Care and Feeding

How Do I Keep My Cool With a Kid Who Gets Upset at the First Sign of Consequences?

We need to get going and she won’t eat her oatmeal but breaks down when I respond. Help!

Photo illustration of a girl about to cry in front of a texture of torn paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Figure8Photos/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How to keep your cool with a 4-year-old that flat-out refuses under time pressure?

I try my best to be an empathetic parent and I think our parenting style mostly resembles attachment parenting. I feel comfortable with this approach, but I really struggle with confrontations, which my wife is much better at. This morning went really well, until my 6-year-old daughter started complaining about breakfast, which caused my 4-year-old daughter to refuse to take a bite. I know she just needs one bite, because she loves oatmeal. But she just would not take the smallest bite.

Whenever this happens, especially under time constraints, my instruments are just so limited. I ask her very nicely four times to just try a single bite; I remind her how much she likes it. That is it. I am out of ideas. When the clock keeps ticking, I just start to get so frustrated and lose my cool. Now, I don’t start screaming or anything, but I resort to: OK, then you can leave the table if you won’t eat. This approach does not work well at all. As soon as I get agitated and start introducing consequences, she gets really upset.

What technique do you use with a spirited, sensitive child that puts some more pressure on, but keeps the flow of the morning harmonious? I just feel so limited in the tools that I can apply.

—One Bite!

Dear One Bite,

The good news is: I can help you. The bad news is: You’re getting hung up on control issues, and you’re also writing checks you can’t cash.

Stop asking her to take a single bite. Why are you obsessed with her taking a single bite? You know perfectly well that she likes oatmeal, so it can’t be because you’re on a “we have to try everything once” kick. You’re just setting yourself up for a pointless tussle that you cannot win.

Attachment parenting can be great, but sometimes parents like yourself start taking things too personally, partly because you are supposed to be so in tune to their emotions and ups and downs. If she doesn’t eat, your kid will be hungry later. It’s fine. Probably tomorrow she’ll eat the oatmeal. There’s no reason “OK, you can leave the table if you’re not hungry” has to be something that results in tears. It’s resulting in tears because you are putting way too many emotions into breakfast and you’re making it sound like a punishment instead of what it is, the logical next step when a person is done eating.

I think you feel like the second-best parent and it’s getting in your head. Consider bringing a magazine to breakfast and detaching a bit emotionally from the oatmeal.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are blessed to have a genuinely lovely, intelligent, sparky 4-year-old boy. He has some long-term physical health issues, which are currently still being fully investigated, but we have the means to manage most future scenarios.

The problem is that we have spent the past two years trying for another child. I was taking hormones to try to encourage ovulation, which ended up making me really ill, as I already suffer from a hormone disease.

We have recently decided to be grateful for the lovely boy we do have and move on. We are selling all the baby and child stuff we had been saving for our second. Suddenly, of course, all my friends and Facebook friends are announcing pregnancies and new babies, and everyone is bombarding me with questions and “jokes” about all the stuff we are selling.

As much as I tell myself that this is ultimately the right decision for our family, I am being driven to hermit status, curling up in the evening sobbing with a bottle of wine, because of all the intrusions. How do I deal with this?

—Selling the Crib Will Not Make Me Pregnant

Dear StCWNMMP,

The decision to move on from infertility (primary or secondary) is a big one, and you’ve made it. It’ll take a lot more time to really accept it emotionally, and you may find comfort in support groups and/or therapy, but there are absolutely things to be done about being Baby Drenched in the meantime.

Appoint your partner or a trusted sibling to tell the people who matter that there is not going to be a second baby, so please stop asking and joking about it. Sell your stuff on Craigslist or any other forum where your sister’s friends aren’t there to sift through your belongings and ask if you’re “suuuuuuure you’re reaaaalllly done?” If you can, consider deleting Facebook or just hiding the feeds of the chief offenders. Just for now. If you don’t know someone well enough to find out they’re pregnant via a phone call or email, you don’t need to see their sonograms with your morning cereal.

This is an excellent time to find a hobby that doesn’t revolve around parents with small kids. I recommend roller derby. Go to Zumba. Join a sommelier class. Get a pasta maker. Download Duolingo and learn a language.

Clear eyes, full hearts, busy hands, can’t lose. I’ll be thinking about you.

• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 32-year-old woman who is terrified of having kids, but I’m also pretty sure I want them! I’ve been in a relationship for the last year with a guy who is similarly ambivalent.

My frame of reference feels a little off here. I was previously in a long-term relationship with a guy who was extremely sure he wanted the wife-and-kids package, but wasn’t sure he wanted it with me. (Fair enough!) My current guy seems pretty into me, but deeply suspicious of the Institutions.

Are we doomed? I kind of get the sense that only one of you can panic at a time! I hope my excessive use of exclamation points is partly masking my deep existential despair!

—Baby Terrors

Dear Baby Terrors,

Ah yes, “the Institutions” of marriage and childbearing, a popular seasonal haunted house standby alongside Leatherface and Chucky.

I am not sure, honestly, that you are with a “similarly ambivalent” guy. You are pretty sure you want kids (and are also terrified, like any sensible soul). Your guy is deeply suspicious of marriage and children.

Ask him what he wants, with the understanding that you have only been together for a year. Does he want to have kids without getting married? Does he want to maybe get married but not have kids? Does he want to have this conversation not now, but in 10 years, when he’s really, really, really ready to talk about it? (That’s the bad one.)

It’s not an ultimatum to say, OK, let’s both think hard about what we want and then discuss this again in six months or a year. Maybe you’ll find out in one frank conversation tomorrow night. Maybe you’ll break up. Maybe you’ll have a frank conversation in a year and get married and have children. Or not get married but have children.

You do sound panicked, in general, and I think a bit of individual therapy might be a good idea for you. Age 32 is not panicking season. This is not a game of musical chairs. Make sure you want the same thing, but don’t feel like you have to know today. Work on your existing relationship and try to stop projecting into the future.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a first-time mom to a very spirited 19-month-old. My little girl was the easiest baby, sleeping through the night at three months and rarely crying. Once she started walking and finding her voice, she became more independent. We get the normal tantrums when she doesn’t want to eat or tries to do something she knows she can’t, and I think my husband and I do a great job dealing with them. It was a shock in that we had a somewhat blissful first year, but we knew it was coming.

Recently, though, she gets very upset when we try to change her clothes. This past weekend she absolutely refused to let me put a shirt on her when I was trying to get us out the door. This went on for a while, with me bracing her little body between my knees as I was sitting above her. She thrashed and yelled and finally twisted herself somewhat violently so that she fell to the floor where she was standing. I could have held her so she didn’t fall forward but I was so frustrated I just let her do it. She cried for a few minutes and we started the process over again and this time, all was good.

But I can’t get this image out of my head. I didn’t push her, I didn’t keep her from falling off of something, she just pitched herself forward, but I am reliving this image over and over thinking I hurt my child or let her hurt herself on purpose. I was so over her at that moment, but I know this is the tip of the terrible twos/threenager iceberg to come. How do I keep myself from losing it moving forward? This is the first time I’ve gotten this frustrated at her and it was over something so innocuous.

—Scared of Losing It

Dear Scared of Losing It,

It’s OK! It may, ultimately, have been more helpful than a week of shirt-wearing negotiations. “Oh,” she now knows, “if I act the fool while Mom is trying to dress me, I may fall over.” My eldest bit me once at a similar age when I was brushing their hair and they fell off my lap when I instinctively pushed them away and they hit the floor, and I was like, “Please take me to the Home for Bad Parents, surely this will be the start of me becoming ill-tempered and always short with my child and eventually shrieking about wire hangers.” I am telling you this because I don’t want you to feel silly for obsessing over this moment, but I assure you: This is not a big deal.

The terrible twos can be real, threenagers can be real, and I’m sure we have some similar term for 4-year-olds (perhaps weigh in in the comments). But they come with such consolations, which is why we don’t generally eat our young. Your daughter is real mad right now because she doesn’t have the ability to communicate the way she wants to, which is why this is a developmental phase in which tantrums and flailing peak. As she starts to develop a rich vocabulary of whining and complaints and hilarious off-the-cuff gobbledygook, life is going to become very noisy and very funny and you will have moments where you laugh so hard you think you’re going to die.

You had a sweet baby. You have a confused toddler. You’re learning to be a parent—and you seem to be an excellent one.

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My amazing girlfriend of four years has been told that she will never have biological children. It was devastating to both of us. She is coming to terms with it and saying things like, “We can look into adoption.” While I’ve been trying to support her, the truth is, I’m now wondering if our relationship can make it. The more I think about adoption, the more uncertain I feel, and it would be unfair to adopt a child without being sure. I know this sounds cold and callous, but the whole infertility issue is beginning to look like a deal breaker for me. Am I being a jerk?