My father recently remarked, “You are good at taking care of your daughter’s physical needs, but have neglected her emotional needs.” He was saying this on the back of witnessing a series of big tantrums my nearly 3 ½ year old started having. Reflecting on this, I realize there is truth to his statement. All my mothering energies up till now from infancy to toddlerhood had been focused on three main things: that my daughter had enough to eat, enough to sleep and adequate physical ca
re in terms of bathing, clothing and diaper changing. Up till young toddlerhood, my child was also quite transparent emotionally and honest. She would usually let us know quickly if she was unhappy, tired or hurt with a physical ailment and you could then take action to alleviate it. So in a sense I never had or felt I needed to properly consider my daughter’s emotional needs.
Now that she is over 3 years of age though, it seems that my toddler girl is no longer as ‘simple’ and easy to figure out anymore. For one, she is telling lies more frequently, so it is more difficult to take her at her word. She is also throwing more tantrums and having more BIG serious meltdowns (sometimes lasting 1-2 hours at a stretch). While I attributed the big meltdowns initially to her growing independence and the ‘terrible twos’ and ‘horrible threes’ period, a few recent experiences showed me that more was lying beneath the surface.
This transition from needing to shift attention from physical to emotional care sort of snuck up on us as an unexpected revelation with her recent change to a different preschool. In the week leading up to her first day of school, we not only experienced one or two night wakings, but also huge tantrums and crying fits. It was over very simple things like her not wanting to change out of her pajamas in the morning, having the window blinds opened or refusing to pull up her pants after going to the potty. Once (this may have been the day before her first day of school), she got upset that the blinds were opened and the night light turned off in the morning. However, the moment I tried to close the window blinds again and turn the nightlight back on, she seemed to get more upset and demand that the blinds be opened again. Neither action pleased her. As she descended into a meltdown, we attempted to calm her down and then closed the bedroom door to let her have time to “cry it out.” However she continued to scream and scream. The most incredible thing is that the moment I left the room and closed the door, she would beseech me loudly to come back in. But once I came in she would push at me and scream demanding that I leave the room. My husband said that she was demonstrating something called “ambivalent attachment” where she was both needing but also angry at the caregiver. On one occasion, after an hour or two of such a tantrum, my husband managed to calm her down and distract her with toys and a stuffed animal. On another occasion, I managed to get her to calm down by counting out loud to a hundred with me using my fingers. My father, who witnessed all this, was just as befuddled by her behavior, but suggested that the child might be afraid of school, especially since the month prior she had been behaving pretty much like a ”little angel”.
So a day or two prior to her big day at school, I asked her during bedtime if she was afraid of school. She said, “Yes!” Her school jitters was something that never occurred to us, as she had always seemed to show that she was excited about beginning school again (after a 2 month break) and taking the school bus to and fro. Prior to this, she had been in another preschool for 2 years and dearly loved her teachers, the friends and the environment. I guess we just didn’t realize that she was not as brave or fearless as we thought, and that she needed more emotional support to get through this. So then I decided to take the following steps: I prayed with her regarding her fears of school, and then told her that I would be there at the school when she arrived in the school bus, to speak to the teacher and see her for a little bit before heading home. On the morning of the ‘big’ day, I gave her a special morning snack and presented her with a pre-prepared small bible verse card as a gift. I had decorated it with small red construction paper hearts (each heart representing someone in the family who loved her very much) and inside wrote the Bible verse about perfect love (i.e., God’s love) casting out all fear. She was delighted to have that card as a gift and held onto it the whole 3 hours of preschool that first day. Then I made sure that I was at home when the school bus came around, so that I could greet her when she got off the bus. The next day, she still kept the little white card near her in a pocket, but did not feel she needed to hold on to it tightly. By the 3rd day, she felt she could leave the card at home. However, after the following weekend and subsequent long holiday break that followed, she again threw a tantrum or two, and protested about going to school in the morning when we tried to get her ready. It was not until about 3 weeks later, that she really began to feel more comfortable in school and had started to make some friends. Now when I ask her if she is afraid of school, she would tell me she was only a little bit afraid or no longer afraid of it. The tantrums and meltdowns have obviously not disappeared, but they have substantially decreased…subsiding just as mysteriously as they came.
My conclusion? A three year old is more sensitive and emotional than you think! Perhaps like an onion, they grow developmental ‘layers’ over time, so more time is needed to peel back and figure out the source or cause of the emotions and tantrums. I know of another friend sharing about her son (who was 3 or 4 years old at the time) becoming very upset one afternoon and refusing to take a nap. Then after the son had calmed down, and was able to articulate his emotions, it turned out he was upset they were going on a family trip and leaving the family cat at home. It appears that part of the reason for tantrums and meltdowns may be that older toddlers are experiencing more complex emotions, have difficulty in controlling their emotions and may feel frustration at not being able to articulate themselves clearly.
On the one hand, it is definitely easier now physically as my daughter has learnt many aspects of self-care, such as brushing her own teeth, putting on her clothes, buttoning jackets, and going to the potty by herself. But emotionally it is more challenging for both her and us as parents. In some sense, the journey of motherhood has gotten that much harder, as it’s much easier and simpler to only focus on potty training, skills like shoe lace tying and preventing the child from falling sick, rather than on lying and emotional outbursts. In your case, this shift in focus may need to come earlier than at 3 years of age, depending on the emotional and developmental stage of your child, but one worth being aware of that this may happen!