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Whining, Tantrums in almost-2 year old -- Does she just need to cry?

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My daughter is almost 2. She is an only child and I am a SAHM. She gets plenty of attention and is way ahead in all her development. I don't pressure her to do well, but I definitely encourage her when she wants- no stress. Lately however, naps and bed time have become huge challenges! I usually end up giving up, and letting her sleep in mommy's bed so we can get some sleep!

On top of that, she also chews and picks at her nails. She throws tantrums at the smallest things, and is also very whiny and clingy as well she has also regressed on her potty training- she was 98% done (exception is long car rides and naps, bed time trained tho!) now she gets mad if I even say the word.

I don't understand whats going on! I feel like a bad mom when she throws a fit and I either don't know why, cant stop it, or help her calm down. Could there be a development issue causing this?

Frustrated Mom


Dear Mom,
Your daughter is, of course, about to be two, and many experts would tell you that her age could definitely be causing her to tantrum and be whiny. But I have found that when kids tantrum all the time, as you say she does, there is usually something else going on. And I hear that she is anxious -- she chews and picks her nails. 

So what could be making her anxious? She may well feel pressured about toilet learning, since this is a bit early. And when you say you don't pressure her to "do well" I'm not sure what you mean. Doing well for a child who is almost two means they enjoy exploring and experiencing. So if she feels any pressure to demonstrate her skills or learning, that could make her anxious. So please do pay attention to your own attitude to be sure that your investment in her being precocious doesn't make her feel pressured.

Presuming that's not it,  here's the deeper issue that I'm hypothesizing might be going on with your daughter. This is not something that you hear about much, so bear with me.

Little ones are sensitive. They have huge reactions to things that seem like no big deal to us, like whether they get the red cup or the blue cup. And they are totally tuned in to us, so if we are the least bit curt with them, they worry. If they turn around and can't see us, they panic. They have big feelings, and they need to express them. Only when their emotions are expressed and empathized with can they let them go and move on.

That means babies and toddlers often need to cry. Of course, they need to do this in the protection of our arms (or at least our full attention, if they're tantrumming so they can't be held), not all by themselves in a crib. They need to let all those bad feelings out and feel our empathy and understanding. They need to know that we love them completely and unconditionally, bad feelings and all.

They learn from this that they might not always get what they want, but they get something better --someone who loves all of them, yucky feelings and all. They learn that they're more than good enough, exactly as they are. This message is the foundation of all emotional health for our children.

But what happens when we think their crying or tantrumming is a reflection on us-- that we're bad moms if we can't prevent it, or at least calm them down (as is very common, and as you have said happens to you)?

Often, we then do whatever we can to distract them. We give them the message that the expression of their "negative" feelings isn't ok. Sometimes we feed them and they learn to overeat to control their feelings. Sometimes we get angry at them, or leave them alone to cry, which teaches them that if they want to be loved, they have to "stuff" their yucky feelings.

What happens then? The feelings don't go away, they get stuffed. They seep out around the edges, in crankiness, clinginess, lots of nursing or sucking on pacifiers, rebelliousness, anxiety. That anxiety causes many little ones to begin using repetitive habits to zone out and dissociate from their pent-up feelings, like nail biting, hair twirling and rocking.

So here's my prescription for your daughter: Give her a chance to really cry, any time she needs to. Hold her and offer her comfort when she cries, but don't try to get her to stop crying. Instead, let her fully express her distress, and let her know you understand (even if you don't know what caused her meltdown).

While your daughter is crying, welcome it. She's not "throwing a fit." She's showing you all her pent-up feelings. Don't DO anything except hold her and listen to what she's "telling" you. If she won't let you hold her, just stay close. Breathe, stay calm and remind yourself and her that everyone needs to cry sometimes. Speak soothingly and tell her you're there, she's safe.

Anyone who has ever been lovingly held and allowed to cry deeply can attest to the relief and peacefulness that follow having a "good cry." Afterwards, your daughter may fall asleep, or want to cuddle. Either way, your connection with her will be strengthened, and I suspect you will see a big change in her behavior. She will sleep better, be more cheerful, be less rebellious, and may well stop biting her nails.

I want to add that it really is fine for her to sleep in your bed at this age. If you don't want her there for some reason, though, you're giving her contradictory messages if you "give in" when she protests being put to sleep in her own bed. That trains her that there's nothing stopping her from sleeping with you, as long as she's willing to fight with you about it. If you want some ideas about teaching her to sleep by herself, check out my article on how to teach toddlers to put themselves to sleep.

If that sounds like too much work right now (and you do have to be ready to do it), then just let her sleep in your bed until you're ready to start the process.

Finally, about toilet training: I would leave it up to her. If she doesn't want to use the potty, who cares? Let her wear diapers, or pull-ups, if she's already in them. Fights about her body are fights you can never win. Since she was already almost trained, it will take her about one day once she's ready. But she has to want to.

All blessings.

Dr Laura. Thank you very much for your reply. What you say makes a TON of sense. I know the feeling of just crying to someone you love and trust and the calmness it brings afterwords. My daughter seeking that sounds completely reasonable and sane! I am definitely going to try the"cry in my arms" technique and see where that gets me. I worry a lot about her mental state- probably because mine has always been wobbly. I will remember to stay calm and let her cry to me, talk to me, whine to me when shes having an emotional "break down". Thanks for all your advice and deep thought!

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