Why all the tantrums?

I have a four-year-old and 18-month-old daughters. My husband and I both work full time. Lately it seems the four-year-old has tantrums about everything. She cries about taking a bath, which pj's to wear, what to wear in the mornings, etc. I feel like I'm doing something wrong but I don't know what. She has always been a very independent child. Any tips or suggestions?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your daughter may be reacting to a change in her life that she is unable to express. Talk with her caregiver. Find out if anything has changed in her life away from you.

If nothing has changed in her life, and no traumatic event has taken place, her tantrums may indicate a need for greater quality time with you and her father. Perhaps her sister has reached an age in which she feels in competition for the attention that is available in the family.

Consult your pediatrician for a thorough physical examination. Barring any physical problem, your daughter's "falling apart" behavior suggests she needs more emotional support at this time. Your experience of her independence may have caused you to overlook the ways in which she needs to depend on you. Schedule one-on-one time with her. Let her know these times with you and with her Daddy will come up predictably. If she feels she has special time to look forward to with you and with her father once a week, she will soon be able to experience herself as special.

Every child needs to feel unique. Sometimes dual work schedules do not make room for children's needs for individual time with each parent. Particularly when a second child is added to the family, an older sibling can feel the effects of the "squeeze" because the undiluted attention they used to receive no longer happens spontaneously.

Make an increased effort to reflect and understand her feelings rather than "fix" any negative expressions. Your daughter will feel your empathy when you respond to a crying spell by mirroring her feelings when they occur: For example, "... You are frustrated...yes that shoe is hard to tie..". Sometimes our lives become so scheduled and hectic that we forget to slow down enough to make room for feelings. Reflecting your child's "negative" feelings will soothe her. She will feel understood. And she will learn inner patience from your patient treatment. (Refer to my article "What is "good enough" parenting?".)

Do not expect your daughter's behavior to change at once. She will need to experience the pleasure of your time commitment to her a few times before she will be able to rely on it. But each time it occurs, she will build her internal sense of security and self-esteem. Like a drooping plant, regular watering should bring her back! If this is not the case, and her tantrums continue to escalate, consult a child therapist for an evaluation.

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