Sunday, April 19, 2015

Reader Q: My Baby Thinks Throwing Toys on the Floor is Hilarious

How do I stop the vicious cycle of my baby throwing things on the ground and me picking them up times infinity because my baby thinks its hilarious? She cries when I don’t give it back.

 The answer to this one is pretty simple: Stop returning the items she throws on the ground. I understand that she cries when you don’t give it back, but so what? Have you ever done something that resulted in things not coming up in your favor and then felt sad or frustrated? What am I thinking? Of course you have—you are a parent. My point is that your baby crying isn’t a problem. It’s actually a completely normal and healthy reaction to frustration. Sometimes you have to learn lessons the hard way. Eventually, your baby will learn that throwing things on the floor means they are on the floor, but I suspect you already know this and your real concern is the baby’s crying. As such, I’m going to spend my time talking about the baby’s crying. Perhaps you are concerned that by not giving the toy back you are being insensitive to your baby’s signals. As long as you are not mean about not giving the toy back and do so as kindly and empathically as possible, you are not being insensitive.

This brings me to a critically important component of this situation. Being sensitive does not mean giving in to your child. In fact, being a pushover can be just as bad as being a bully or being cold and unsympathetic. Being sensitive means kindly explaining to your child: (a) the toy is on the floor,  (b) you aren’t going to pick it up, and (c) you understand that she is upset. You could also explain kindly how to fix the situation. Insensitive responses would be coldly ignoring the baby’s crying, teasing the baby, and telling the baby to stop crying (e.g., “Get over it,” “Hush!” or “Stop it.”).  This recommendation is simply based on the general advice that you need to teach your child that feelings are okay to have, they are normal, and they are manageable. The insensitive approach teaches your baby that emotions are not okay and they are scary.

You didn’t mention how old your baby is, but given my knowledge of babies, I’m guessing you have a toddler. Toddlers are COMPLETELY capable of learning associations between events. They can learn that throwing things on the ground either: (a) results in a hilarious game or (b) results in not having access to that object. I know for a fact that your baby is capable of learning because she has invented a hilarious throwing game. Given that you seem frustrated by this game, the only way out is to stop returning the object with kindness.

Another possibility is that you want your kid to learn that throwing is not okay. If that’s your goal, you may have to add a very brief (roughly a minute) time-out for your toddler when she throws objects. Kindly inform your toddler that throwing is not allowed and will result in time-outs. Do not give time outs for emotions, but rather, give time outs for misbehaving. Again, your toddler is completely capable of learning this boundary.  I recently had a similar situation in which my knowledge of kids collided head on with having an actual toddler. Frankie kept playing in the dog bowl and he thought that the resultant “No, no, no!” and subsequent chase away from the dog bowl was hilarious. After four time-outs within 18 hours, he quit playing in the dog bowl. In fact, four months later, he sometimes slowly walks by the dog bowl and shakes his head no. We did the same thing with outlets with the same outcome. #Winning

I want to take a moment to talk about the possibility that baby’s cries make you anxious or uncomfortable. If your parents responded to your cries with harsh demands that your crying cease or they coldly ignored most of your cries, then there is a strong possibility that babies crying makes your heart rate increase and panic start to set in.  If this is true, your parents taught you that crying is not okay, that it is scary, and it is unmanageable, which makes you anxious when baby cries. To override your anxious response, when the baby starts to cry, recognize your feelings of anxiety and discomfort, take a deep breath from your tummy (It’s really important that you breathe correctly, so read this to be sure.). Keep taking deep belly breaths until you can kindly respond to the baby. If you give the baby the thrown object upon the baby's cries, you are reinforcing yourself for playing the throwing game because you giving the toy back makes the baby stop crying which makes your anxiety attenuate. This game that you have learned also needs to stop, and unfortunately, it’s the harder game to win because it took years for you to get like that. It’s critically important that you deal with these issues, and I recommend consulting a good therapist who has a solid understanding of attachment theory to help you work through how your childhood is shaping your responses to your baby.

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