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Our daughter is almost a year old. By our and everyone else's who's met her impressions, she is a wonderful and easy baby who is developing ahead of schedule.

This morning, when she and I were out, she got cranky (was tired) and I couldn't soothe her with calm words or snack or drink. Since we needed to get home sooner than later, I firmly and calmly told her to stop fussing and we will be home soon. She calmed down. When we got home, I settled her to a nap.

I am curious, though, at what age and how is best to attend to fussing when there is a need to get going and soothing words or a snack isn't addressing things? Could this be viewed as a tantrum?

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For the most part, at any age, telling a child to "not fuss" or "stop crying" is both ineffective and (in my opinion) inappropriate. Children cry, fuss, throw a tantrum, or do any number of other things that we associate together as "crying" for a number of different reasons, but it's important to understand that they are always coming from the child's emotions, and those emotions are valid emotions even if they're not actions we want to encourage, and even if they are from a tantrum for reasons like "wanting a cookie" or "not wanting to go to bed".

Children have two major problems that lead to crying: they have very little control over their environment, their actions, indeed their life; and they have a limited emotional vocabulary to describe the problems they are having.

The lack of control is something that is unavoidable - after all, a one year old can't be expected to make good choices related to, well, much of anything, and even an older child won't have the capacity to understand long-term consequences of their actions - and thus we must limit their freedoms. Some parents do that in a minimalist way (such as myself), allowing their children as broad of freedom as possible while enforcing basic limits, but even then we still must require them to go to school, go to bed on time, have limited screentime, and not eat dessert for dinner. Many parents prefer to proscribe their children's choices even further.

These limits are frustrating for children, and oftentimes, tantrums are their way of exerting control over those limits. When that occurs, it is not appropriate to tell the child their frustration doesn't matter - or not to be frustrated; instead, we should follow a fairly simple script.

  1. Give the child space to process and calm down. Let them know that the limit you are enforcing is still there, but you're going to pause things until they are able to calmly discuss it. Don't tell them to calm down - nobody likes that! - just let them know that when they are calm, you can discuss things.
  2. Tell them why the limit is there, and why it's important. Give them that long term context that they don't have. Reinforce that it's not to hurt or punish them, it's because it's necessary for their long-term or short-term development or safety or - whatever.
  3. Make sure they know that their needs - whether it's to eat a piece of candy, to run around outside, to play a game, or to read a book - are important, and that they will be able to do that - just not right now. Kids often fail to understand that now is not forever.

Children cry because they want to be heard - and they don't know how else to be. Telling them that you do hear them, and not just telling them that but showing them, is the most important reaction you can have to a child's outburst. Oftentimes letting them have their say will be enough!

Now, of course, you've got a minimally verbal one year old, so this is only somewhat helpful - right now. But that's not to say you can't practice this, and she will be helped by it; if nothing else, the calming sound of you voice will help. You can also give her some vocabulary here - tell her how you think she's feeling, why she's upset, so that she can learn how to describe it when she's older.

You also say "a need to get going" - this is the bane of parenting, and something I struggle with mightily, with much older children. The best lesson you can learn as a parent is that being a few minutes late is not the end of the world, and often your stress to get somewhere on time will make things like this 1000% worse. Try to build in some time any time you do have a schedule, but if you don't - let the child have the time they need. That's not to say that you shouldn't remind them of the schedule and that you need to leave, but when it's causing them directly stress - take your foot off the gas and let them breathe. You'll get there sooner if you do.

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  • Great answer, well said.
    – Mazaryk
    Mar 21 at 19:04
  • I would say that while being a few minutes is not the end of the world literally, metaphorically it can be close. So in general if, for whatever reason, being late by a couple of minutes COULD be the end of the world, make sure you start out at a point where you will have plenty of extra time.
    – DRF
    Apr 29 at 12:02
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A one year old is a bit too small for tantrums, that's not for another 6 months at least. In addition to Joe's answer I'd also add that it takes practice for a child to learn to control their emotions. This age, and even up to the age of 3 or 4, children simply don't have the experience or ability to do so. In fact, this entire period of the next few years is their opportunity to familiarize themselves with emotions, what they are called, what they feel like, and the appropriate, healthy way to cope with them.

These are the techniques I've used with my daughter to help her:

  1. Firstly, ensure any other needs are met. Are they cold, did they get hurt, do they need a nappy change. Sort these things out.
  2. Name the emotion.
    "Aw, I can see you're frustrated because you can't have a cookie. I'm sorry you can't have one now"
  3. Agree with them.
    "I wish I could give you a cookie! But I'm sorry the rule is that you have to have dinner first "
  4. Recognize their emotions are OK.
    "It's OK to be frustrated! That's OK, I love you even when you are frustrated". I don't tell her to calm down or expect her to. It is unrealistic to expect for her age.
  5. Be there for them.
    Offer them a hug and comfort and be available to ensure they are safe and don't hurt themselves while they are upset. I have a mandatory 20-second squish that I force (heh) on my toddler now that she's at the mean-flailing-hitting-terrible-twos phase. I will leave her to her flailing after squishing her for 20 seconds. It helps her relax, she gets some love from mama and it seems to work even if she objects the entire time.
  6. Let them be responsible for being upset.
    If you do you best to be sure they have their needs met, and they are still cranky that day, it's not your fault! Don't take their emotions personally.
  7. Still do what you need to do.
    I generally don't change my schedule for a screaming toddler. If she doesn't want to read before bed because she's busy having a tantrum, that's no problem. I'll read maybe one book and go through the routine as usual, drowned out by the screams. Do your best to not let her impede your usual life or routine as much as possible. (Remember, it can take several years for a child to figure out how to control themselves! You can't put your life on hold for all that time, you'll get nothing done!)

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