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The Terrible Twos, or Mom Just Sucks?

Sarah Preston Gorenstein

I was talking to someone recently who told me his daughter, who’s now eight, never went through the Terrible Twos. She was a colicky baby for the first four months of her life, then, he says, it was smooth sailing from there. I had a really hard time believing him, because although I’ve publicly and unabashedly gushed on this blog and to anyone who will listen that I have The Perfect Child, and he was also The Perfect Baby (and I still believe this to be true), he is most definitely going through the Terrible Twos right now, and has been for a few months (he officially turns two on August 29). The tantrums have not only increased in their frequency, they’ve increased in their intensity. There are moments during these tantrums when my own child is almost unrecognizable to me…

Jay and I will look at each other in amazement when, as we put it, he’s been possessed by the devil. A couple of weeks ago Preston had a tantrum so epic it lasted about an hour and a half—we were so taken aback, we looked at each other and said aloud, “What the [bleep] is wrong with this kid?” (Notice, we said, This kid, not our kid.) And no amount of consoling works when he’s in the midst of a tantrum like this. None of our usual tactics (“Yo Gabba Gabba,” veggie booty, apple juice, cookies, a bottle…) work any more. In fact, he uses these baits against us when we try them. If we attempt to console him with a sippy cup of apple juice he’ll take that sippy cup and throw it across the room. Then he’ll cry for the sippy cup, as if we’re withholding it from him. (Huh?) Then we’ll go get it and give it back to him, and he’ll grab it from us furiously with an evil look in his eye, and whip it across the room again. Good times at the Gorensteins lately.

We figured out pretty quickly that giving into these crazy acts of random outrageous behavior isn’t helping. But it makes him even angrier when we don’t give in so it’s a lose-lose either way. The kind of tantrums I’m talking about can be brought on by me saying no to something, or him just being over-tired or crabby from teething (he has four big teeth coming in at the same time). These tantrums are of the slithering on the floor, hysterical crying, screaming at the top of his insanely powerful lungs, and I’m-about-to-hurt-myself or anyone-who-gets-in-my-way variety. Put it this way: They’re freaking scary.

On Saturday he had three separate meltdowns, and three separate “time outs,” before the clock struck 10 a.m. We had a great day planned, to spend it at my best friend’s house in the ‘burbs and go swimming, but before we could even get out of the house I had to deal with the devil all morning (he’s been waking up early for him lately, around 7-7:30 a.m., and he wakes up screaming, “Mom? Mommy? Mommy! MOMMMMM-EEEEEEE!!!!!”).

The first tantrum started because I wouldn’t let him use my toothbrush, after he had already brushed his teeth three times with three different toothbrushes. Preston’s newest obsession, by the way, is—yup—brushing his teeth. I know what you’re thinking: “Your kid loves brushing his teeth, and you’re complaining about it!?” Of course I know there are worse things for a kid to be obsessed with doing, but this fetish with brushing his teeth means every time he sees a toothbrush he will whine, scream, cry and eventually throw a fit until he gets it in his mouth. I don’t think swapping toothbrushes, even with his parents, is the most hygienic thing in the world for us to let him do. Our toothbrushes are in plain view in our bathroom (which we’ll be changing tonight), so he knows exactly where they are, and routinely goes into our bathroom and demands them. All of them.

We thought this was funny and cute at first: “Oh, honey, look what great parents we are—he likes brushing his teeth!” Now it’s a bit of a problem, because he will not leave our bathroom until he gets to every toothbrush, then insists on running around the house with one in his mouth (can you say choking hazard?). For some reason my husband and I have more toothbrushes than we need, so we have like four out at a time (this, too, will be changing). And Preston has had every one of them in his little, drooling mouth. Plus, he has about four of his own toothbrushes that I’ve planted in every bathroom. But he still wants OURS. I’ve even gotten him adult-sized toothbrushes that look EXACTLY like ours, but noooo. He wants ours.

So on Saturday I put my foot down after the third teeth cleaning when he was screaming for my toothbrush, and he freaked the hell out when I said, “We’re done brushing our teeth, Preston, let’s get ready to go bye-bye car.” I had been trying to get us ready to leave the house for an hour, and I lost my patience and had to physically remove him from my bathroom. In a huff he angrily crawled away over to his play area and began throwing every toy he could immediately get his hands on, all over the darn place. By the time I reached him, his den and the adjacent kitchen was a total disaster. I told him he had to pick up all the toys he was throwing. “We don’t throw our toys, Preston,” I said sternly, and I warned him he would go in a “time out” if he didn’t pick them all up. He must’ve heard me say the opposite because he started throwing the heavier wooden toys that could actually make a dent in our beautiful hardwood floors.

So in a time out he went…which only served to feed the beast inside him more. I did manage to take everything out of his crib before he had a chance to throw it on the floor when I put him in there for a time out. (I think that only angered him more though.) It only got worse from there… After about a minute or two I went in to console him (he was still crying during this whole dramatic episode), and I tried to talk to him, calmly, and explain that we don’t throw and we don’t hit (which he’s also been doing lately). I asked him to say sorry for throwing his toys—I got what seemed like a sincere “sowwwy” and a hug—and I thought we were in the clear.


My husband took on the task of feeding him breakfast before we left, while I finished packing us up, and that ended with Preston dumping his whole plate of food on the floor. We turned the corner back to Time Out Road and Tantrum Street. I don’t even remember now what the third meltdown was about, but it doesn’t really matter… It was by some miracle we ever made it out of the house on Saturday. And shockingly? The rest of the day was great, starting from the minute we exited the house. We were even able to nap him it at my friend’s house, so we could stay and hang out and have dinner together (a couple hours of swimming is the best way to wipe a kid out).

I have my own theories about why he’s been having these epic tantrums lately. 1) I’ve been working more than usual the last couple of months, both at the office and doing more freelance writing, and thusly not around as much. I was out of town last weekend for work, and returned to some pretty major changes at my company, which have had a pretty big impact on me personally. So when I am home at night, lately, I’m distracted by work and exhausted to the point of barely being present for him, even when I’m technically there. 2) We’ve had some personal stuff going on as well, which has also affected me and my ability to be as physically active with him at night/on weekends. 3) Bottom line is, he’s getting older and I’m working harder. He knows I’m not around during the week, and he wants his Mommy—all. the. time. He’s been much more vocal about that, and I explain every morning that “Mommy has to go to work,” which he understands but isn’t all too happy about. His needs are increasing at the same time that my professional life has grown more complicated and demanding. Those things do not jive very well.

Unfortunately I can’t change 2 out of 3 of those things. What I can change, or what has to change, is how I act when I am able to be home. I need to find a way to have more energy (and patience), and go back to compartmentalizing my professional and personal lives. I used to be a lot better at this, but when things got more complicated it got harder to separate everything out. No one ever said being a parent—or a working parent—was going to be easy. I know we’ll get through this rough patch, but of course I worry that I’m not doing my best as a mom for my child. I’m a working parent, that’s who I am, but I need to find a way to not let the most important job I have slip—and that’s being Preston’s mom.

I take his outbursts too personally, as you can see. One reason is, he doesn’t seem to have them as much when I’m not around. All last weekend when I was out of town—not a single tantrum. And our nanny says he’s never acted like that with her—though she’s experienced a taste of the hitting (which he usually saves for us). That one really kills me—I don’t know where he learned it, but it’s been a tough one to deal with. He doesn’t hit hard—it’s more like he’s hitting for our attention and reaction, so I’m trying not to give him one, but my natural instinct is to get upset with him for doing it, and put him in a time out. Hitting is something that will never be tolerated in our house.

How do you deal with the Terrible Twos? Do you use “time outs”? Do they work? How do you discipline a two-year-old? I carry this huge amount of guilt for having my own stuff going on, while he’s going through this big transition, and I wonder if I’m handling everything the right way. I know I need to have more patience, and not take it so personally, but sometimes it feels like some of his bad behaviors are simply because he needs more of his Mommy.