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Balancing Act

Some better ways to cope with toddler's tantrums

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

November 17, 2013

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The universe (or one of my co-workers) was sending me a message when a book titled "Say This, Not That" landed on my desk.

Subtitled "A Foolproof Guide to Effective Interpersonal Communication" (Tarcher/Penguin), the book is written by psychotherapist Carl Alasko and doesn't arrive in stores until January. But in a bit of fortuitous timing, I got an advance proof.

I call the timing fortuitous because it coincides with my son, Will, entering that phase of age 4 that leaves you wondering if someone slipped you a hallucinogen.

"I'm thirsty."

Here's some orange juice, sweetie.

"I'M NOT THIRSTY! I HATE ORANGE JUICE! TAKE IT AWAY!"

I thought … didn't you just …

A lot of thoughts are left dangling during this phase, since the aggrieved child's yelling rarely subsides long enough for the adult's formation of a complete sentence.

It's fine. The experts say it's normal, something about a newfound awareness of how little power he wields, mixed with an intense desire to become a superhero, compounded by the daily disappointment of waking up, yet again, not a superhero.

Still, I welcome any and all tips on communicating with my young Bobby Knight.

"Each two-page scene will demonstrate the difference between words that will start another conflict that pushes you further away from happiness, or help create a successful interaction that leads to more intimacy," Alasko writes.

I searched for the two-page scene wherein the 4-year-old berates the 39-year-old for suggesting he wear socks. Not there. But I did stumble upon the truest words ever strung together in the name of parenting advice:

"Parenting's most constant task is to resist yielding to the first emotion that surfaces." (Don't act like your child, in other words.)

This is stunningly good, clear guidance. It also takes a lot of options off the table.

It prevents you, for example, from sending your children to live with your sister-in-law until they turn 19. It also prevents you from yelling back with equal fervor, which won't, after all, lead to happiness or intimacy.

But Alasko got me thinking about yielding to my more charitable emotions: love, joy, gratitude, whichrarely surface first when I deal with a tyrant.

In that spirit, I offer three "Try This, Not That" methods that work for me every time. Except for the times they don't, which is, like, half of the times.

Try singing, not talking. I might as well be chatting up the Queen's Guards on some morning commutes. No topic can surmount the mental wall of grievances my kids have built against me. ("Woke us up." "Made us wear socks.")

Singing, though, works wonders. We've salvaged some pretty frosty drives by firing up "Witch Doctor" (the 1998 version by the Danish band Cartoons) and singing our heads off. Ridiculous rules help: "Sing with the left side of your mouth!" "Clap your feet!"

Try laughing, not scolding. My son was so mad the other night he pulled back his little leg and kicked me in the shin. His face registered immediate shock. I laughed — by accident, more than anything. He just looked so ridiculous. I said, "Did you just kick me?" He dissolved in laughter. I dissolved in laughter. He hugged me. He hasn't kicked me again.

Try making it look hard, not easy. Resist, also, appearing as though your children are always angelic and your permission slips are always signed and your fridge is always stocked.

First, nobody likes you when you're perfect. They marvel at you, but they don't really like you. Second, nobody offers to help you when you're perfect. They figure you are capable and systematic, and they will just get in your way if they step in with a casserole or baby-sitting.

Disabuse them of this notion by telling the truth. Admit your defeats. Talk about the tantrums. Beg for mercy.

You might get some help. You'll probably get some commiserating. And I know you'll get more laughter, which is always worth yielding to.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13