Behind a tot’s tantrums in the company of certain adults


(Hadley Hooper for The Washington Post)
April 17, 2013

A.It could very well be a stage. A child who is between 7 and 15 months will often act like a forlorn little waif when he’s around anyone but his parents — or even just the parent he favors at the time — because separation anxiety strikes almost all children at this age, and sometimes it strikes them quite hard. Because your son probably has a small vocabulary, it can make him revert to the language he knows best, so he howls, flails around on the floor and weeps as if his heart would break.

There are other reasons your son might act this way. Your child was born with an insatiable need to know, and yet his basket of knowledge is almost empty compared with yours. This gives him the ability to concentrate on all the newness around him and to do that with a laser-like intensity. Every new sight, every new smell, every new sound, every new texture and every new taste gives him another fact that he must sort and classify in his mind, and this, in turn, gives him the ability to draw broader conclusions whenever he encounters another new sight or smell or sound or texture or taste. And so it is with all the new situations and new people he will meet for the rest of his life.

Most of these situations are good, and so are most of the people — but not all.

You need to have a frank but loving talk with your “fantastic” day-care provider so you can tell her about your concerns and ask her whether she knows what might be making your son fall apart when he’s around some members of her family.

Could separation anxiety really make him act this way? Or is she or someone on her staff disciplining the children differently, or expecting them to behave as nicely today as they did two months ago? Many otherwise sensible adults don’t know that young children start acting rather rowdy when they’re around 15 months and sometimes even younger; that this rowdiness gets worse and worse until it hits its nadir at about 26 months; and that they pull themselves together around their third birthday or a few months later. If you like this age, you’ll love young teenagers; their behavior is much the same.

If someone at this family day care is impatient and gets mad when your son doesn’t act as if he is already 3 years old, he might be afraid of her (or him), especially if she yells at him or sends him to the timeout chair as soon as he begins to misbehave, rather than give him the time he needs to organize himself. Caregivers, like parents, have to lower their expectations when children are between 15 and 30 months, for the children’s sake as well as their own.

This is the time for the caregiver to take lots of walks with the children and to put a big box in the living room so they can turn it into a car or a ship — and turn the living room into a mess. And, of course, what is true for caregivers is true for parents, too.

And saving the worst for last, your little boy may be pitching a fit when the caregiver’s husband or the daughter comes to the house because this person may have been mean to him or abused him emotionally, physically or sexually. The sooner you rule out this wretched possibility, the better.

Q.My 14-month-old goes to a home day care that is fantastic.

There are currently five children enrolled in this day care, which is run by one lady, with the assistance of her two daughters and a cousin. My son used to be fine with the other caregivers, but now he screams and flails around on the floor when they come into the house. He has done this with my caregiver’s husband, whom he knows and who has been to our house, and with her other daughter, whom he also knows. Yesterday, he got so upset that he whacked his head on a bookshelf and gave himself a shiner.

Is this a stage?

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/parenting , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.

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