She was having one of those foot stomping, fist shaking, shrieking nonsense kind of moments. As dozens of (not advised) parenting moves floated through my head, I came to my better senses, took a deep breath and gave her a minute. I calmly presented her with two choices. “Would you like to fill your belly more or are you ready for bath?”
“Fill belly,” she pouted. She gobbled down some more dinner and then looked at me with the most enlightened eyes. In her calmest and most matter of fact voice, she claimed, “Mama, I was really hangry.”
(Really? I couldn’t tell.)
I know that most of my daughter’s challenges come when she is tired or hungry or the dreaded combo of both at the same time. I also know that even at three, she can tell me a lot about what she is feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m big on vocabulary and literacy in general, but as far as words for feelings, I think they are the cat’s pajamas.
Another day—not so far from monster hangry day—we were away with family celebrating my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. Picture our fam of four, seven other adults, three college-age cousins and another two cousins the same age as my kids. We did the best to bring the essentials for this three-night excursion, but let’s be honest—any time you stay at an inn or hotel, there are challenges.
Well, on morning number one, she threw a tantrum of epic proportions. Know how I always say I am not a poster parent with poster kids? Case. In. Point. Screaming mean I-don’t-like-yous at anyone who looked her way, hitting me and saying things like, “if you don’t _____, I am not going to play with you anymore.” That’s MEAN in three-year-old world.
I weathered the storm just barely, but I also knew we had two and a half days left on this joyous family outing. There were plenty of tactics to employ: lots of outside time, some designated quiet time, well-planned snacks and meals, etc. But the tactic of teaching her words for her feelings might have been the most important: I reminded her what the word “overwhelmed” meant.
We spent that night’s bedtime role playing situations to use the word overwhelmed. We sometimes do this kind of role-play at bedtime before nighttime books. She is still at the age where she loves it so I am soaking it in.
We talked about how our ears can get overwhelmed by noise that’s too loud or too many noises at once. Our body can get overwhelmed if we are squished or too hot. We can feel overwhelmed when there are too many voices trying to talk to us.
Sure enough, on morning three, when history appears it might repeat itself (god no, please no), she leaves her seat at the breakfast table, walks over and whispers in my ear, “Mama, I am feeling overwhelmed.” (She was probably hangry at this stage too, but that’s beside the point.)
I whispered back asking if she wanted me to move her chair next to mine so the only people next to her were me and grandma. She very happily took me up on my offer. After some food and less conversation, she was ready for a day of hide-and-seek and dominoes with her cousins. Success!
Similarly, I try and provide this for my one-year-old, who just discovered she is quite good at mimicking a pterodactyl to communicate anything she does or does not want. Much like my first daughter, we are teaching her some signs.
I don’t know much about “baby sign language” but my parents sign using ASL, so they are our instructors. She is 14 months and knows how to sign for milk and boy, does she. My god, she asks for a lot of milk. Sometimes, she brings her milk sign hand right up to my eyeballs, just in case I missed it. But she’s now also mastering water, food, please and more.
Next we’ll teach her the sign for help. A child who is not yet speaking can tell you a lot if they can ask for milk, water, food, help and more. It’s amazing.
I recognize this is not for every child. Having spent my career working with children of all ages with delays and disabilities, I recognize fully that many three-and-a-half-year-olds aren’t there yet. But I think the takeaway for me is that talking about feeling words and role playing what that means checks a lot of boxes. It exposes my kids to that specific vocabulary and more, it gives us some structured role play time here and there, it allows me to model managing feelings, because hell, we’ve all got em and once in a blue moon, it spares us a screaming tantrum so bad I think she might puke.
And what’s worse than a tantrum? A tantrum that ends in puke. Or poop. That’s a story for another day.