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Sharing a mood — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011Sharing a mood — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Why is it that when I’m feeling crummy my 2-year-old is at his worst?

Not Fair

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Dear Not Fair,

Developmentally speaking, a 2-year-old is still extremely dependent on his caregiver. Think of how many things he can’t yet do for himself – get dressed, pour juice, tell time, drive the car, pay bills etc. Without you, he couldn’t be sure of getting his needs met. These needs include: food, comfort, and intellectual stimulation to build such developing skills as communication and problem solving. You provide a safe space in which he can learn as well as the emotional security of knowing that he is paramount in your priorities. In other words, he counts on you for so much every day.

Because of this, he pays close attention to how you are operating (mood, attentiveness, speed, accuracy) in order to know what to expect, then he behaves accordingly.

Let’s suppose you usually pour him a cup of juice with a smile and without spilling a drop. He only has to sweetly ask, “Mommy, juice?” to get his thirst satisfied. On a bad day your movements and voice are more agitated or sluggish or both. Over a bad couple of days, you may have run out of juice (literally and figuratively!). Your attention to him is out of sync — interrupting his play rather than waiting for it to come to a natural pause before switching activities, or paying no attention to him at all for more than an hour. Observing the signs of a “crummy” mood tips him off that it may be harder to get his needs met through you today. So his natural reaction to sensing that you will be more difficult to operate is to exaggerate an expression of neediness. “Mah-ah-ah-MEE! JOOOOOSE!” as he bangs the empty sippy cup on the wall. Alternatively, he may decide to bypass you altogether and try to help himself to the juice. Crash – sploosh.

The trick to keeping your child sweet when you are feeling sour is to have a quick talk with yourself — remind yourself that he is so little, and be a big girl. Get him his juice. Then figure out what you can reasonably do to improve your sour disposition.

Keep a mental list of quick fixes for yourself as well as easy ways to meet his needs when you are not operating at 100 percent. For example, have music you love that you can pipe in to elevate the atmosphere. Whatever music makes you feel good will likely have a positive effect on your child, too. Brew a cup of tea or prepare an easy “comfort food” to cure your temporary blues. Mind you, this is a quick fix. e’ll talk about hazardous emotional attachments to food another time. Find something you are looking forward to – later today, or in a day or two – and focus on it. This is something adults can do, but not so easy for children, to get through difficult situations.

For your son’s rough patches, work from a list of things that are quick and easy to put him in a more pleasant mood. Calming or uplifting activities could include: reading a favorite picture book together, mashing play dough at the kitchen table, taking a warm bubble bath, taking a stroller walk, or watching a half hour video. Just as with comfort food, be careful not to overdo the screen time. It’s a nice “safety” for when you’ve run out of creative ideas and energy, but shouldn’t become a steady companion for him. Maybe what you both need is to take yourselves somewhere where other little ones and their grown-ups are having a nice time – a park, the children’s section of the library, or the children’s museum.

How’s your support network? The stay-at-home parent job has no sick days. It’s not your son’s responsibility to play nicely until you feel more like taking care of him. Do you have friends, neighbors, or relatives who could be called upon when all you really need to do to improve your mood is a good three-hour nap?

To paraphrase the flight attendant admonition: please fix your mood first, then you can better take care of the needs of others.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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