January 14, 2014

Misty Watson: Behaving like a 2-year-old

Misty Watson

— You don’t want to get near me when I’m hungry.

I turn into a mix of a Tasmanian devil, a grizzly bear and a hyena.

Same for when I’m super tired. Oh, yeah, and when I’m in pain. Or when I’m lonely or mad.

So I try to keep in mind the same would be true for my 2-year-old, Sophie. Except with Sophie, she hasn’t learned how to communicate those big feelings she’s having to me. Cue meltdown!

There’s a website, www.reasonsmysoniscrying.com. It’s exactly what it sounds like. I can relate to some of those posts.

There are tears when Sophie wants to put her shoes on herself, then tears because I’m not helping her put on her shoes. There are tears because I hand her the “toast, butter on it” that she asked for. “NOOO! No toast, butter on it.”

I take a deep breath and tell myself it’s completely normal. It’s as normal for toddlers to have a meltdown as it is for adults to get frustrated, causing them to swear, throw something, slam something down and yell.

My mantra: “She’s not giving me a hard time. She’s having a hard time.” I don’t know who coined the phrase, but I’m glad that person did. Sophie’s sole purpose isn’t to drive me insane, though it feels that way at times.

I remind myself not to expect my 2-year-old to behave better than me when she’s in pain, needs to potty, hungry, angry, lonely or tired. If I’m allowed to throw myself on my bed and pound my fists into my mattress while screaming into my pillow, why isn’t she? (Everyone does that about twice a week, right?)

I find it’s common for parents, me included, to forget and hold our children to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.

How many times do we come home, snap at our spouse because they haven’t taken out the trash? Then later apologize and say, “I’m sorry I snapped. I was just so tired and hungry when I got home. And I was mad about stupid drivers who insist on going 45 mph in the left-hand lane of the four-lane from the bypass all the way to Duvall Road.”

But then when our toddlers snap we don’t say, “They’re having a hard day and they can’t even communicate efficiently yet to tell me what’s wrong. What can I do to help them through this rough period?”

There’s a great tool out there to help us identify our child’s needs. It’s called pHALT, which is an acronym for potty/pain, hungry, angry, lonely and tired. It’s a checklist to run through to determine why a toddler — or an adult — might be acting out. Acting out is an indicator something isn’t quite right, not an indicator your child is a brat.

Here’s an example of how to use it: After work you hurry to pick up your daughter from the sitter, then run to the grocery store. But your daughter just isn’t cooperating. She buckles her legs when you try to put her in the car seat. She goes limp when you stand her in the parking lot and hold her hand. She refuses to walk. So then you pick her up to carry her and she pushes away from you.

It is ever so tempting to snap, “Quit acting like that,” threaten punishment and/or enforce some kind of punishment.

If you’re using pHALT instead, you would start the checklist by asking, “Do you need to potty?” “Are you in pain?” “Are you hungry?” She nods. Then you figure out she hasn’t eaten in three hours. You pull out a granola bar from your purse. After a few bites, she’s your sweet little girl again, and you go through the grocery store without further incident.

It’s not spoiling a child to meet his or her needs. It is not rewarding bad behavior to feed a hungry child, to stop what you’re doing to play a game with a child who is feeling lonely or to hug a child who is angry.

I have been using pHALT, telling Sophie what she’s feeling and how to respond appropriately for several months now. “You are mad because I won’t let you lick the bathtub. It’s OK to be mad. I’m not going to let you kick me. Would you like to kick a pillow until you feel better?”

She comes to tell us when she’s ready for bed in the evenings because so many times we’ve said, “You are tired. It’s making you not feel well. We need to rest when we’re tired.”

For me, parenting isn’t about forcing our children to fit a certain happy-all-the-time mold. It’s about teaching them how to handle the bad times as well as the good and guiding them to make wise choices.

No, Sophie’s not perfect. We still have our meltdowns and frustrations, and we always will.

And you may very well see me in the grocery store, doctor’s office or a restaurant one day with a screaming 2-year-old. And I may very well be visibly frustrated.

If you do, will you pass us a granola bar? We might just both be hungry.

Murray County native Misty Watson is a staff writer and photographer for The Daily Citizen. You can contact her at mistywatson@daltoncitizen.com, facebook.com/MistyWatsonDCN or on Twitter, @mistydwatson.