Q: Since my daughter was an infant, she has cried a lot and has been hard to comfort. Now that she is 3, she will often have five to seven...

Share story

Q: Since my daughter was an infant, she has cried a lot and has been hard to comfort.

Now that she is 3, she will often have five to seven crying fits a day, mostly when she has been told “no” or to wait.

I understand she is too young to reason with, but the crying can make family outings miserable. Sometimes, I get so frustrated that I yell at her to stop crying. I know I am not handling this well, and I need help. Any ideas?

A: Most young children respond emotionally when denied instant gratification. Some do so with more intensity than others. Your daughter certainly seems to fall into this category. In order to assess the situation, consider the following fictitious — yet certainly possible — situation:

Let’s say you’re on the way to a park but need to make a quick stop at the grocery store. While in the store, your daughter eyes some cookies. Of course, she wants just one. You say “no,” and she begins to cry loudly. All eyes are on her, and you.

When you said, “no,” you likely hoped that she’d accept it without further ado. After all, you’re the parent. Not only do you not want her to have the cookie, but you want her to learn to delay gratification of her needs and to accept the fact that some of her wants will be denied.

While it’s admirable to hold on to this goal, in order to change your child’s behavior, you’ll need to develop a slightly different frame of mind. When you say “no,” expect that she will cry loudly and intensely, and be prepared for it. While some of this behavior is part of the intense personality she was born with, by now it’s also a habit and a way of behaving that’s paying off with attention — and with control of the family’s emotional thermometer.

The remedy, while fairly simple, will take extreme discipline on your part. Above all, don’t try to punish her emotions away or turn angry yourself.

All you need to say is, “You’re really mad you can’t have a cookie. They look so good, I know you wish you could have one. But you can’t.”

Stay with her; don’t try to explain the situation further. Tell her, “You can be mad, sad or disappointed, but I’m not going to buy that cookie.” You might need to escort her out of the store until the crying stops. This approach validates her emotions, which will allow them to settle.

In your mind, it’s important to separate her emotions from the tantrum that accompanies these emotions. The feelings are appropriate; the crying bouts are not. When you put her emotions into words, instead of crying, she will eventually learn to say, “I’m really mad I can’t have a cookie. I wish I could have one.” Eventually, she’ll only need to think these words, but this skill won’t come for years.

By all means, resist feeding her emotions by trying to reason, explain or rationalize them away. Also, don’t give in and buy the cookie. It’s important not to be capricious with your “nos.” Be thoughtful, because once you start down the “no” road, there’s no detour. You’ll need to ride out her emotional response until it dissolves.

It takes energy to manage five to seven of these situations a day. They’re not going to magically disappear, but they will gradually diminish. Your efforts will be rewarded, however, with a more pleasant home life and a child on the path to good emotional mental health.

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at janfaull@aol.com or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists