What a clinical psychologist wants you to know about kids who "act out."
"I don't want you to talk to me!" Luna, my just-turned-4-year-old, screamed as she walked out of the living room, slamming the door behind her. "I need some space!" I'd just told her she would need to eat her breakfast before consuming that day's advent calendar chocolate, unleashing the first mega-tantrum of the morning in the process.
From that point on, there were several more outbursts: when her 2-year-old sister (apparently) used the wrong spoon to eat her own cereal, when our puppy nibbled on a toy hammer, when I requested that she get her rain boots on because it was pouring outside, and when I gave her a sippy cup instead of a drinking accouterment without a lid. You know, the "grown-up" kind.
In moments like these, I ask myself a very specific question. It's a question that often keeps me on-edge through the day and sleepless at night. It's one I am certain my close friend, who has a daughter of a similar age, asks herself regularly, too. It's a question we ask ourselves when we are together, watching our daughters play, fight, scream, cry, and play again, all in the space of 15 minutes.
Am I raising a little jerk?
As parents and carers, we might logically understand that phrases like "terrible twos" and "threenagers" exist for a reason, but it can still be really difficult to feel like the tantrums and inconsolable fits of tears are even remotely "typical." For some of us, it's also really difficult not to blame our parenting abilities.
If my daughter is miserable and angry for large portions of the day, surely it's on her dad and me, right? Are we coddling her too much? Or, maybe not enough? Are we showering her younger sister with more attention, leaving her feeling left out? Are we watching the wrong things on TV? Has Netflix ruined my kid? Should we have banned electronic toys (I knew that singing teacup was a bad idea)? Is she mirroring our own personalities? Are we angry people? Is my kid just a jerk?
Asking ourselves these questions is quite natural, even if it's also misguided. As mothers, there's an element of guilt that seems particularly inescapable, no matter what choices we make. Still, it's important to keep remembering that all of these "terrible" behaviors are actually part of normal, healthy child development. It's important to remember that we're doing the best we can.
Dr. Daniel Weisberg, clinical psychologist, founder, and Managing Director of CAYP Psychology (specialists in psychological assessment, intervention, and support for children, adolescents, and young people), tells Motherly that "defiance, noise-making, and a regular use of the word 'no'" are all to be expected of toddlers. "We also see many shifts in emotion, mood, and behavior, and this can seem quite extreme, come from nowhere, or seem really disproportionate to the situation (e.g., a huge emotional meltdown because the blue plate is dirty)."
He adds that the sheer existence of terminology like "terrible twos" and "threenagers" suggests just how common these behaviors truly are. "At this age, children's brains continue to mature quickly, and their development becomes rather exponential. This development is just the beginning of the growing and learning process, which means that there is a large variation in a toddler's levels of ability."
"For example, toddlers may understand what is being asked of them, but they may still have very limited expressive language skills," he adds. "They may feel very comfortable around guests in their home, but extremely shy and reserved in public. Or, they may want to eat food without an adult's help, but be unable to get any food onto a spoon."
There are certainly points at which the "typical" instances of "acting out" become atypical, though. Dr. Weisberg explains that the threshold may be crossed "when it becomes a lot harder to explain the behavior by an immaturity in skills. For example, when you see bullying, stealing, lying, or an apathy (lack of emotion)."
These can be warning signs of "callous unemotional" traits in older children, characterized by limited empathy and a lack of guilt. Keeping an eye out for high levels of anxiety is also crucial. If a child is extremely "fearful or avoidant of other children, adults, or places," there may be more going on beneath the surface.
In such instances, Dr. Weisberg believes a parent's best next step is to speak with a professional, be it a general pediatrician or a clinical psychologist.
In most typical cases, however, he notes that positive reinforcement tops the list for getting through these difficult stages. "Praising your child for eating half a fish finger is so much more powerful than criticizing them for not eating the other two and a half," he explains. "It teaches children that you approve of their eating and their behavior around food. Whereas, if you criticize the lack of eating, you're ignoring many positive aspects (they may be sitting still, they may be using a fork really nicely, they may be trying new textures)."
The same would be true of "a toddler who is very 'reactive' (i.e. hypersensitive and easily alarmed/tentative in new situations), and is now faced with visiting a new place," Dr. Weisberg adds. "The toddler may react in a clingy and tearful way. Under these circumstances, this is a typical and healthy reaction, which could easily be misinterpreted as 'terrible twos.'"
"A parent may respond by saying, 'Don't be silly,' 'come on,' or 'why are you scared?' Rather than taking this approach, which can be invalidating, a parent can hold the toddler, calmly show empathy ('I understand,' 'it's scary being in a new place, isn't it?') and state that they are 'in a new place, but it's safe.' A parent could then sit with the toddler and allow them to slowly observe the surroundings, and not force them to move. Eventually, the toddler will tentatively leave to explore."
There will likely continue to be moments when the jerk-like traits seem to dominate the environment, of course. I know there are days when I try to think back to what we've done, played, or explored but cannot remember anything apart from the meltdown at the grocery store, the parking lot, the forest, and/or the kitchen.
In other moments, however, I can remember that all of these challenging times exist alongside some pretty remarkable ones. My daughter might be rude, mean, or defiant sometimes, but she can also be immensely sweet, warm, and kind. She is full of unsolicited acts of affection. She skips gleefully on woodland walks. Sometimes she is overtaken by laughter that seems to last for hours. She dances like no one is watching and is so funny and curious that I sometimes cannot comprehend how I could've made this thing.
Luna has a lot of really big feelings right now: some good, some not so good. At the end of the day, though, I'm glad my kid can feel things so strongly. In the middle of a tantrum (when I am surrounded by toys, cushions, and blankets that my small human has thrown around), I shall try to remember that although the challenging moments sometimes feel a lot louder, the immense beauty and joy within that kid are actually just as loud.
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