Dealing with a toddler's morning tantrums

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Question: My wife and I have been having quite a struggle dressing our two-year-old daughter in the morning and getting her moving.

We're not sure if she's just simply not a morning person or if there's something we might be doing wrong.

It's not every day, but most days she starts flailing her arms and legs, screaming "no, no, no!" until the entire process is over. What can we do?

Answer: The age of two can be an infuriating mystery to many parents. You are delivered out of the sweetness of the baby days into the fraught ones of toddlerhood, only to be met with two-year-old tantrums that can bring you to your knees.

And it isn't the occurrence of the tantrums that vexes us (except that it does). For most parents, the "why" of the tantrums is illogical. Why is this child so upset? Why has this child turned violent? Why has my darling toddler turned so angry? Why is my child being so unreasonable? Why can't I stop this from happening? Measured, rational thought appears to have no effect on the child. So, what's left?

I always like to begin to make room in the parent-child relationship for something new to grow. Something good. So we need to stop doing what isn't working. Yes, you read that right. Stop the forcing, stop the talking, stop the threatening, stop the bribes and stop "the entire process" to which you refer in your letter.

I can feel your panic rising. "Meghan, there are deadlines, timelines and carpool lines. We have to be somewhere on time. And dressed."

I know.

But for a brief moment, let's suspend that.


You have the power to end your side of the morning struggle. The only person you can control is yourself, so let's work with that.

You know your child best, but the average two-year-old is an intense creature. Driven by deep impulses and emotions, rarely accessing logical thought and living in a tempting world that says only "no", the two-year-old is a walking mass of frustration.

Who are the people who handle that overflow of emotions on a daily basis? You, the parent.

But wait: What can have happened so early in the morning that a two-year-old would fight and flail straight from the bed? What then?

We are still working in frustration, but in a less obvious way.

Babies literally cannot survive without caregivers. From feeding to shelter to the all-important hugging and cuddling, babies are 100 per cent needy, and they are designed that way. Their neediness calls parents and others into the position of complete caretaker. This symbiotic relationship is beautiful and profound in its simplicity. The adults create the baby, the baby creates the parents. 

A two-year-old is still in deep need of her parents, but the dynamic is changing. While her instinct to mature and have her own voice is strong, her physical needs are also very strong.

Whether or not you did it consciously, the first thing you probably did when you picked up your daughter, as a baby, was cuddle her. You kissed her, smelled her, spoke gently to her and smiled at her. Every parent does something like this. It is the delicious attachment dance, and your child still needs this.

It is easy and normal for parents to allow our schedules to interrupt our relationships with our children. It happens all the time with marriages and friendships. The difference with children is that they let you know immediately when the relationship is not working for them.

Your schedule is not important to your two-year-old, and you cannot convince her otherwise. So what can you do?

You're going to go back to basics.

1. Make sure she is going to bed early and getting the sleep she needs. The average two-year-old is napping once or twice a day, and needs between 12 and 14 hours of sleep a day. Is your little one getting that?

2. Stop telling her, "We have to leave, we have to hurry, you need to wake up, you need to get dressed, you need to eat ... " or any statement similar to that. These statements don't work, and they also create a further divide in your relationship. No human likes to be directed, so we can let that go.

3. Spend the first 15 to 20 minutes of the morning connecting and cuddling. You know your daughter's "love language" the best, so what does she need? Snuggles in bed? Books? Cuddling on the couch? Tickling and giggling? Quiet connection? Whatever works for your child, do it first thing. Relationship, then routine.

4. Calmly move through your routine without too much talking. Distraction, strong leadership and organisation are the allies of routine: Distraction comes in the form of songs, silliness and talking about whatever she loves at that moment. Strong leadership means that the parent dictates the routine, the parent chooses the meals, the parent chooses the clothing and the parent owns the dynamic. When we offer too many choices, the child's brain goes into a tailspin. "Waffles or toast or cereal or fruit? Red shirt or blue shirt or pink shirt or yellow spotty shirt? Sandals or sneakers?" And organisation is a fairly self-evident but oft-overlooked need of every preschool parent; because mornings are a little rough right now, do everything you humanly can the night before. (Meals, clothing, coffeemaker ... everything.) It will not guarantee smooth sailing, but it will buy time and ease your mind.

5. Is it okay for the two-year-old to go to day care in pyjamas with some clothes for the day in a bag? Can you find some pyjamas that look like clothing? Can she sleep in the clothes that she will wear to school? Find some wiggle room in the rules and see whether that helps.

6. Finally, believe that this will pass. Believe it. Many will not admit to it openly, but at least 50 per cent of parenting is pure faith - in what you are trying to accomplish, that there will be an easier day, that you will figure it out, that the behaviour will improve, faith that you can find the strength to smile, hug and love through the hard times. This will pass.

Good luck!

Washington Post