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Using Humor to Help Calm Your Toddler

Humorist Mark Twain once remarked, “One of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it.” He very well could have been referring to the temperament of a three-year-old.

Parenting a preschooler is much like dressing for spring in New England. One day you’re wearing galoshes and a rain slicker, and the next you’re in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. Mostly, you travel through April wearing a ghastly combination of sweaters and sandals, ready for whatever the day may bring.

And so it is with the mercurial nature of a three-year-old, and my daughter Grace is no exception. One moment she wants to snuggle on the rocker with me, and the next she’s hitting me and screeching, “Leave me alone; I want my privacy.” She asks me why a hundred times a day and then throws a tantrum if I offer her advice on holding a paintbrush.

In the middle of her second year, Grace threw her first tantrum. All the classic techniques worked for these early tantrums – offering choices, counting to three, and giving time-outs. After months of using these strategies, Grace started to outgrow her terrible two-ness, and we entered a period of bliss.

But as quickly as it had begun, the bliss ended, leading us to what I call the tumultuous threes. The burst in Grace’s ability to imagine, converse, and move was stunning, but she also became negative, stubborn, and obviously immune to the discipline techniques I used when she was two. During timeouts, she’d just tap her toes and hum a catchy tune. When I threatened to take away a toy, she would happily choose one for me: “Here Mom, take my Little People’s Castle.” Nothing was working, especially giving her a choice between two actions or items. This had worked wonders when she was two because she liked the sense of control it gave her.

But the first time I tried to use the “choice method” when she was three, it backfired. “Grace,” I said, in the middle of a bedtime battle of wills, “do you want to wear short- or long-sleeve jammies? She screeched “Nudding! I want Nnnnnnudding!” It was like she had grabbed my bag of tricks and dumped it in the trash. After the pajama incident, every time I offered her a choice as a way to calm a tense situation, the answer was the same: “Nudding!” We started calling these her Nothing Fits. But there was nothing funny about them; they were taxing, lengthy, and frequent. And nudding was working to prevent them.

One day during a lunchtime struggle, I naively asked Grace if she wanted peanut butter instead of grilled cheese. When she began her I want nudding spiel, I was completely exasperated. I wasn’t intending on using humor to dissipate the tantrum, but I was at my wit’s end, and being witty seemed like the thing to do. I reached out my hand and offered her an imaginary bowl of nothing, saying, “Here you go, here’s your nothing!” She stopped her fit immediately. Bewildered, she took it and pretended to eat it. I was floored! It was as if she had stolen my Kindle and read Tina Fey’s number one rule for improvisation: Never deny anything your improv partner is telling you or handing to you – even if it’s an imaginary bowl of piping hot nothing.

I think there are two reasons why my improvised strategy worked that day. First off, Grace was stunned by the non sequitur of my handing her a bowl of nothing versus what she expected me to say. She was probably thinking, “Hey! Wait a minute! In this sketch, I scream nudding and then my mother’s says, Grace! Stop that now or you’re getting a time-out.” My unexpected actions disarmed her and melted her disagreeability. The second reason it worked is due to the fact that I appealed to her sense of humor; she appreciated the inconsistency and ridiculousness of my actions. It’s just so much fun to be involved in something so silly – especially with your mother, who is usually trying to get you to do something other than what you want to do.

Now as soon Grace bellows her sweet nuddings she smirks and offers her hands to take it, even if the fit is non-food related. We’ve even added to the routine by discussing the temperature and amount of “nothing” she wants. She usually wants a little bit of warm nothing.

Unfortunately, Grace also throws what we call her Yes/No fits. She’ll spin into a frenzy over what seems like the most minor offense. She once threw a 40-minute fit because I vacuumed up a 2-inch piece of blue tinsel from her wishing wand. Tears streamed down her face, and she cried for me to hold her. When I tried to pick her up, she screamed, “No! Don’t hold me.” On it went, and a pattern emerged: “Hold me! Don’t hold me.” “I want to do it myself! No! I want you to help me” with lots of tears and banging of limbs and things.

Not long after our first improv session, I decided to use humor to break the momentum of her Yes/No fits. One morning, when I put the coffee grinder on myself instead of letting her do it, she burst into tears and started kicking the cabinet. I calmly asked, “Grace, how long is this fit going to last? Ten minutes or an hour?” She stopped what she was doing, looked at me confused and befuddled and actually answered, “Twenty minutes.” I continued: “Will there be a lot of tears or a little?” The concept of choosing the parameters of her tantrum seemed to please her; she also realized that we were involved in a version of the imaginary bowl of nothing. “Um: a little tears,” she answered. She started to calm down, and after a few more questions and answers, she was fully fit-free.

Prior to using these strategies, I hadn’t researched using humor as a discipline approach. Like most parents, I just kept trying different methods until something worked. I was thrilled that Grace’s tantrums were lessening in intensity and number, but I really didn’t know why it was working.

Comedian and comedy writer Steve Macone believes that these two types of humor – the incongruous and the absurd – work well with children “because they have a jarring effect of temporarily altering the child’s reality.” Macone, whose humor has appeared in The Onion and The New Yorker, says, “You would never turn to a three-year-old and start doing political satire because that type of humor calls for a hyper-focusing on the subject. When a child is melting down for no reason other than the fact that it’s Tuesday, you need a smoke bomb” moving from hyper-focusing to chaos. A parent doesn’t need to be a stand-up comedian to break the spell of a tantrum, only the capacity and openness to suspend reality and render himself or herself quite ridiculous.

Along with his witty opinions on the weather, Mark Twain once said, “The minute (humor) crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” He very well could have been referring to the environment for which parents of preschoolers yearn, which can be achieved with just a touch of humor.

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