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Toddler Tactic For Fussing

Any seasoned parent could tell you that a young child has many different cries.  Some of these cries express real needs—such as ‘I am hungry,’ ‘I have a dirty diaper,’ ‘I just need some lovin,’ ‘I am in pain,’ etc . . . It is very important for a parent to learn these types of cries, for until the child can speak, crying is the main form of communication.

However, not all cries are what I call worthy cries.  Worthy cries are the types I just wrote about. They communicate real needs. Unworthy cries are those types of cries that express wants that the parent has declined.

So, for example, my daughter (LydiaSue), who is 15 months old, loves to climb into the pots and pans cabinet. I, on the other hand, do not want her in there!  After spending valuable time washing the pans, pots, and corresponding lids, I really don’t like to see them covered in slobber and placed all over the dirt kitchen floor  (I can understand why this would not bother some of you, for it allows the child to ‘explore’.  Okay, it is your cabinet, pans, and time.).  Needless to say, when LydaSue wishes to climb into the cabinet and I simultaneously express my disapproval, she often burst into tears.

What to do?

In these situations, I know many of you end up giving into the child’s wants.  You might feel bad and authoritative, and not wishing to deprive your child of such an experience, you give in.  Or, perhaps you give in because some therapist (or some blog post :>) told you that by depriving your child in this way, you are stifling your child’s ability to express him or herself.  Or, perhaps you are just lazy and don’t want to ‘deal’ with it right now.  Whatever the reason might be, the child won, and you have just taught him or her that your no really means yes and your yes still means yes.  

While I no doubt fail often in my parenting, here is how I normally handle this situation:

I start all these situations with the following rule of life:  I am the parent. My word is the final word. I let my yes be yes and my no be no.

If there is a situation where I believe myself to be too harsh or I change my mind about what my child can do (for example, if I first say no to my son’s desire for a snack and then change my mind), I first make sure Alyas and/or LidaSue are completely calm.  This means no whinny voices, crying, fits, grumpy attitudes, etc.  (This is very important. Even when I want to give my child a good gift, if they come to me in a negative way, I first wait until they are calm.)   I then tell him or her (or both) that I have changed my mind and we move forward.

Yet, the vast majority of the time, I do not change my mind concerning my daughter wanting to climb into the cabinet or my son wanting to lock doors.  Often when I say no to a want, some form of unworthy crying or fitting begins.  These occasions, I believe, are great learning moments not only for my kids, but also for me.  I take a lot of joy in experimenting with different methods of discipline to see which one works most effectively. Since each kid is different emotionally, psychologically, and physically, different types of discipline are required to shape the child’s character.  My son needs a more authoritative presence than my daughter.

One of my favorite experiments, which has had tremendous successes, is what I call the ‘Cry Corner’.  Basically, when unworthy crying begins, I ask LydiaSue to go cry in her corner.  The corner is in her bedroom. She has to stand there by herself and throw a fit there.  Sometimes I will go with her to help her cry really loud. Thus, she will begin to cry and I’ll say, “Stop! You have to wait until you get to the cry corner,” to which I am already running to.  Once we get there, I tell her to really let it out.  Normally by this time, she is already laughing.

I used the same method with my son when he was younger.  For him, I told him he could only throw fits under the Kitchen table or if he was standing on one foot.  I would begin to hop on one foot and throwing a fake fit to demonstrate it to him.  He would then follow suit and begin to laugh or just stop crying.

The philosophy of this method is to bring humor into discipline while also training your son or daughter to control themselves.  If you use this method consistently, after a while you will begin to notice them being able to calm down on their own.  My daughter is now getting to the point where she will stop crying after I ask her to go to the corner.  Once she hears the words, she just calms down on her own.

Some of you might think this is just ‘timeout’, which it very well might be, but there are several differences. The first difference is my children can leave the corner when they choose to, though they have to be done crying.  Also, I am not really punishing them as such, but just isolating where they can throw fits.  I have noticed if I let them throw a fit in a room where no one can see them, they normally just stop crying and walk out ready to play.

One finial note, it is very important to understand your child’s different cries.  This method is not to be used if he or she is crying for real needs. All kids have ‘those days’ where it seems nothing works. More often than not, there is something really bothering them.  For example, I thought my daughter was crying unworthily last week, but after talking to my wife, we discovered her molars were coming in. So instead of the cry corner, LydiaSue received Advil and comfort.

In the end, though, the cry corner is really just trying to teach a child to control themselves. As Dr. Bing Wall once wrote to me, ‘It’s cute when they are 15 months.  It’s terror when they are 13 years.’

My wife and I have discovered that one of the best ways to discern real needs from wants is by teaching sign language to our kids. You will be amazed how many signs a young child can learn.  For example, I have taught my daughter to sign ‘milk’ (opening and closing a fist–see picture below), which allows for her to communicate to me her need without crying.  If you do this, you will be better able to judge a worthy cry from an unworthy cry.

Some great books and videos on sign language that my children have really benefited from (especially the two DVD videos below):


Brandon Wall is a Counselor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

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