Since Annie was a month or so old, her life and ours have been getting nothing but better. She has a regular schedule and manageable routine, and she’s become consistently more capable and fun. There could be rose-colored glasses here, but it’s really seemed like every development has been a good one. Oh, now she dances! Now she puts books back ON the shelf! Now she’s kissing things!
Until a few weeks ago. Now, she’s lost her emotional equilibrium. Her mood swings from joy to rage in a moment. One minute she is happily marching around, holding our fingers, the next she has collapsed in despair, folded herself in half and pressed her face to the floor, wailing. We laughed at her in the car last weekend, when—prevented from her usual collapse by the 5-point carseat harness—she executed her despair-fold by pulling her feet up to her face.
We have explained this new behavior variously as:
- She’s growing molars.
- She’s getting sick.
- She’s in a new place with unfamiliar people.
- She’s hungry/tired/having a bad day.
And all those things might be true. But a few weeks in, I’m afraid the real explanation is that she’s just becoming a toddler. Her development has reached a point where she is excited by her new capabilities but aware of her limitations. She knows enough about her surroundings to recognize when they displease her. She feels her feelings intensely but doesn’t know what to do about them. Or as Bryan put it, ”She is dealing with some heavy shit. Her whole world is coming online. She doesn’t always like what she sees.”
Toddlers tend to live on an emotional seesaw with anxiety and tears on one end and frustration and tantrums on the other. Their feelings, positive and negative, are as powerful at this age as they will ever be, and they often seem even stronger because they are so very new. — Penelope Leach, Your Baby and Child
The big question for us, of course, is what to do about this. How should we react when our previously-peaceful baby, who would while away a happy hour in her high chair, carefully pinchering tiny nubs of feta cheese and kale from her tray, humming with delight, suddenly has a grand mal meltdown the moment you sit her down for dinner? Do we:
- Grit our teeth and force her to endure the high chair for some arbitrary length of time?
- Employ radical empathy, honoring her concerns and trying to address them?
- Tell her to grow up and stop whining?
- Try to distract her with a parade of new options and things she likes?
- Chuckle ruefully and chill out until it passes?
I know that other parents have made every one of these choices, and everyone has survived and turned out fine in the end. But “in the end” is feeling awfully far away. We need more immediate feedback. We want to make the choice that helps her be the calmest, happiest 2-year-old she can be. So we’re feeling our way. In our best moments, we do stay calm and casual, but acknowledge her feelings and frustration and try to articulate them for her, so that one day she’ll be able to articulate them for herself. We’ve tried to set reasonable requirements we know she’s capable of meeting, like, you must eat dinner with us for at least 10 minutes (so we have a decent shot at our food, too), but you don’t need to stay there for 30 if you’re hating life. I don’t know if this is right, if we’re striking the proper balance between rules and responsiveness, but it’s the best we’ve got at the moment. What we’re trying not to do is draw worrisome conclusions about her personality and future. She’s fragile! She has trouble coping with new things! She’s not resilient! She has no GRIT! Because, again, TODDLER.
By the second year of baby-word, moms and dads are evolving, too. They have begun switching from cooing caregivers and glorified playmates to rule-breathing, hair-pulling, count-to-10-before-you-yell parents. — John Medina, Brain Rules for Baby
I think we’re there. And thank goodness for friends and family and others who have gone before us down this crazy path, and can show us the way.