumpling screams and shoves because their madly controlling parents are attempting to rob them of their independence, thwart their will, demean and belittle them by trying to do something to them, something that MUST BE RESISTED AT ALL COSTS, something so terrible

something horrible!…
like…
like…
oh…
change their diaper.

Change their diaper. Which has only happened 800 times already in the child’s life. 800 non-eventful times. Perhaps even 800 fun-filled times. But no! Suddenly, diapers are EVIL and people who want to change them are MEAN and I AM NOT GOING TO COOPERATE WITH THIS ONE TEENY BIT HOW DARE YOU?????

Yes.

The surprised parents respond in a couple of typical ways. They either take it too seriously, or they don’t take it seriously enough. (I know. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Parenting can feel like that some days.)

Those who take the outrage too seriously tend to back off, appease, coax, negotiate. Poppy’s mother falls into this camp. Poppy resisted attempts to put the hat on, even though it’s in Poppy’s best interests that the hat stay on in the pouring rain, and mummy back down. Mummy is creating problems for herself here, but I sympathize with her confusion. Her baby is just so ANGRY!

Those who don’t take it seriously enough see it as a cute l’il stage, and assure themselves that “she’ll get over it, it’s just a matter of time”. They’re not distressed so much as amused, but the result is the same: They back down. It is a stage, true, and she will pass through it to other developmental stages, but if parents do nothing to help her learn better responses, the strategies for conflict she’s learning now will become entrenched. Tantrums, anger, rigid inflexibility and utter disregard for other’s needs will become the way she deals with conflict.

Not a pretty picture.

The best parental response to baby’s anger is the middle road: take it seriously enough to act on it, but take it lightly enough that you can laugh at it.

You take the anger seriously because this sort of behaviour is not something you want to become entrenched. “When I throw a fit, mummy backs down” is NOT the life lesson you want to teach your child! It’s a terrible precedent, and will ensure years of family stress and strife. She needs to learn consideration, that others have needs, too. She needs to learn that parents do have authority. Parents need to exercise some healthy selfishness.

However, you don’t take the anger so seriously that you feel guilty for thwarting your child. Poppy was insisting on going bare-headed into the pouring rain. Should mom feel guilty because she shoves a hat on her head and tells her it has to stay, and holds it there if need be? Or, alternately, feel guilty when she chooses to let Poppy get uncomfortably wet so as to learn from experience? (Short answer: No. Duh.)

But parents, particularly mothers, do feel this guilt! They feel guilt because their child is angry. Have you ever stopped to consider how foolish that is? Who has control over another person’s emotions? No one controls emotions but the person experiencing them. And since when are emotions necessarily rational, sensible, or fair?

Or, equally foolishly, some parents even begin to wonder about their parenting in the face of this rage. “Maybe I’m damaging our relationship! He needs to be able to trust me!” Oh, for heaven’s sakes. The child is less than two, and throwing a complete fit because she doesn’t want to wear a hat in the pouring rain. It’s totally normal that the child have absolutely no sense of perspective on this… but surely the parent can manage? Your entire relationship is going down the tubes because when she was 16 months old you made her wear a hat in the rain?

Seriously?

How about this? You expect that your child is going to get angry with you. Outrageously, spitting angry — over silly things. It’s developmentally normal. You see the anger, but you don’t take it personally. They’re not angry with you so much as with what they see as an infringement on their autonomy. (Not that they’re sophisticated enough to make that distinction… but YOU are.) You see the anger, but you don’t fret much over it. You might even laugh at them, just a little. Because it’s normal.

Just because it’s normal, however, doesn’t make it acceptable. So, you see the anger and you take action. In this example, Poppy’s mother could have plonked the hat on her head, and held it there. She could attempt to explain while she did this (but it’s likely Poppy wouldn’t be particularly open to chat just then), or she could just restate her position: “Hat stays on. ON.” And then held it while they headed outside, utterly ignoring Poppy’s attempts to rip it off. Poppy thereby learns that when mummy says something, she means it. She learns that her anger is ineffective. And maybe she learns that hats keep your head warm and dry. (Though I doubt that last one.)

Or, Poppy’s mother could have held the hat in her hand, pointed out the window to the rain, and explained. “It is raining outside. It is very wet. Really wet. If you don’t wear a hat, you will get wet. Do you want to get wet? Or do you want to wear your hat?” And then let Poppy make the decision.

When it’s her choice, Poppy just might decide to wear it. It’s been known to happen! But if she decides not to wear it, Mum respects that choice. No coaxing. No trying to get her to change her mind. So Poppy goes outside without the hat, and gets soaked. Maybe that will bother her, in which case, Mum can explain why we wear hats in the rain. Maybe it won’t bother her, in which case… oh, well. Kid’s not going to perish because she got wet on the way to the bike trailer.

And Poppy learns that some choices are hers to make. Some choices are bad ones, and you learn from them.

The point is that you don’t focus on the anger. The anger is a distractor. It is not the issue. What we want to stay focussed on is “Will she wear the hat?” Whether or not she ends up wearing the damned thing, you need to ensure that the anger is not effective.

You can certainly address the anger, but briefly. “You’re angry. Boy, are you angry! It’s okay to be angry, but you may NOT hit mummy.” And then you move on. Emotions, as they say, are never right or wrong. It’s what you do with them that matters. She can be angry … but she can’t hit, she can learn to lower her voice, and she certainly can’t use her anger to bully those around her.

Anger is not the point. Don’t get caught up in it. Address it, then move on to deal with the real issue. Eventually she will learn that screaming and flailing are not effective techniques, and they will be dropped from the repertoire.

Cave in to the rage … and it’ll be around for a long, long time.

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November 15, 2011 - Posted by | Developmental stuff, parenting, parents | , , , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. I wish I could think of a way to give this to all of my clients without insulting them. Because OMG THIS. So many times – especially at pick up when the children who are delightful and obedient all day suddenly morph into whining, kicking, complaining bundles of rage – I see the parents back down in a panic because they think their job as a parent is to make sure their child is never upset.

    Comment by Hannah | November 15, 2011 | Reply

  2. Some thoughts on why this happens and sympathy for the parents.

    1. The “terrible twos” seem to start a heck of a lot earlier than the second birthday. I was expecting the terrible twos, but not at 16-18 months! For a first time parent, this is often a genuine surprise.

    2. Parents, especially mothers, most likely feel guilty for being away from their children in order to work during the day. We probably shouldn’t feel guilty, particularly when our work puts bread on the table and a roof over everyone’s head, but “they” sure tell us that we ought to feel the guilt and feel it we do. This societal norm makes parents more vulnerable than normal at pick-up. If my child is cheerful and comes running into my arms for a big hug, then surely having someone else care for them during the day wasn’t such a big sin after all. If they are angry or sad when I pick them up, there is a lot of cultural baggage telling moms that this is our fault. On good days we can ignore that baggage, but no one has a good day every day.

    3. It is way, way easier to manage your child’s difficult emotions at home when you’ve had a chance to decompress from the day, maybe have a cup of tea and a bite to eat, and no one is watching you. When you just want to get home already and other adults are watching you, it might be easier in the short run to give in to whatever the child is fussing about. Perhaps not a good strategy in the long run, but after a hard day at work, I’m not always able to focus on the long run.

    Finally, Mary, have you read the book The Happiest Toddler on the Block? We found the techniques in there almost magically useful for our first born and I’d be curious what you think of them. They did not work so well for our second born, but that’s kids for you.

    Comment by Sarah | November 15, 2011 | Reply

    • A thoughtful comment and a perspective I need to be reminded of sometimes. Thank you. 🙂

      Comment by Hannah | November 15, 2011 | Reply

  3. I love this post, and I love the comments!
    I’ve found that the more precocious and intelligent a child is, the younger the “terrible twos” behavior tends to start. That is sometimes comforting to parents as well. Oh, my kid is doing this earlier than typical because they are SO SMART. 🙂

    Comment by daycaregirl | November 17, 2011 | Reply

  4. Great post! Should be on a lot of refrigerators.

    As for the hat, I generally go with option three: I announce cheerfully, “Ok. Then mommy will wear the hat because mommy doesn’t want to get wet!” and plop it on top of my head. Little Miss Independent will generally howl indignity and demand her right to wear it. And if she doesn’t, well, she gets wet. Luckily she won’t melt.

    Ha! I love it. The curveball is so often very effective, if you can think of one. This is perfect, getting her to DEMAND to do what she’d been resisting only seconds before. And no, they don’t melt.

    Comment by ewe_are_here | November 18, 2011 | Reply


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