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Managing Mega Meltdowns: The Pre-Nursery Tantrum

17/07/2015 15:45 BST | Updated 16/07/2016 10:59 BST

The day I took my three year old daughter to nursery with no clothes on was a VERY bad day. It was the culmination of around two weeks of pre-nursery tantrums that seemed to come out of nowhere. She had been attending since she was a baby, had lots of lovely little friends and seemed very happy, but one day she decided that enough was enough. She was not going. She would stay at home with Mummy, tending to her Elsa doll with her Doc McStuffins medical kit. She would watch Nora the Explora (I know....) and sing Frozen songs on her karaoke machine, while taking regular chocolate button breaks. Nursery could do one.

And so began the protests. The first was a heartbreakingly clingy hug at the door to nursery and a quiet "I don't want to Mummy". She then had to be pried off me by her lovely key worker as she reached out crying. This left a lump in my throat for over an hour despite nursery calling me 10 minutes later to tell me that she was happily playing and all was well.

Maybe she is coming down with a virus, I wondered. She had never been clingy before. But the next day was worse. Her nursery arrival tears were preceded by refusal to put her shoes on. "You do it Mummy," she said and threw them at me. When I tried to put them on her she screamed at me "No I'll do it." Before grabbing the shoes and throwing them up the stairs. Cue hysterical laughter from her 6 year old brother. This cycle repeated several times before I eventually carried her to the car without her shoes.

The next day she refused to put any clothes on at all. I put Peppa Pig on the TV and managed to dress her by stealth, but when the episode ended and she realised she had been outwitted she began removing her clothes as quickly as possible. If she knew how to stick two fingers up at me she definitely would have. Instead she had to settle for her best glare. I offered her two good girls stickers if she stopped being silly and got dressed. She ignored me, so I took her to the naughty step. She weed on it, and it wasn't an accident. It was a protest wee. Seeing the horror on my face she realised that this might have been a step too far. "Sorry Mummy," she said and started to get dressed pulling her clean clothes up her wee soaked legs. I took her for a quick bath. My 6 year old was late for school.

The next few times we went to nursery followed similar pattern involving a refusal to get dressed, refusal to accept bribes (Haribo - I was desperate), a 30 minute arrival tantrum that required the intervention of the nursery manager, and another protest wee, this time in her car seat. It was getting worse. What was going on? Nursery reassured me that she was happy there and apart from the morning tantrum there were no problems. At collection time I spied on her to see if she was playing nicely and sure enough she was always having a great time. So I hoped that as quickly as these tantrums had arrived they would melt away again. No such luck.

Getting her dressed the next day was simply impossible. She refused to do it herself and when I tried she went stiff and yelled. "I'm not getting dressed you stupid Mummy". I decided to be tough. "If you don't get dressed I will take you to school with no clothes on." I said. She eyed me warily and I could see that the threat had registered.

"Really" asked the 6 year old, his eyes alight with the excitement of imminent trouble. "Really," I said cursing myself. What a fool I was. Everyone knows that threats have to be followed through and as soon as I said it I knew that my daughter was prepared to go the distance. She is made of tough stuff, which will help her immeasurably in later life but is a nightmare to manage at 3.

With everyone ready to go she still refused to get dressed shouting "No" and shoving her clothes down the side of the sofa. I took a deep breath and prepared myself. I was Rocky IV about to step into the ring with Ivan Drago. I picked up my thrashing daughter, wrapped her in her blankie and took her to the car. It took about 5 minutes to get her fastened in safely. At this point she realised that shit had gotten real. So she started to spit at me.

By the time we arrived at school she allowed me to put on her dress but nothing else. Amazing I thought. This was about modesty. She wanted to be covered up but remained in control by refusing to wear her pants or socks. She cried on arrival at nursery. I cried on departure.

There had to be some way to crack this I thought. I had been consistent, I had tried positive reinforcement with stickers, and bribery with Haribo. I had tried tough love and discipline with the naughty step. It obviously wasn't enough. She laughed in the face of my stickers, sneered at the Haribo and literally pissed all over the naughty step. My daughter knew her own mind so well that she would only snap out of this through choice, I had to provide some better choices.

That evening I told her that it made me sad that she was so unhappy about nursery. I explained that I had to go to work to buy food and pay for things. I told her that I wanted to stay at home with her too but sometimes we had to do things we didn't want to. I told her that she was a very clever girl and that I knew she could be big and brave and that if she was good in the mornings I would get her any treat she wanted when I picked her up. What would you like? I said. She looked at me carefully. "Chocolate please Mummy," she said. "Chocolate with white inside."

The next morning she got dressed and went to nursery like an angel. It felt like a miracle had happened. I immediately headed to the shops to crack the chocolate code. I opted for a milky way. The next day it was pink sweeties and then a twisty ice lolly and later a new book.

A few weeks later the treats are not needed and she continues to go to nursery like an angel. I didn't need tough love, I just needed to provide better incentives, which with hindsight makes perfect sense. When it comes to doing things we don't want to do isn't that true for all of us?

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