When Mikko was nearing two, we noticed an increase in his frustration levels and a corresponding increase in his dramatic responses to those frustrations. Were they tantrums? Maybe sorta. I didn't feel like labeling them, particularly since I had yet to see the stereotypical movie kind where the kid flings himself on his stomach and kicks his legs about. Mikko used to fling himself on his back. Much different.
(Just after writing this post, Alrik flung himself face down — onto a mattress, smart kid — for a good scream fest. I was so impressed.)
Mikko has always been what we might delicately call "dramatic." Or intense. Or, as his Grandma so gently puts it, he has so much personality. Or, as parenting author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka titled her kindhearted book on the subject, he's spirited.
I've written before, a bit shamefacedly, about how we failed to live up to the Yequana ideal of baby as floppy rag doll as espoused in The Continuum Concept. We've equally failed to live up to the pinnacle of Attachment Parenting success, which often comes across as a formula: Wearing your baby + Cosleeping + Breastfeeding + Responding promptly = Happy, easygoing baby. I hear many a proud and happy AP mama claim that her baby is so low-key because of the way said baby was treated as an infant ("My baby never cries because I always respond," etc.). Maybe it's true — maybe those babies would have been perfect hellions if treated conventionally. Maybe my Mikko would have been more "dramatic" if we had done conventional parenting. Frankly, I think there's truth in both those statements.
But, a lot of it is just personality, as I've had amply demonstrated to me by my second child. See, he is the AP poster child. He's always been easygoing and independent — just snuggly enough so you feel special, but brave and outgoing enough to go off to play in new environments. Now, as that child has passed the two-year mark, he's asserting more and more his resolve to do it himself. Only? Sometimes a two-year-old can't open the car door without some help, or button his shirt, or get the lid off a jar — and, boy, does that frustrate him! And he expresses that frustration vocally and volubly.
I still hesitate to use the term "tantrum," because it suggests being unreasonable and irrational in one's demands — whiffs of being spoiled, or bratty. Whereas I think two-year-old expressions of frustration are not unreasonable at all, even if their goals are a little bit, at this point.
I think it's more unreasonable for parents to think that two-year-olds shouldn't express that frustration with the world. I've become aware of parents starting to "discipline" their toddlers around this age, and I don't see the point (don't get me started on the Supernanny's naughty step), but I think I might understand the origins.
Mikko's background as an intense baby and then his slower-than-average verbal development turned out to be united blessings in disguise. As Mikko transitioned more into the age where everything can spark off a flare of temper, Sam and I had the history of seeing him get angry about everything and anything in his short life so far. First it was birth — boy, was he mad about that! Then it was the colostrum — not flowing fast enough, thank you very much. The nurses were dismayed at how much he screamed his first night — and so was I! Then it was peeing, whether in a diaper or a potty. He hated the sensation of peeing; he hated being held over a potty; he hated being in a wet diaper; he hated having his diaper changed. We couldn't win! We did, however, get used to it, such that we had to reassure a friend that, no, he did not have a urinary tract infection; that was how he always reacted to a wet diaper.
When your little newborn gets angry, you can't attach blame to your baby for his reactions. You might blame yourself (I know I fell prey to that sometimes), but clearly your week-old infant isn't screaming just to get your goat. I think that's fairly well accepted now, even in mainstream circles, despite the continuing cry-it-out trend. Most parenting experts on all sides agree that babies that young don't have the developmental wherewithal to be manipulating you yet and that you should respond appropriately. Now, I'm not saying every parent follows this advice (still), but I think it's now a no-duh precept.
It's when the babies get older and start interacting that you start hearing parents ascribe adult motives to innocent behavior.
"He looked right at me while he put his finger on the outlet."
"She smiled after she knocked over my plant."
Looking right at you, of course = defiance. Smiling in this case = evil genius plotting world destruction with glee.
When, of course, looking right at you actually = checking for your reaction, and smiling = trying to connect by choosing a response to see if it's appropriate, while looking at you for your reaction!
But I think it gets even worse once babies can talk. Because, now, hoo boy, they must be all growed up and understand everything.
And so you get parents who interpret tantrums not as understandable frustration with not being able to make the world work the way these burgeoning young things want it to, but as intentional and adversarial misbehavior, of crossing a line that (I believe) they didn't know was there to be crossed.
So I'm glad we had our first experience of two years old with pre-verbal Mikko. And I'm glad that Alrik's been such a sweet baby that I just instinctively know he's not breaking down because he wants to, but because he's simply overwhelmed. It keeps me humbly considering Alrik still to be a baby and not a malicious mastermind. He must not know that taking all my makeup out of the drawer might be not just an exploration of color and texture but an inconvenience for me, or that pouring his drink on the sofa might not be just a fun experiment in liquids and gravity but an unholy mess for me to clean. Now that Mikko's six, I've had ample opportunities to witness continuing experiments in self-actualization, and I've tried to hold onto that perspective.
Of course, I'm allowed as the parent to step in and state truth and guidance. With a two-year-old, I can say, "Hey, I need all that makeup to go right back in the drawer, thanks!" and make a game of it, or say, "I'm sorry, but this door's too heavy for you — I'm going to have to open it" and then either distract him or hold him through the tears.
With a six-year-old, I can talk with him to find out what his intentions were when he did something — sometimes he can (or will) verbalize it, and sometimes not; when he does, I'm almost always reminded that there was no basis of ill intent. Even so, I can tell him when something he says or does hurts my feelings or someone else's, I can put a stop to behavior that would hurt himself or someone else, and I can continue growing up and learning how to stop my buttons from being pushed. (Tantrums aren't just for kids, y'all.)
I'm sad when parents assume bad intentions from children, mostly because of the loss of connection there. For the pre-verbal set in a tantruming state, move somewhere quiet, redirect, distract, soothe, comfort, reset. For the older set, add in asking for motivations, but — not too much, particularly not while they're still upset. I think even older children — even much older children, even adults — do just as well to be held and accepted as they are, particularly in the middle of an emotional storm.
I'm assuming as my children grow (and based on my own drama as a teenager), there will come times when they're intentionally lashing out at me, and they really are doing something they were told not to while gazing at me to make sure I see. I'm hoping even in those moments that I can look beyond the behavior and see the child longing for connection. That sweet, dramatic baby's still in there somewhere, and they're still learning to navigate this big world.