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Portrait of unhappy, upset , crying child boy

The Hangry Preschooler (and Fighting Off Temper Tantrums)

By Amalah

Hi Amy-

I’m hoping this will resolve on its own by the time you respond. However, in case it doesn’t, I’m hoping you have some solid advice for me and my 3.5 year old preschooler. She has been asking for extra assistance using the bathroom recently, which in and of itself isn’t that much of an issue.

It has become an issue because of 3 things:

1. She wants help for every step of the process – moving the stool, pulling down her pants, staying with her while she goes (which can take forever…see #2), wiping, washing hands.
2. She has periods of time during the day when she says she has to go frequently, like 15-20 mins after she last went (but other times she goes hours without going – she can make it through the night without having to go).
3. If I say no, I can’t help her (or I can only help for part of it), because I just helped her go 10 mins ago and now I have to make dinner or whatever, she has a total, complete, preschool drama-filled meltdown. Screaming. Yelling. Shouting. Crying. So many tears.

I just don’t know what to do. This happens mostly in the time between getting home from daycare and dinner (usually she sits down to dinner and then proclaims she has to go again, and then asks for help and if I say no, one last tantrum occurs – after she calms down and goes and comes back to the table, she’s pretty much fine for the rest of the evening).

I’m sure part of the issue here is that she’s tired, hungry, and wanting attention, and I try to address those issues (snacks at pick-up time; quick snuggles and check-ins of “how was your day, etc”), BUT we get home at 5:15-5:30. I have a 3.5 year old and 1.5 year old that need dinner by 6 or 6:30 pm and both need some attention and sometimes I’m at home by myself.

We have tried helping with the first trip to the potty and then saying the next time before dinner she has to go on her own. I’ve tried saying she needs to get started, but if she needs help wiping and washing hands, I will help then. I’ve tried just saying “I can’t help right now. You can do this on your own,” and ignoring the ensuing tantrum.

The thing is, my daughter has been potty trained for well over a year. She can (and often does, especially at daycare but at home too) go to the bathroom by herself, start to finish (sure – her wiping leaves something to be desired sometimes, and the toilet may or may not get flushed, but overall, she can be pretty independent). I want to be sensitive to her needs and I get she may be tired and overwhelmed at the end of the day (I often am over “adulting” by that time of day…which makes me sympathetic and yet also less capable of dealing with this BS), and I don’t want going potty to become A WHOLE THING because it’s been a smooth process till now.

But I am so totally over this. Am I expecting too much of her? My heart melts because sometimes I go in and tell her I can’t help her until she calms down and can use her words and she says “I don’t *sob* want to *sob* be crying *sob*. I *sob* just can’t *sob* stop”.

Any advice would be helpful. I just don’t know if tough love or accommodation is the best way to go. And I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, which seems like the worst choice of all. She responds well to incentives (sticker-chart style), but I’m struggling with how to implement without going over the top for each trip to the bathroom (and she’s totally old enough to play the system).

I hope this has already resolved itself too because this sounds MADDENING.

It’s an emotional reaction, not a behavior problem

But not that unusual, actually. You hit the nail on the head that this is a kid who is tired, hungry, and wanting attention. And clearly not fully in control of her emotions. (Just reading that “I don’t want to be crying!!” bit ripped my cold dark heart into a million squishy pieces.)

And that’s the developmental distinction to make here: Yeah, at 3.5 years old, she is 100% capable of going to the bathroom herself (other than wiping; that’s something almost all preschoolers need assistance with, and will for a few more years). But she’s not 100% capable of managing her emotions at 3.5, especially when you factor in all the extenuating circumstances of tired, hungry, competing with a younger sibling and household responsibilities for Mom’s attention after a full day away, etc.

Work on your young child’s attention-seeking behavior

When she’s calm and happy, talk to her about her desire for all this extra help in the bathroom and how she feels when she’s asked to go by herself. Is she scared? Lonely? What can we do when we’re scared or lonely (or whatever feeling she can manage to name) that isn’t throwing a temper tantrum? (I would use “tantrum” instead of “crying,” because there’s nothing wrong or shameful about crying in and of itself. But most preschoolers will understand that temper tantrums are a Different Thing that we try to avoid.)

Practice taking deep breaths, singing a specific song, suggest a toy “Bathroom Buddy” or “Anti-Lonely Light” she can take in and hold. If your nerves can stand it, give her a bell or something to ring/signal that she’s done with the initial Big Girl steps of going to the bathroom and is ready for your help with wiping and washing up. (I know, I know. But I’d try anything to get her taking over SOME part of the process without hitting full Meltdown Mode from the get-go!)

Practical ideas to help your young child with her behavior

Other than working on the emotional piece, see how you can help with some of the practical factors that are feeding into this. Things to think about and possibly address:

Is she still napping at daycare or has that gone away? Is she getting enough sleep at night to make up for that, or should her bedtime get inched up a little? What kind of snack is she getting at daycare pick-up time? Is it sugary or mostly carb-y? Can you add some milk/cheese/protein to make it more substantial? It’s okay if she ends up eating less at dinner as a result — you can always add another healthy post-dinner snack to help keep these hunger-related emotional breakdowns more regulated.

Can you devote a full 30 minutes to her “how was your day?” check-ins and snuggle sessions? Even if Elmo is on the TV in the background and her younger sibling joins in on the couch, taking a bit more time to decompress TOGETHER at the end of the day might head off her insecurity/transitional stress where she feels like she’s immediately competing for your attention the minute you get home.

I’d also try giving the 1.5 year old a snack at pick-up as well so you can buy yourself some time on the “I need to make them dinner ASAP before they turn into hangry gremlins” front. Indulge her (understandable) clinginess after daycare for a little while longer and let her gradually transition back into her more typical Independent Self.

Get your preschooler involved with making dinner

Finally, can she help you make dinner? I know at this age “help” is a wildly inaccurate term for what’s she really capable of, but including her in the process is also a wildly sneaky way of 1) getting her some extra special Big Girl attention, 2) equating Big Girl Independence with all kinds of happy, positive emotions vs. the scared, lonely ones, and 3) letting you get shit done without a small human guilt trip wailing at you from the toilet every 15 minutes.

Give her easy things to measure, pour and stir. Have her set the table, get condiments from the fridge, assemble her sibling’s sippy cup, etc. Teach her how to peel a carrot and ta-da, carrot sticks can now be “her” special dinnertime dish (or whatever food she likes that she can help prepare/plate mostly on her own).

And praise, praise, praise.

Find more articles on attention-seeking behavior:

1. The Dinner Table Escape Artist
2. Playing the Bedtime Stalling-Tactic Game
3. Managing your Child’s ‘Lizard Brain’

Photosource: Depositphotos/pavsie

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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