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Ask Dr. Meg: My Daughter Cries about EVERYTHING

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Meg! I just found your podcast and I love it, thank you!

I have a three-year-old daughter (my second, we have a 5, 3, 2  and a newborn). She is very emotional. It seems like she cries about everything from a loose ponytail to fights with her brother. She starts crying and quickly spirals out of control. I will say, “Can I rub your back?” And she will flail her arms and legs and yell, “No no!” and then three seconds later will say, “Mom I neeeeeeed a back rub!!!” The worst part is she is constantly asking for hugs in the middle of her tantrums – and I find myself refusing to hug her because she’s throwing a tantrum and quite frankly I don’t want to hug her at that moment. And when I look back I realize I just denied my child a hug! I find it really hard to let a child who is throwing a tantrum dictate the terms of what is going to happen…

I have tried: timeouts, ignoring the tantrums, trying to take deep breaths, making her say ‘I’m not going to cry about this’, etc. She is such a wonderful and strong little girl with a great imagination and is usually the one in charge of all the games and stories – but I can’t seem to find a way to help her get over crying about everything!

Help appreciated! Thanks!

– At a loss

Dear At a loss,

There are many young children (often girls) who are exquisitely sensitive and emotional. They cry easily, throw tantrums easily and are unpredictable. It’s like they are an emotional volcano ready to erupt at any moment. But because people (Moms usually!) stop what they’re doing and attend to their behaviors (I won’t call them needs, because they aren’t) kids become manipulative. That’s where your daughter has landed and by the way, that’s why you don’t want to hug her. You feel manipulated because you are.

She isn’t doing this by choice and this doesn’t mean she’s a troubled or bad child. This is just the way she’s wired. She will get much better as she matures but she may always be a child who cries easily and that’s OK.

Here are some things you can do to help her:

When she throws a fit, remove her from the room. Every time. She needs to go to her room or a place where she can have a meltdown but no one else (including you) needs to listen. If she goes to her room and cries, that’s OK. Eventually, she will realize that it is a waste of time and stop.

Don’t reason with her. She’s too young for you to talk her through this – that will come in a few years. When you reason with her, you frustrate her because she really doesn’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing.

Don’t overread her behavior. Sensitive, temper-tantrum throwing kids are hard. But know this – she WILL get better and more even-keeled. Your job is to say “well, that’s who she is” and not try to understand everything she does.

Don’t take her behavior personally. Many mothers subconsciously feel responsible for behavior like this and then they become emotionally tangled up. Stand back and recognize that this is just her, not you, and that our job as her mother is to help her not let her feelings and tantrums control her life.

Do set clear boundaries and rules when her tantrums erupt. This will make her feel safer. Kids like your daughter don’t do well with uncertain, wishy-washy parental responses, so be very predictable and matter-of-fact about her behavior.

When you do these five things over and over, year in and year out, she will calm down. Remember, behavior change in kids takes months or years. So be patient with yourself. Just because you don’t see change immediately, doesn’t mean your technique isn’t working. You just need to do it again and again.

And one more thing. Don’t let her get away with being the queen bee. She can’t be in charge of games, stories, etc. She doesn’t want that kind of power – so you need to step in.

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